In one of their first actions of 2017, a majority of Grand County Council members have pledged their support to change the geographic name “Negro Bill Canyon” to “Grandstaff Canyon.” The vote marks a historic turnaround from two previous councils that have also taken on this issue. The county council voted 5-2 on Tuesday, Jan. 3 in support of recommending that the U.S. Board on Geographic Names rename the canyon. Newly sworn council members Greg Halliday and Evan Clapper joined Mary McGann, new council chairwoman Jaylyn Hawks and Chris Baird in supporting the name change. Council members Rory Paxman and Curtis Wells voted against sending the letter.
“This is not a bipartisan issue,” McGann said. “It’s an issue of showing respect to a gentleman who was one of the founders of this county.”
In the letter to the federal board, the council says the term “Negro” is offensive and oppressive to many people, stating that the racial moniker has “tarnished” the image of Grand County.
William Grandstaff, an African American man, ran cattle in the Moab area from 1877 to 1881. An interpretive sign at the canyon’s trailhead, installed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 2015, describes Grandstaff as a “cowboy who was half black and half Native American” and “one of Moab’s first settlers.”
The council’s support for the change comes three months after the BLM replaced the trailhead signs along state Route 128 with signs marking “Grandstaff Trailhead.”
At the time, local field office representatives said the highly visible change was motivated by an “evolving” thought process within the department about how to recognize Grandstaff and his place in Moab’s history.
“Last night’s vote by the Grand County Council is consistent with BLM-Utah’s decisions and recommendations that the campground, trailhead, and canyon names be changed,” said Lisa Bryant, spokesperson for the BLM-Moab Field Office. “It’s also critical to preserve the significance to local history of William Grandstaff as a mixed-race, early settler to the Moab area.”
However, many area residents oppose the name change. On Sept. 30, only a few days after the BLM had installed the signs, they were stolen and later found dumped into the Colorado River. BLM representatives said the recovered signs were so damaged they could not be reused, however, the agency does plan to replace them.
Each sign cost the BLM at least $800, so those involved in the theft could face potential felony charges if caught and convicted, BLM officials have said.
McGann told The Times-Independent on Jan. 4 that she is preparing for a potential wave of negative feedback in response to the council’s vote. When she raised this issue in 2015, and again after the BLM changed the trailhead signs, McGann received what she called “ugly emails” from individuals wishing her dead and telling her to leave the county.
“There’s people who truly believe that we shouldn’t change [the name] because of history. I respect that opinion,” McGann told The Times-Independent. “But the people who are so angry and so vile that they’re willing to commit a felony — someone is not committing a felony to protect history.” She suggested the removal of the signs was motivated by racism.
During the Jan. 3 council meeting, Wells said “it’s inappropriate” to refer to someone by the color of their skin. However, he argued that retaining the name “Negro Bill” is more of a “cultural issue” for many local residents.
“There is a significant, significant portion of our community that’s deeply frustrated by this on a number of levels, the attempt to change this name,” Wells said. “ ... I understand that standards and views and perceptions of different people and colors of skin have changed and cultural norms have changed, but just to change things because it makes us all feel better is something that abandons reality and comes [at the] detriment of our local history.”
Baird countered that the argument of retaining the name for “history” is fallible. He said the canyon’s name originally included a racial epithet, which was changed in the 1960s to “Negro” as part of a nationwide, sweeping reform of racially charged geographic names.
“We all know what the historical name is,” Baird said to Wells. “So I’d ask you, if you want to preserve history are you willing to make a motion to actually institute the real historical name if you don’t want to wash away history? If you feel comfortable with that? Does anybody? Because that’s really the gist of the historical argument.”
But Wells cited the opinion of Jeanetta Williams, the president of the Tri-State NAACP, which includes Idaho, Nevada and Utah, who has also said the canyon’s name should be retained to preserve history.
“The [NAACP] is an entity that by definition seeks to eliminate discrimination amongst colored people. Their continued, persistent position on this issue is to leave it the same because it restores the significance of an ... African American cowboy in this part of the world,” Wells said. “And I think something that we should all consider is washing away history ... to the benefit of some folks that are just hyper sensitive ...”
Both Baird and Hawks spoke about the last time the council took action on a potential name change for the canyon, saying that local residents of color in attendance all supported the name change.
“I feel like we owe more respect and honor and allegiance to those local people here than we do to the [NAACP] chapter head in Salt Lake City,” Hawks said. “It may be in her job description to speak for this area, but I don’t believe that she really does speak for our local population.”
Former Moab resident Louis Williams attended the Jan. 3 meeting. Williams, who is African American, launched a petition to change the name in 2012 that received support in Castle Valley and Moab city, but failed to receive approval from the county council.
“It’s been a long process. I knew it was going to take a long time, and I knew it was going to keep coming up,” Williams said Jan. 3. “But it’s a good thing, because it starts people talking about what we need to talk about.”
The name change however, is not yet complete. Although the council voted in favor of the change and the BLM Moab Field Office has been on record supporting a name change, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names has the ultimate authority to rename the canyon.
McGann said such changes take time. She said that although many residents might still use the term “Negro” to refer to the canyon, just as some still use the original racial epithet, those words will eventually go away.
“Within time, that will be less and less. And eventually no one will use it,” McGann said. “It will take time, but it will move forward.”