The U.S.’s history of racism and segregation literally has its place — actually, many places — on the map, staining the nation’s landscape: Runaway Negro Creek in Georgia, Dead Negro Draw in Texas, Mulatto Bayou in Mississippi, Dead Negro Hollow in Tennessee.
Hundreds of these slavery-era names still remain on places across the country more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War. According to a 2011 report from the New York Times, the federal panel tasked with name-changing found more than 750 instances of the word “negro,” or a variation of it, in U.S. place names. Many of those names once used “n---er” in their title but changed after former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall demanded they at least be changed to “negro” in 1963. In some instances, that was enough to satisfy opponents.
But making an official name-change, even when there’s widespread support, isn’t as easy as it might sound. The debates can be contentious and multifaceted, and most name changes have to go through a bureaucratic process at the federal level, sometimes after a state-level approval.
In the case of Runaway Negro Creek, Georgia officials are trying to rename the small body of water outside Savannah to “Freedom Creek.” Republican Gov. Nathan Deal signed a resolution to formally begin the process last May, but the offensive name remains seven months later.
That’s because state officials had to relay their petition to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, the small federal panel of officials responsible for approving names of things like valleys, rivers and mountains. That panel can only formally change the name of a place after a valid request (Georgia state officials didn’t send their petition until a few weeks ago, and it’s not clear why), vigorous debate and input from any nearby Native American tribes, local government officials and the state’s board for geographic names. If there’s obvious opposition to the proposal from locals, or if the name is considered historically accurate and appropriate, the panel is typically reluctant to change a name.
Records of published meeting minutes between the federal panel members show officials often consider the context of the name and whether locals actually find it offensive. According to the board’s most recent “action list,” published in September, it’s currently also considering proposals to change “Negro Creek” in Oklahoma to “Fort Towson Creek.” A town in Virginia also wants to change a stream named “Negro Run” to “Courage Creek.”
The proposed new name usually has to meet strict requirements, too.
James MacDonald, a geologist at Florida Gulf Coast University, found that out when he was conducting research at a place called “Negro Creek” in Chelan County, Washington, in 2008. The name wasn’t just odd, he told VICE News — it became clear that all the other nearby creeks were named for people who lived and worked on them. So, MacDonald wondered about the creek’s origins. It turned out that in the late 1800s, the creek was called “Negro” for a man named Antoine Etienne, a freed slave who found gold there. Somewhere along the way, the stream’s name was even changed to “N---er Creek,” and then back to “Negro Creek.” MacDonald petitioned with the state’s board of geographic names that it be named to Etienne Creek, and the issue eventually made its way to the federal panel. A year after he first filed the proposal, and proposed a name change with historical significance, the creek was renamed, although MacDonald was told multiple times that it would be a difficult feat.
“All along the process, they told me it’s probably not going to change. People try to change names all the time, all over the country,” MacDonald said. “People had tried to change this name in the 1950s and the 1960s, but they weren’t successful because they just made up new names. You can’t just pick a name. That was the part I lucked out in.”
It’s not unusual for these name-change proposals to become morally complicated, if not outright controversial. In October, Phaedra Jones was driving through Folsom, California, and was shocked to come across Negro Bar, a state recreation area apparently named for the black miners who once mined for gold there. She petitioned to change the area’s name “to something like Black Bar, or possibly name it after one of the men who first started mining there.” Her petition gathered more than 30,000 signatures, and was reported on by the Washington Post. The federal board noted in its last meeting, in November, that officials had received two inquiries about it but no formal request for a name change, so it’s unlikely the name has changed.
Plus, Michael Harris, the co-chair of Friends of Negro Bar, petitioned to support the current name, saying in an interview with CBS13 Sacramento that people shouldn’t be offended, because it’s historically relevant. He noted that many people there were Spanish-speaking, so negro (Spanish for black) may have been appropriate. California already has various locations named Negro Hill, for example, according to government records. The panel would consider such objections when deciding whether a name should stand.
And in Utah, members of the Salt Lake City chapter of the NAACP argued against changing the name of “Negro Bill Canyon” to “Grandstaff Canyon,” to honor the black cattle rancher who ran the area by his name rather than a potentially racist nickname.
“I’m disappointed because the history of it will be lost,” Jeanetta Williams, president of the local NAACP, told the Salt Lake Tribune after the name change in 2017. “If they go back and look into the history, they will find that Negro is not an offensive word.” The federal panel initially rejected a request to change the name in 2001 after local opposition, but found enough support to approve the more recent change.
In Pennsylvania, officials have struggled to rename Negro Mountain, which trails into Maryland, so the name still stands. Requests for a name-change to the Board on Geographic Names have been shot down after opposition from local officials, who say the ridge was named for a black man who died attempting to save other soldiers in the French and Indian War.
Still other name-changes might seem more straightforward— but they’re not. For example, Gary Bledsoe, current dean of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law and former president of the Texas NAACP, told Jet Magazine in April 1990 that he was attempting to erase names like “Dead Negro Draw,” “Negro Bend” and “Negro Gully” off the state’s map. His attempts apparently failed. (Bledsoe did not immediately respond to a VICE News request for comment, although Dead Negro Draw appears to have kept its name.) Dead Negro Draw’s name had already been changed from Dead N---er Creek. Further, there’s an inlet in Mississippi called “Dead Negro Slough.” And then there’s “Dead Negro Hollow” in Tennessee. It’s unclear whether anyone has ever attempted to petition name changes there.
“It’s horrible, the psychological damage that is done by naming something like that,” Bledsoe told Jet.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted in a report on Jan. 1 that researchers with the Board on Geographic Names said they’ll soon start contacting Chatham County officials, which control the area where Runaway Negro Creek is located. There likely won’t be any further ruling until the spring, though, according to the Journal-Constitution — nearly a year after state officials first voted to rename the shallow creek.
“What this is about is bringing humanity to those people and taking that term ‘runaway’ to the next logical step,” Amir Jamal Touré, who teaches Africana studies at Savannah State University, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last February, when Runaway Negro Creek was first being debated by state officials. “What were they seeking? They were seeking freedom.”
Cover: The place formerly known as Negro Mountain, as seen from a bluff above Kanan Road. in Agoura, California, on February 23, 2009. The Southern California mountain, once named Niggerhead, then Negrohead, was renamed Ballard Mountain in 2010 after the County of Los Angeles recommended the change to the U.S. Geological Survey, to honor John Ballard, a pioneering black settler in Agoura. (Photo by Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)