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Is it wrong to have a Negro Creek?

Negro Creek in Chelan County was renamed in the 1960s and might be again. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

One might think the sort of place names profiled in From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow could never have been found acceptable in Washington. And even if that had once been the case, surely our maps would have been scrubbed clean by now? Not according to the Wenatchee World, which is reporting the story of a Florida Gulf Coast University professor who wants to change the name of Chelan County’s Negro Creek.

James MacDonald, whose doctoral studies at the University at Albany somehow brought him to the North Cascades, has filed requests with the federal and state Boards on Geographic Names (BGN) to rename Negro Creek after Antoine Etienne, a black miner in the 1870s after whom the creek was originally named. Back then, unsurprisingly, it was Nigger Creek, not Negro — all such names were officially changed by the U.S. Geological Survey in the 1960s to the more socially acceptable variant, though as this 2004 Robert Jamieson column in the P-I indicates, what the feds decree doesn’t always trickle down to the local level. (This has been done to other such names, though not, to the best of my knowledge, en masse: search the BGN’s name database for “Dago” and you’ll get Italian Peak, Italian Hill, and Italian Slough alongside Dago Gulch and Dago Spring.)

In Washington state alone, there are six places currently named “Negro”: the creek in Chelan County, two others in Whitman and Lincoln Counties, a lake and a spring in Adams County, and a spring in Douglas County. Mason County’s Grass Lake was once Negro Slough, and is not cited as originally having carried the more offensive name. There are 11 other places in the state whose names have been changed beyond recognition. Most are in Eastern Washington, but three are in the west: Lewis County’s Black Rock Pond and Yellowjacket Creek, as well as Ryan Island near Cathlamet.

There shouldn’t be much opposition to this name change — at least not from officialdom. But the readers of the Wenatchee World might have something to say about it. A number of them bring up the fact that negro is Spanish for “black” (true, but that’s not how it’s being used here). One calls it “PC-laden, crybaby crapola.” However, one Beverly Brunet — despite her all caps and sentences like “The creek is already named after the negro who used to find the blue gems” — does manage to eke out a point. “No, no, no — quit trying to change history,” she writes. “Why are people so sensitive… we will have to change most of the names of cities in the state. They are named after Indians and pioneers… leave history and tradition alone.”

This was indeed the argument of those who successfully resisted changing the name of the Whitman County creek mentioned in Jamieson’s piece. It was named after John Smith, a black dairyman, who sold his operations to Frederick Mohs, who was white. One of the county commissioners and a Mohs descendant favored “Mohs Creek” on the grounds that John Smith was probably not even his real name. The Spokane Northwest Black Pioneers wanted to keep the memory of early black settlement alive, which neither Mohs nor Smith Creeks would do. And so Negro Creek it remains.

One does wonder at which point the line should be drawn. Obviously “Nigger Creek” is unacceptable in 2008. But what of the numerous counties, cities, towns, neighborhoods, streets, and waterways named for Indian tribes; and likewise those named for the settlers who dispossessed them? The Duwamish don’t appear to have a problem with their leader’s name being attached to Washington’s chief city, even if Chief Seattle himself was “reputedly alarmed by the appropriation of his name,” and Duwamish was the native name for the river.

As for the settlers, though men like “Doc” Maynard (of the International District avenue and alley) may have maintained excellent relations with the city’s original inhabitants, Seattle is also home to neighborhoods like Hawthorne Hills and Kinnear, which are named for men (Safeco founder Hawthorne K. Dent and developer George Kinnear, respectively) who saw fit to exclude non-whites from owning property in their subdivisions.

Yet to eradicate all possible traces of offense from the map seems to be a losing proposition. Kinnear’s story isn’t cut-and-dried: he also served as captain of the Home Guard during Seattle’s anti-Chinese riot of 1886, which militia prevented Seattle’s Chinese from being forcibly deported, as had happened the previous year in Tacoma. And King County is named for a slaveholder, Franklin Pierce’s vice president William Rufus deVane King, though the county and state governments have managed to “rename” it after Martin Luther King, Jr..

Case-by-case, as these issues come up, seems the only sensible way to go. I am brought to mind of Liverpool’s Penny Lane, which was forgiven its association with the slave trade on account of its Beatles-related fame. Blanket proclamations can’t help but run into trouble.

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