Ahead of a potential name change, Johnson County leaders are diving into the history of Negro Creek. The creek spreads out across roughly 8 square miles of property, stretching through Overland Park and Leawood and feeding into the Blue River.
On Wednesday, Johnson County leaders met with the Overland Park Community Development Committee to review the social and historical context behind the name of the creek.
“It is vitally important that we don’t ignore our history or try to deny it,” Assistant County Manager Joe Waters said.
Johnson County Museum Director Mary McMurray said the oldest map found featuring the name dates back to 1856. Historians at the museum originally thought the creek name may have had Native American origins, or a possible tie to the Underground Railroad. However, further research showed those narratives to be unlikely.
“The fact that the creek was named in 1856 doesn’t really suggest that it would be connected to the Underground Railroad,” McMurray said. “Although the Underground Railroad in a formal sense did exist in Kansas, you might think of the Quindaro Ruins for example. There are not documented sites in Johnson County, and a lot of research has been done to see if there are.”
McMurray said the creek is more likely named after an act of racial violence.
“For Johnson County’s Negro Creek specifically, we find the story of a freedom seeker who killed himself rather than be captured. That was passed down through oral traditions for decades. Before it became that persistent legend linking the creek’s name to racial violence was documented in a newspaper article in the Western Progress,” she said.
The Western Progress, a newspaper based in Spring Hill, Kansas, published the article in 1879. McMurray said the newspaper article was slightly problematic as a reliable source due to its lack of context, so historians dug deeper and found a potential link between the newspaper article and a slave owning family in Missouri.
“The Chiles family were known to be pro-slavery. By the 1850s they had multiple members of the extended family who owned property and enslaved people, including some in southwest Jackson County near Negro Creek,” McMurray said.
Researchers found two James Chiles from Jackson County, Missouri. McMurray said based on the age of the men at the time, the story would likely be referring to James J. “Jim Crow” Chiles. Chiles was described as a bushwacker that had a history of pursuing freedom seekers.
Data from the U.S. Census showed a change in the number of slaves owned by Chiles dropped from 14 enslaved people in 1850 to 12 enslaved people in 1860. McMurray said it is possible that one of the adults or teenagers listed in the 1850s census was the man written about in the Western Progress.
“Given this context and the researchers and the committee are confident in concluding this weekly Progress story of racial violence is indeed the root of the name,” McMurray said.
According to the United States Geological Survey, in Kansas there are six creeks, a valley and an oil field that share the same name. Water said Johnson County will be the first in the state to attempt to change the name. Any changes will require approval from local municipalities including Overland Park and Leawood. It will also require approval from Johnson County and the Kansas Geographic Names Authority.
Waters estimates the name changing process will take at least six months to complete.
The Kansas African American Affairs Commission is advocating for the name change.
Commissioner Mark McCormick said he does not want to follow national trends of eliminating monuments and renaming institutions named after people who held racist ideals. McCormick said instead, he feels there should be some form of signage or educational tool added to inform people of the events that took place at the creek instead of washing the history away.
“We can’t ignore things like mold or cancer, they become more deadly the longer you wait to treat them. We view these issues with the creek along the same lines,”McCormick said.
The county will present this information on the history of the creek to the public and take feedback from residents before suggesting an official name change.