Nearly 30 years ago, educator Bea Colson led the fight to once and for all change the racially offensive name of a creek in eastern Union County.
The creek was called Negro Head Creek dating to Colonial times, and by the Jim Crow era it was commonly known as N-----head Creek. Colson, a granddaughter of slaves, thought she helped eradicate the old terms in 1985 after county commissioners voted to call it Salem Creek.
She was wrong.
Both of the old names kept appearing in federal, state and local documents and databases. A couple of weeks ago, Negro Head Creek could even be found on the county’s GIS website.
Colson questioned why no one at the agencies challenged the names.
“I’m disappointed no one said, ‘Is this true? Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing?’ ”
How those names persisted over the decades epitomizes government futility, good intentions and bad information.
A bill in the state legislature is trying to resolve the issue.
Tyrel Moore, a UNC Charlotte geographer and chair of the North Carolina Board on Geographic Names, shares Colson’s frustration.
“The wrong word makes a tremendous difference,” he said. “Why is this so hard to fix? We know how (the system) is supposed to work, but it didn’t.”
A centuries-old name
Salem Creek is one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it features set off by loping country roads and rolling farmland north of Marshville, about an hour southeast of Charlotte.
The name Negro Head Creek first appeared in 1768 land records, county historians have said.
The name’s origin is lost to history but may have derived from dark rocks in the creek, said Patricia Poland, a county local history librarian.
Local lore refers to a slave who was killed and whose head was put on a pole in the water, although there is scant evidence to back that up.
By the 1900s, the name appears to have been corrupted to the more derogatory term.
Changing the creek’s name has long vexed the state. In 1962, the federal government ordered that no U.S. place or feature could have that term. But a dozen years later, a county map made by the state listed the creek name with it all the same.
Other parts of the country faced similar controversies. In 2011, critics slammed GOP presidential candidate and Texas Gov. Rick Perry for using a hunting camp where the slur had been painted on a rock.
On “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” correspondent Wyatt Cenac rattled off similar names in other states, as well as the one near Marshville.
“What does this say about America?” Jon Stewart asked.
“It says there aren’t enough black people making maps,” Cenac responded.
Toxic chemicals, toxic name
In spring 1984, a train derailed in Marshville and spilled toxic methanol. The county warned farmers to keep livestock away from the creek.
Their use of N-----head jolted Colson and others into action. In January 1985, after debating new names, county commissioners unanimously chose Salem Creek, a nod to nearby New Salem and a variation of the Hebrew word for peace.
Commissioners sent their request to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, the agency that maintains uniform names for the government.
The board approved the change in May 1985, and immediately updated its Geographic Names Information System, said Lou Yost, the board’s executive secretary.
The GNIS is the official repository for more than 2 million U.S. names.
A new bill for an old problem
The creek’s old names kept resurfacing. For instance, Negro Head Creek turned up in 2009 and 2010 state environmental reports on the Monroe Connector-Bypass.
The state Department of Transportation said it relied on data from Union County, the state Division of Water Quality and the U.S. Geological Survey. The data they received had Negro Head Creek, the DOT said, and at that time the agency was unaware of the name change.
A USGS topographic map listing Negro Head Creek continued to be distributed after 1985, according to Yost. Changes to those maps are applied during normal revision cycles, but that particular map was not revised until 2010.
Last December, the DOT began reviewing its data to ensure that Salem Creek was properly labeled and examined other datasets for potentially offensive or inaccurate names.
The U.S. names board has no enforcement power and cannot monitor use of names.
N.C. Rep. Kelly Alexander Jr., D-Mecklenburg, sponsored legislation demanding that the state tell the names board to change the creek’s name to Salem Creek. The House unanimously passed the bill April 22, and sent it to the Senate.
Yost said he does not think the bill will change anything since the board already approved the name in 1985.
“The General Assembly should clearly signal that kind of anachronism needs to go,” he said. “Between 1985 and now is far too lackadaisical a timeframe to clear up these things.”
Other databases, same issue
Alexander said his bill should get everyone from the federal government to local clerks in line with the right name. He crafted it after a WBTV report last fall noted the offensive name still existed in government documents.
When the report aired, Union County checked its databases and found Negro Head Creek in its GIS database, said Cynthia Mabry, in the county GIS Department. One dataset never had been updated to reflect Salem Creek, so in October Mabry asked the state to send a new one.
The corrected database arrived a couple of weeks ago, and the old name was removed from the county GIS website.
Also in mid-April, the USGS saw it had the N-----head slur in a database on its website. It thought it purged the name, but the Observer found it on the website in late April.
The agency then made more adjustments to eliminate the reference, spokesman Jon Campbell said.
‘We are better than this’
The U.S. names board database lists 11 official names in the Carolinas with a form of “negro,” part of more than 600 names nationwide and in U.S. territories, including Runaway Negro Creek, Ga., Negro Mountain, Pa., and Dead Negro Draw, Texas.
Each year, the board receives about eight to 10 petitions to change names deemed offensive.
Salem Creek remains properly labeled in the database, although the offensive names are listed as “variants.” There needs to be an official record of former names, Yost said.
To Colson, who fought for the name change, it’s also important the derogatory names are not forgotten. Young people need to know their history.
“This should not (raise) its ugly head and come up as a symbol of who we are today,” she said. “I do not believe, not even if I was having a nightmare, that this reflects what Union County is. … We are better than this today.”
Researcher Maria David contributed