Utah Geographic Names Commitee votes to keep Negro Bill Canyon moniker

The Utah Committee on Geographic Names has voted to not support changing the name of Negro Bill Canyon to Grandstaff Canyon. After a long debate on Friday, Aug. 4, committee members said the lack of consensus among minority-led organizations regarding the name change ultimately contributed to their 8-2 recommendation. The committee’s recommendation to keep the name now goes before the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which will make the final decision regarding the canyon’s name later this year.

Committee member Dina Blaes said the recommendation process was difficult because many organizations weighed in on both sides of the issue.

While the Grand County Council, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Utah Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission favored changing the name to Grandstaff Canyon, the Grand County Historical Preservation Commission as well as the Salt Lake City branch and Washington Bureau of the NAACP were staunchly opposed to any name change.

“It wasn’t an easy decision, it was a long conversation,” Blaes said. “… Essentially, it’s difficult when two organizations representing minorities in the state have contradictory information. Also, the historical commission and the council don’t agree on what the name should be.”

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 BLM in 2015, describes Grandstaff as a “cowboy who was half black and half Native American” and “one of Moab’s first settlers.”

The canyon’s original name included a racial epithet, which was changed in the 1960s to “Negro” as part of a nationwide, sweeping reform of racially charged geographic names.

In a letter to the state commission, Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Tri-State Conference of Idaho, Nevada and Utah, said she continues to oppose the name change.

“[T]he word Negro is not offense [sic] in any way,” Williams wrote.

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau, supported Williams’ letter and said the name should be preserved so “those living in and around Moab are reminded of the history and culture of the state of Utah.”

However, the Utah Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission — a state organization focused on promoting diversity and human rights — took the opposite stance. Although the group’s representatives said the name was changed to “something more suitable” during the civil rights movement, they added that the current moniker is “no longer an appropriate designation.”

“To remove the racially offensive descriptor from the official title of the popular geographic feature would express to the world that Utah has progressed to a place where such flagrant insensitivity is no longer tolerated or acceptable in our community,” members of the Utah Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission said.

Blaes said that for many members of the board, changing the name from Negro Bill Canyon to Grandstaff Canyon initially appeared “straightforward and clear.”

“Most of us had the first reaction that this is a term we’re not comfortable with,” she said. “… Speaking for myself, I would rather see the name get changed and the BLM work with the Division of State History and take a more interpretative approach to [Grandstaff’s] life in the region.”

But she said the committee eventually “erred on the side of not making a decision,” adding that any person or group could still bring a name-change application back to the state committee if the U.S. Board on Geographic Names accepts the committee’s recommendation.

While changes to the names of geographic features can only be made at the discretion of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, the BLM has made administrative changes in recent years to the trailhead and nearby campground, re-naming them “Grandstaff.”

In 2016, after the BLM changed the trailhead signs along state Route 128, the new signs were stolen and later found dumped into the Colorado River. BLM representatives said the recovered signs were so damaged they could not be reused and have since replaced them.

While the BLM supported the name change to Grandstaff Canyon, agency officials said they recognize there are many perspectives about the best way to honor Grandstaff’s legacy. They added that they would respect any final decision made by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

“The BLM recognizes there are many valid perspectives and opinions about the naming of the canyon,” said Canyon Country District Manager Lance Porter.

But some members of the county council said they will ramp up their lobbying efforts to change the name before the federal board makes its decision. Since she was elected to the at-large position on the Grand County Council in 2015, Mary McGann has led efforts to change the canyon name.

McGann, a retired elementary school teacher, recalled a memory of an African-American student who was targeted because of the Negro Bill Canyon name. While on the bus into Moab from Castle Valley, McGann said, the student encountered bullying by her peers as they passed the canyon.

“A kid told her ‘that’s your canyon, Negro,’” McGann said. “She was devastated. That’s not okay. … I will lobby with the federal government, I’ll get my committee together to help on it. It will eventually be changed. Will it be in my lifetime? I don’t know.”

When Grand County voted to support the canyon’s name change, council member Curtis Wells cast one of the two dissenting votes. At the time, Wells said that while “it’s inappropriate” to refer to someone by the color of their skin, he categorized the retention of the name as a “cultural issue” for many local residents.

“I understand certain sensitivities to it, but whitewashing history is not in the best interest of the community,” Wells said this week.

County council chairwoman Jaylyn Hawks said she understands the many considerations the state committee must make when it comes recommending a geographic name change. However, she hopes that the local people of color living in Moab — many of whom have expressed the need for a change — will carry more weight before the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

“When it comes down to a very local place and a very local issue, I feel that perhaps the people of color who live here and have spoken out so passionately about it be given perhaps more credence than the people that are far away,” Hawks said.

ByBy Molly Marcello

The Times-Independent