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N.C. Senate OKs name change for Union County creek with troubling history

RALEIGH The state Senate on Wednesday approved a House bill to rename an offensively named Union County creek. The name was actually changed in 1985 but still appeared in government records as recently as this spring.

The legislation is for Salem Creek north of Marshville. Since Colonial days, the creek was called Negro Head Creek and local historians believe that by the Jim Crow era it also was known as N-----head Creek.

The bill was unanimously approved by voice vote and now goes to Gov. Pat McCrory.

“Isn’t that wonderful? It’s been a long time coming,” said retired Union County educator Bea Colson, who led the charge to change the creek name in the mid-1980s. “I think county people will feel better that we don’t have that blemish on our record.”

A train derailment near Marshville in 1984 brought renewed attention to the creek’s more derogatory name. Colson and other residents pushed the county commissioners to approve a renaming, and the board settled on calling it Salem Creek.

Commissioners forwarded the suggestion to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, the federal agency that maintains uniform names for the government.

It approved the change in May 1985 and updated its Geographic Names Information System, the official repository for more than 2 million U.S. names. The board, however, cannot enforce its decisions or monitor use of the names.

Through the years, Negro Head Creek or the more derogatory term kept resurfacing, a records review by the Observer found, from state environmental reports on the Monroe Connector-Bypass to a U.S. Geological Survey website database and even Union County’s own GIS site.

Reasons vary; some agencies were unaware of the name change, while others relied on out-of-date databases.

The federal names database lists 11 official names in the Carolinas still using a form of “negro,” among the more than 600 names nationwide and in U.S. territories.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Alexander Jr., D-Mecklenburg, orders the state to tell the federal names board to change the creek’s name to Salem Creek. The House unanimously approved the bill in April.

An official with the names board has said he did not think the legislation would have any impact because the name already was changed in 1985. Alexander has defended the bill, saying the General Assembly needed to send a clear signal that the anachronistic name needed to go.

After the Senate approved the bill, he said, “I’m happy that it passed. It only took 20-some years for the General Assembly to decide it’s going to instruct our bureaucracy to do what it should have done a long time ago.” Staff writer Jim Morrill contributed.

Bell: 704-358-5696; on Twitter: @abell
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