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Stream of conscience

SEATONVILLE, Ill. — Phillip Mol is pushing to change the name of a narrow, meandering creek that was given its official title about the time Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846.

The brook is Negro Creek, one of 15 geographic places in Illinois with Negro in its name. Flowing into the Illinois River about 100 miles southwest of Chicago, the stream drifts along a peaceful, 11-mile path amid farms and small towns of Bureau County.

But shortly after Mol started his effort late last year, local passions over Negro Creek heated up and turned a little ugly.

A "Leave Negro Creek Alone" Facebook group emerged to counter Mol's Facebook group and people posted personal attacks. Both sides called meetings to rally their allies. Mol said he thought local authorities may have been watching him. Tensions spiked.

Then events took a curious turn. Residents began having in-depth, civilized discussions on race. An ardent appreciation for Bureau County's compelling racial history, and its overall history, was stoked. And now, both sides have reached at least a partial consensus.

The man who directly opposes Mol's effort, Chad Errio, made an observation the other day that a few months ago may have seemed ludicrous:

"I think," Errio said, "it's really brought the community closer."

Mol agreed, adding, "Darn right."

At a time when racial discord has risen to prominence on the national landscape, the debate over what to call a creek in rural Illinois may provide context on how anger can evolve into civic civility.

"I think both sides have done a good job of saying, 'Let's put all that other stuff aside; let's talk about the issues,' " said Pam Haslam, who was unloading groceries one recent evening in Seatonville. "I think they've done a good job of keeping things from escalating."

It isn't as if folks on either side of the issue are ready to join hands and sing "Kum Ba Yah." Sniping on Facebook and in public still occurs and positions remain entrenched. But many agree that the debate had the potential to become repugnant.

Exactly why it evolved instead into a relatively calm, even productive community conversation probably has something to do with time and demographics. Months have passed, softening early flash fires of anger. Also, only about 210 of the county's 35,000 residents are African-American.

At the same time, Errio, 36, a sheet metal worker and part-time stand-up comic, and Mol, 50, an aerial surveyor — both of whom are white — have exercised social network vigilance, yanking from their opposing Negro Creek Facebook pages comments that veered the discussion toward the muck. The two opponents also have attended each other's meetings.

Underneath it all, though, is perhaps a more enduring reason: the echoes of shared history.

"It's all kind of working itself out in peoples' psyches," Mol said. "It's kind of cool to watch."

The obsolete, ambiguously offensive word in the creek's name didn't bother Mol much when he and his wife moved near the stream in De Pue in the fall of 2010. But when Mol, a "liberal Christian" and U.S. Navy veteran who was born and raised in California, heard a few people refer to the stream by the slur for Negro, he said he prayed about it for six months then decided to embark on his mission.

Around Thanksgiving, Mol created a Facebook page, "Lets rename Negro Creek." In January Errio, a Seatonville village trustee and volunteer firefighter who has lived most of his life in that community, created an online counterpart. At last count, the rename page has 221 members. Leave Negro Creek Alone has more than double that.

The arguments on both sides generally revolve around racism, history and political correctness. Those advocating change contend that, as Mol puts it, "this is just about us being nice. It's the decent thing to do."

Errio contends that very few people use the slur and that erasing the Negro in Negro Creek exemplifies "political correctness run amok" and also erases nearly 200 years of history. Explaining that history, Errio said, is why he is working on erecting a marker in a park on the creek.

Local African-Americans he has spoken with don't object to the creek's name, Errio said. Also, he and his supporters note, African-Americans accept the term in organizations such as the Negro League Baseball Players Association and the National Council of Negro Women.

"Telling our kids about "… the past makes a lot more sense than trying to change the name," Errio said. "It doesn't change the good things or the bad things that have happened. It's part of our history. You want to give credit "… and educate people."

But history can be a matter of perspective.

Geneva Klinefelter, an African-American resident of De Pue, just west of the creek, said she supports changing the name — that using color to name a creek and define a race is wrong.

"To me," she added, "that's not saying anything about my history."

Her son Cortland, 19, agreed that the creek's name should be changed. The word Negro "comes from so much hate," he said. "We should be able to show that we've come past all that."

Sundiata Cha-Jua, associate professor of African-American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said blacks as early as the mid-1800s were moving away from the word Negro, a descriptor they believed was imposed on them.

Negro "signified a kind of weakness and subordination," Cha-Jua said. Embracing the words African-American or black is about "self-definition, self-determination "… about naming oneself," he added.

Bureau County local historian Sarah Cooper said the larger issue in this debate is to question the use of racial epithets, whatever the context.

"One can only hope," she said, "that at the very least, because of the dialogue about Negro Creek, instead of letting a racist comment whiz by us in casual conversation — at the gas station or coffee shop or tavern, we will not remain silent."

Despite the tentative progress, an impasse remains over the central issue of what to call Negro Creek.

Mol said his next step is establishing a state law that would erase Negro and the word "Squaw," which can be considered offensive to Native Americans, from the official names of places throughout Illinois, a process that typically starts with persuading a lawmaker to sponsor a bill.

Eleven states, including Wisconsin and Minnesota, have measures aimed at eliminating Negro, Squaw or other derogatory words from geographic names, according to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. That office, which holds final say on standardizing geographic names, typically changes a name only if local support for the change is strong, the spokesman said.

In the 1960s the board used Negro and Japanese to replace more pejorative terms in place names.

Board records show that among Illinois' 20 names bearing the words Negro or Squaw, seven of the places are creeks.

Mol's name of choice for Bureau County's Negro Creek is Love Creek, the surname of a large African-American family who arrived reportedly as slaves in the 1830s then acquired 40 acres about a mile from the creek.

Errio said if the state forces a change, he'd press for a name from an African-American settler to the area. Mol said he is "a thousand percent" behind the historical marker plan.

"If all we'd see was a monument go up," Mol said, "and you combine that with all the conversation that has occurred, I would consider that a victory for everybody."

As contradictory as history can be, it also brings both sides together, helping convert the creek, in a sense, to a stream of conscience. Cooper has worked to restore that shared story.

The earliest records of the creek's name date to the 1840s, she said, and it probably derives from a black man identified only as Adams, who settled near the creek mouth as early as 1829. "Which means," Cooper noted in a January letter to the editor of the Bureau County Republican, "that black history in Bureau County dates as far back as the county's white history."

She also said about 24 African-Americans came to Bureau County and enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War and that the black population in Bureau County was substantial enough to support an African Methodist Episcopal Church, for which the "Colored Cornet Band" played to raise funds.

But Bureau County's African-American history runs much deeper. The Owen Lovejoy Homestead, now a museum and national historic landmark named for the outspoken abolitionist minister who became a congressman, was one of Illinois' most crucial and active stops on the Underground Railroad.

And in 1895 a bloody race riot erupted about four miles east of the creek, in Spring Valley. European immigrant coal miners attacked African-American miners and their families brought to the mines as strike breakers a year earlier.

African-Americans fought back in court, and eight immigrant rioters went to prison, according to Caroline Waldron Merithew, an associate history professor at University of Dayton who wrote extensively about the riot.

Blacks remained in Spring Valley and by 1900 the "class bonds" between an estimated 26 different ethnic groups and the African-Americans — nearly all working in the mines — brought them together, Merithew said.

"In the roots of the place there was a certain amount of tolerance for people unlike themselves," Merithew said. "When you have smaller towns with such diversity, nobody gets ghetto-ized or no single enclave really ever existed like it did in a big city."

Other history has emerged during the recent debate. Residents have submitted 1920s-era photos of fire trucks and squad cars from the area. Someone handed Errio a check from the Seatonville State Bank drawn in the early 1900s and a 1936 story clipped from a local newspaper.

"People are dropping off stuff like that all the time," he said.

Now, apart from trying to establish a nonprofit group to raise money for a historical marker for the creek that runs near his house, Errio is talking about decorating bare walls at village hall with historic memorabilia that has come his way the last few months.