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Strewn alongside more widely known geographical place names like Hoover Dam and Mount Rainier are names that may come as a shock to many: Runaway Negro Creek, Squaw Humper Dam, Negro Mountain. What’s more shocking, while some have been renamed, many have not – and efforts to change some names, like Runaway Negro Creek, in Georgia, have been met with resistance. The challenge shows how what seems like a simple process can become mired in red tape and politics. Names like “Negro” and “squaw” reveal a nation struggling to reconcile the nomenclature of the past with the sensibilities of a polyglot future. Certainly, efforts to cleanse America’s geographical lexicon have erased hundreds of pejorative waypoints. There are 215 uses of “Negro” currently on maps across the US, down from more than 750 in 2011. But many crude names remain. As Karen Blanar, who works in the Pennsylvania state legislature says, “I could talk about [renaming places] for over a day, easily, without even blinking, and I would barely scratch the surface of how complicated it is, which is funny, because at first look it seems a no-brainer.”
For decades, Runaway Negro Creek was nothing more than a local high-tide cut-through to avoid the “no wake” zone along the yacht docks at historic Isle of Hope.
In antebellum times, however, the oyster-specked backwater was, according to island lore, an escape route for African slaves from the nearby Modena rice plantation. Others say it may have been named for escaped chain gang convicts in the Jim Crow era.
Either way, it seems a total no-brainer to turn what Savannah, Ga., resident Mack Richards, a white 20-something, calls “a tasteless name” on its head and instead call it “Freedom Creek,” as the Republican-led Georgia legislature voted wholeheartedly to do last March. Nixing the name Runaway Negro Creek “is just common sense, which of course isn’t always common,” says Mr. Richards’s friend, Jason Burns, who is black and also in his 20s.
“Intentional or not,” Senate Resolution 685 reads, “the current name of such creek serves to cast, edify and perpetuate a posture of criminality upon the men and women who pursued the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Yet nearly a year later, Runaway Negro Creek remains on federal maps.
The bid shows how what seems like a simple process can become mired in red tape, politics, and the tangle of myth versus fact. Names like “Negro” and “squaw” on bogs and peaks reveals a nation struggling to reconcile the nomenclature of the past with the sensibilities of a polyglot future.
“Most of us don’t know American history; we know American mythology, and we pass that mythology on and people take it and run with it,” says Amir Jamal Touré, a history professor at Savannah State University. “But when folks say we’re revising history, we are not; we are correcting history. And in doing so we abolish the mythology.”
‘Times have changed’
Certainly, a broader effort to cleanse America’s geographical lexicon has erased hundreds of pejorative waypoints, including Negroedge Canyon and Squaw Humper Dam.
Georgia’s landscape once was pocked with N-word references. Today, while the N-word has disappeared from names, Georgia still has eight place names with Negro in them, including Negro Head Branch, according to the federal Geographic Names Information System.
There are 215 other uses currently on maps across the US, according to some estimates, down from more than 750 in 2011. Most of the stragglers are in the Mountain West, its remoteness and relatively white demographics leaving fewer eyebrows to be raised.
Currently, the United States Geological Survey’s Board on Geographic Names – made up of representatives from all 50 states – meets quarterly to make final decisions on changing geographical place names on official federal maps, leaning heavily on local stakeholder groups for guidance.
The struggle here in Georgia’s marshes involves determining what really happened, why it happened, and how to sanitize the stains of white supremacy without erasing what many say are the hard elbows of history.
“This has been happening all across the US,” says Steven Engerrand, Georgia’s just-retired deputy state archivist. “People used to name all sorts of things that looked like this or looked like that, and the names [remain] on the land regardless of the fact that times have changed.”
Renaming gets political
Places nearest to the heavens, it turns out, may be the toughest to rename.
In 2015, President Barack Obama changed Alaska’s Mount McKinley, the highest point in North American, to Denali, finalizing a century-long campaign to officially change it back to its ancestral name. Calling the decision a great insult to Ohio – the birthplace of William McKinley and a key swing sate – President Trump vowed to change it back. He has so far not delivered on that vow. In a 2017 meeting, Alaska’s two Republican senators urged the president not to re-re-rename it, arguing that native Athabascans have referred to the 20,310-foot peak as Denali for 10 millennia.
In 2016, South Dakota’s own Board of Geographic Names successfully lobbied to rename the tallest peak in the state Black Elk Peak, relegating Harney Peak to the history books. Black Elk was a well-known Lakota medicine man; Gen. William Harney’s troops killed Brulé Sioux women and children during the Battle of Blue Water Creek in Nebraska. The change was so controversial that angry lawmakers nearly disbanded the board.
But even patently offensive names can be surprisingly difficult to dislodge.
Pennsylvania and Maryland remain locked in a nomenclature battle with Allegheny area residents over Negro Mountain, a shoulder of quartzite that straddles state lines.
Negro Mountain is named for a hero. But legislation to rename it Mount Nemesis for an African-American scout who reportedly died while bravely defending a party of settlers against a Native American attack has failed again and again since 2013 – a victim of “our current politics,” argues one legislative aide.
“I could talk about [renaming places] for over a day, easily, without even blinking, and I would barely scratch the surface of how complicated it is, which is funny, because at first look it seems a no-brainer,” says Karen Blanar, leadership executive director for Pennsylvania state Rep. Rosita Youngblood.
Here on the Isle of Hope – one of the wealthiest corners of Georgia – lifelong resident James Sickel is waging a campaign that is likely to snag the process even more. His research suggests that no escapee ever splashed down the creek. Instead, the name was likely a mean-spirited suggestion by white local officials for a 1906 dredging map.
The retired Murray State University biology professor and amateur historian has looked down on the mouth of the creek his entire life, embarrassed by the name. Dr. Sickel has suggested a “nonpolitical” replacement: Burnt Pot Creek, for nearby Burnt Pot Island.
“The Freedom Creek name, to me, is based on a narrative without evidence that any slaves actually escaped through that creek to freedom,” says Sickel. “So in my mind, that name perpetuates a narrative that’s not true or may not be true.”
And therein is the conflict the Board on Geographic Names will have to contend with when it reconvenes in March: Will the broader public’s desire to make a statement win over local desires?
Dr. Touré, of Savannah State, is confident that Freedom Creek will ultimately prevail. The new name, he says, conveys an idea larger than the little creek itself: that “Africans sit at the table of humanity as equals, not beggars.”