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Racially insensitive name of creek in Bureau County to be changed

For over 200 years, the creek was named Negro Creek after the area's first Black settler, but now it's being changed to Adams Creek, the man's name.

LADD, Ill. — The U.S. Board on Geographic Names voted Thursday, Oct. 14 to change a racially insensitive name of a creek in eastern Bureau County.

The creek, previously named Negro Creek, is an 11-mile waterway that runs through Ladd and DePue. It was named after the area's first Black settler who built a cabin in 1829 at the creek mouth on the Illinois River in DePue. 

"Back in the early 1800s, I understand that it was pretty complicated to have anything named after a Black man," said DePue resident Charles Klinefelter. "They chose that name because they wanted to name it after a color instead of actually the man that it should have been named after."

It is now being renamed Adams Creek, the last name of the man. His first name is unknown. 

Community members have been fighting to change the name for over a decade. This most recent effort was led by former Ladd resident Amy Urbanowski with help from Klinefelter. 

Both grew up in the area and remember many referring to the creek as the n-word. They said it's still what some call it today. Klinefelter said years ago at school, his daughter, who is Black, had the same creek-related slur directed at her. 

"My daughter came home from school one day, she was really young, and she said that somebody said they named the creek after you," Klinefelter said. "She was like, 'Yeah, well what is it?' And they said, 'They call it N***** Creek.'" 

Ever since, he said he's been fighting "to change the narrative."

Urbanowski was visiting family in April when she heard the creek-related slur. She wanted to show how words matter and how they impact people, and she said it's not just about the derogatory slur. 

"The word 'negro' is considered to be quite antiquated and speaking to the chapter of the NAACP in Peoria and hearing from their perspective that yes, this word, the word 'negro,' was a term created by white people to label Black people and is quite outdated," she said. "I just want to remove the outdated label that is deemed offensive by many Black people and remove the opportunity for people to use more harmful language, and especially show future generations that words matter, names matter, and we need to be more careful and respectful with how we speak."

Multiple efforts by Klinefelter and a group he was working with in the 2000s didn't garner a lot of support. 

"We were met with so much controversy and so much negativity and a lot of hate, that it was tough to go forward," he said. "So we kind of left it alone for a little while to see if anything had calmed down."

Earlier this year Urbanowski reached out to him, and that was when the movement started to gain traction. 

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names is in charge of approving the official change, however, Urbanowski said it was important to build a case for the board showing they had support in the local community. 

"Going to elected officials in the community would bolster more support and prove to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names that our elected officials, who are elected by community members, were in support of the change," Urbanowski said. "Then the case would be pretty clear to change the name."

She turned to the Bureau County Board and the Ladd Village Board who both voted to endorse the change in August. The Bureau County Board was unanimous while the Ladd Village Board was 5-1. 

"I was hoping that there would be some people that could understand what I was talking about when I was giving it to them from my heart," Klinefelter said about the meeting with the Bureau County Board. "It was a great thing for them to actually approve the vote, and it went through unanimously, which I was very proud of. I had tears in my eyes when we were done."

Urbanowski also received support from the NAACP chapter in Peoria. She contacted the Bureau County Historical Society and researched the history of the creek in area libraries.

Klinefelter said not everyone in the community was supportive of the efforts to change the creek name and he received backlash. 

"I could take somebody calling me names, but it hurt, you know, because especially my kids, I know it hurt them," he said. "So when they hurt, I hurt, so that's why it needed to be changed."

"Some people say it's not a big deal or it doesn't matter, but I just think that if it does limit offending others or limit people from using a worse term then it will definitely benefit the community," Urbanowski said. 

According to Urbanowski and Klinefelter, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names voted unanimously 14-0 to approve the change. The next step will be changing the federal and local maps to say Adams Creek and replacing a plaque on a bridge in Ladd. Klinefelter would also like to find Adams' living ancestors. 

Speaking about the name change is emotional for Klinefelter. 

"When I first started this, I didn't try to change people's minds because I can't do that," he said. "I was hopefully having an opportunity to change the minds of kids 20 years from now. When I walk up to them and I ask them, 'Hey, what's the name of that creek?' And they say 'Adams Creek' instead of the other one. And then they'll see that smile on my face. That it finally got changed."

For Urbanowski, she wanted to use her privilege as a white woman to create change. She said it goes beyond this one creek. 

"I think this is just another case that might show the U.S. Board on Geographic Names that we need to do a more sweeping overhaul in the United States of how we name things in the communities, because hearing those words really do trickle down to the youth," she said. "We need to start filtering that out and showing our community that we need to be respectful and understand that how we speak really matters."

More than 600 places in the U.S. have the word "negro" in its name, according to a database from the US Geological Survey. There are 11 in Illinois, including Big Negro Creek and Little Negro Creek in Warren County.