Renaming Negro Creek? -- Some Say It Honors History; Others Dislike Racial Term

On newer maps, it's called Negro Creek.

But on older maps and in the paperwork of a Woodinville family that owns a ranch in Eastern Washington not far from Negro Creek, the name bears an even harsher reference to African Americans - one that the U.S. Board of Geographic Names banned from federal maps in 1963.

Now, commissioners in Whitman County are asking that the name be changed, to bring it in line with the late 20th century.

"In this time in our history, it's kind of an inappropriate name," said Hollis Jamison, a farmer and Whitman County commissioner. "We're trying to get over some of these racial names."

Not just in Whitman County, but on roads, rivers and mountains across the country, geographic names considered offensive to many still exist today. But changing them is not as easy as you might think.

That's in part because such names often are a reflection of local history. That, along with a lengthy review process aimed at settling name disagreements once and for all, can send even the best-intentioned efforts into a political bramble.

"Believe it or not, there are a lot of people with a lot of opinions," said Roger Payne, executive secretary of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, the final arbiter of such disputes. "And name issues, if nothing else, are highly emotional."

Leslie Mohs Paullin, 73, of Woodinville, would like to see Negro Creek renamed Mohs Creek in honor of his grandmother, Minnie.

The existing name "certainly isn't a name of a creek that too many people would be proud of," he said. "It has a stigma to it that we feel would be better removed."

But Jerrelene Williamson, president of the Spokane Northwest Black Pioneers, a historic preservation group, would just as soon see the name stay if it means preserving the last memory of the black settler who squatted on the land in the 1800s.

By renaming the creek, she said, "you're wiping this man out of history." And black settlers will get short shrift as a result. "People have always said there were not that many of us up in the Northwest," she added, "but there were."

John Smith, as he was known, was a runaway slave who kept a small dairy on the creek before selling out to Frederick Mohs in the 1880s. Little else is known about him. With even his name in doubt, Mohs and Jamison are reluctant to name the creek after him.

The bid to change the creek's name will now go to the Washington State Board on Geographic Names, a division of the Department of Natural Resources. If it approves the change, it will recommend that it be adopted by the federal board. The federal board will take at least six months to review the proposal, in large part to avoid having to change the name a second time, Payne said.

In the past 10 years, the board has fielded more than 30 proposals to remove the name Negro from a geographical feature. Two places - Negro Run in New Jersey's Freehold Township, and Negro Mountain, between Maryland and Pennsylvania - went unchanged in the face of some heated conflict. Historians successfully argued that Negro Run honored the area's role in the Underground Railroad. Backers of Negro Mountain convinced the board it honored a servant - his exact name is lost to history - who died fending off an Indian attack.

If approved, the newly named Mohs Creek still leaves hundreds of other features with names every bit as controversial as Negro Creek.

There are 936 features named Squaw alone. The term, which many find offensive, is now banned as a name in Minnesota. The federal names board considered banning it as well but couldn't come up with an alternative that tribal groups could agree on, Payne said.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey's names database - which can be searched at - there are also dozens of other features with derisive names for Italians, Chinese and other groups.

And aside from Whitman County's creek, there are another 555 geographical features in the United States with the name Negro.

There's also a Negro Creek emptying into Sprague Lake in Lincoln County, Whitman County's neighbor to the northwest. Lincoln County Commissioner Bill Graedel thinks the two creeks are one and the same, but the U.S. Geographical Service gives it a separate listing.

Either way, Graedel doesn't much like the idea of a name change.

"I'm against changing these historical names on anything in these older counties," said Graedel, now in the throes of reviewing some 400 county road names. "It's worked all right for all these years, so why change now?"

Eric Sorensen's phone message number is 206-464-8253. His e-mail address is: