Down near the coast of Georgia, nestled between an old Confederate plantation—now a Skidaway Island historic site—and a small island called the Isle of Hope, is a small inlet called “Runaway Negro Creek.” The name is not a metaphor but a window into our country’s dark history.
This creek tells the story of an enslaved people caught between hope and history who were willing to risk death for freedom. This, after all, is the American way. But as currently named, we hold the memory of these freedom-seeking people to the position of rebellious property. We limit them to subhuman animals similar to stubborn mules or bad dogs.
This session Georgia State Senator Lester Jackson (D-Savannah) introduced legislation to change the name from “Runaway Negro Creek” to “Freedom Creek.” This is a step in the right direction by placing the struggle for freedom by enslaved African Americans in the right frame, it also points to a larger issue. Our country has yet to truly reconcile with the descendants of the enslaved in a meaningful way.
For hundreds of years our country has legitimized a rebellion against the very values laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Often we talk about our country’s racial history in a big arch from enslavement, to reconstruction, to Jim Crow, culminating with Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream Speech.” But this sanitized version of black people’s struggle for freedom is a desire for us all to cohabit and “get along.”
Renaming Runaway Negro Creek isn’t an effort to erase history but to put it in its proper frame and telling the story correctly. Imagine speaking of the men in that great scene of George Washington’s crossing the Delaware River during the Revolutionary War as traitors and rebels attacking unsuspecting soldiers.
Likewise, we don’t call the Pilgrims “European rejects,” the ‘49ers “gold stealing bandits,” or our country’s early explorers “disease-spreading deadbeats.” These would be offensive descriptors.
In the five decades since the Civil Rights Movement we haven’t seen a comprehensive scan of racist tropes in public spaces, or an economic analysis on the impact of segregation, or a commitment by any state or federal entity to remedy the damages for those policies. What we have seen is a call for colorblind policies that, by default, ignore the significance race has played in our country.
Lawmakers have historically not been coy about discriminating against African Americans. The effects have ranged from permitting state sponsored terrorism, to insidious economic policy, to disenfranchisement with surgical like precision.
Our country has made room for these causes and in some cases applauded it. We have to be just as unapologetic and explicit in remedying the damages.
I believe we must move our collective consciousness to a place where we aren’t tepid about addressing the specific damages created by slavery and its enshrinement in our society.
As we begin to address these concerns, I believe we should examine whether proposals have the effect of benefiting all people, when given a color blind policy litmus test, and not simply a perquisite for helping black people.
What is missing is a true analysis of how the name of “Runaway Negro Creek” is even open to debate. It also points to a disturbing and important point: what have we truly done to reconcile and remedy the damage of racism in our country? If you ask the question of “why now?” the short answer is, relatively speaking, we just got here.
As a descendant of enslaved African Americans, a son of Georgia, and the youngest executive director of the largest caucus of black state legislators I hope we begin that process now. Otherwise, we guarantee the next generation will.
Anré D. Washington is the current and youngest Executive Director of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus the largest caucus of black legislators in the country.