Creek Name Conjures Emotions About Race and History

Apr 17, 2012


The name of a waterway in northern Illinois is stirring up emotions about racial progress. 

Some residents who live near “Negro Creek” say it’s time to retire the name.  Others say keeping it is essential to preserving history. 

Negro Creek flows though parts of Bureau County, which is located at the top of the Illinois River Valley region.  The origins of the creek’s name can be traced back to the 1800’s.  Local historian, Sarah Cooper, says some of the earliest records were documented by another historian.

“Nehemiah Matson says that Negro Creek was named that for a black man, who settled briefly at the mouth of Negro Creek in 1829.”  

The African-American to whom Matson referred was named Adams.  Other writings about the creek’s name make mention of another black settler, Enoch Love.

Pulling out a current map of the county, Cooper showed us that nearly 200 years later, you can still see the name when tracing the path of this body of water.

“It starts here, and it continues here, and there it says Negro Creek right there, and that’s coming through Seatonville.  Then it goes up here, and then see it peters out here, it’s kind of the edge of the county.”

The fact that the name Negro Creek still appears on a map doesn’t sit well with, Phillip Mol, an aerial surveyor who recently moved to the area with his wife.  Mol says what also bothered him was that when he heard other people referring to the creek, he sometimes heard a racial slur associated with the word Negro.  So, Mol decided to lead an effort to get the name changed.

 “By having it named Negro Creek on the official map, that just lends to people using the slang term for the name of the creek.  That’s why I came to the point where I figured some sort of action, or at least bringing it to the public’s awareness was necessary.”

While he doesn’t have a specific example, Mol says he has talked with local African Americans about the issue.  He sensed a dislike for the name, but also a reluctance to lobby for a change.

 “The African-Americans we have here, still, were not too comfortable about talking about Negro Creek.  They didn’t want to make trouble.  They didn’t want to make waves.”

Bureau County’s African-American population is less than one-percent, according to the 2010 Census.  Decades ago, African-Americans did have a larger presence in the area, when many of them worked on the coal mines.  One of the men who used to work on those coal mines was the father of Danielle Lynch, an African-American who grew up in the town of DePue, which is also where Phillip Mol resides.  Lynch, who now lives in Ohio, says she had a good experience growing up in DePue.

 “I got a taste of all different nationalities, and growing up, we didn’t know there were any differences in each other.  We were the black family.  Then there was Spanish families.  Malaysians.”   

Lynch says she was aware of Negro Creek, but didn’t hear anyone refer to it by using a racial slur.  And as a child, the name of the creek itself didn’t appear to be a big issue, as least to her.  Earlier this year, when she became aware of the name-changing effort, Lynch discovered there was heavy opposition to the name.  Much to her surprise, those feelings came from within her household.

 “My father was very upset with the name, Negro Creek.  And, he did try to have it changed because he didn’t want us around it, which again, he sheltered us from that.  And, until all this came out, my older brother is the one that told me that my dad tried to get the named changed, but it fell on to deaf ears.”)

Through social media, Lynch says she also discovered people she grew up with making racially charged comments when engaged in discussion about the issue.  She says that made her very upset.

Now, Lynch is following in the footsteps of her father and is supporting local efforts to get rid of the name.  Phillip Mol and his supporters suggest re-naming the creek, Love’s Creek, in honor of, Enoch Love, the settler mentioned earlier in this story.  Mol says given the opposition he has encountered at the local level, he’s focused on pressuring state officials to intervene.

Negro Creek runs right through heart of Seatonwille, a tiny town close to DePue.  Chad Errio says the creek has been a big part of his life, and the lives of everyone else in Seatonville.

 “We’ve all been raised around it.  Our kids play in it.  We play in it.  Our parents have played in it.  We fish in it.”

Errio, who is white, has led efforts to keep the name Negro Creek.  He does acknowledge that some people in the area still use the racial slur when talking about the creek.

 “There are still a handful of people that use that term for the creek and just use that term, period.  But, most of them are older people.  The term is starting to fade away.”

Errio says re-naming the creek won’t change any racial tendencies within certain people.  He says education will.  Errio also says keeping the name provides an opportunity to teach people about the county’s African American history.

 “Teach why it’s named Negro Creek, where the name came from, why we’re proud of the black history in this area.  Bureau County was one of the most progressive counties in the state of Illinois, with the Underground Railroad, and Owen Lovejoy.  This is not a racist community.  This is not a racist county.”

But, Daneille Lynch says in this day and age, the word Negro is offensive to African-Americans because it does open the door to people using the racial slur often associated with the term.  And she says, given all the progress her people have made, the early African-American settlers in Bureau County deserve better.

 “They were not Negros.  They had names.  So, name that creek after the people that they know for a fact had homes on that creek.”

Both sides agree there is a silver lining in this debate.  They say it has created more awareness about the county’s African-American history, both good and bad.  With or without a name change, both sides also favor putting up some sort of monument in honor of the early black settlers along Negro Creek.