Grand County Council member Mary Mullen McGann was just waiting for someone to revive a proposal that asks federal officials to rename Negro Bill Canyon near Moab.
But when no one came forward, she decided to pursue the matter on her own.
McGann now plans to ask her fellow council members next week to consider a discussion-only item to change the name of the popular hiking spot.
The canyon’s current name, she said, is not the appropriate choice of words to honor the memory of William Granstaff, an African-American settler who lived in the Moab area from 1877 to 1881.
“We should be a polite society, and this is not polite,” she told the Moab Sun News.
Questions about racial inequality and outright racism in America have been on McGann’s mind for much of the past year, following several high-profile fatal police shootings of young African American men across the country. After six months on the council, she said she finally resolved to act after a suspected white supremacist allegedly murdered nine people at an historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina.
“The horrible events that happened in South Carolina spurred me to do it at this point because words are symbols, and symbols are powerful,” she said.
In the aftermath of the church shootings, elected officials from governors on down reconsidered and reversed their past support for the Confederate flag and other divisive Confederate monuments on statehouse grounds throughout the Deep South.
McGann said the time has come to revisit the same kinds of issues with Negro Bill Canyon.
She said she believes that the word “negro” has equally negative connotations for many people who view it as synonymous with the slave trade that dehumanized Africans and African-Americans.
“The purpose by the Spaniards and the Portuguese (slave traders) was to remove their humanity,” she said. “It’s just a symbol of slavery, and it is not honoring anyone.”
Grand County Council chair Elizabeth Tubbs noted that the council does not have the formal authority to enact any changes on its own.
“We can’t name the canyon or rename the canyon or anything,” Tubbs said. “We can only support or not support the agency that’s responsible for the name change, via a letter.”
That agency – the U.S. Board on Geographic Names – is well-known for its reluctance to make changes to existing place names, barring a groundswell of local support for particular proposals. The board discourages name changes unless it determines that they’re “necessary,” and it says there must be a compelling reason to adopt any revisions.
Attempts to correct or re-establish historical usage of a word are not valid reasons to change a place name, according to a statement on the board’s website.
The board says its decisions lean heavily on the side of local use and acceptance of a word in question,
and because there was no formal support for a 1999 proposal to change the canyon’s name, it rejected that request in 2001.
The issue resurfaced again in 2012 and 2013, when Tubbs joined a majority of previous council members in rejecting official county support for the change.
“Because there wasn’t support from any of the other agencies, the council opted not to support it,” she said.
According to Tubbs, council members at the time deferred to input they received from National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) officials who opposed the change.
Jeanetta Williams, who heads the NAACP’s regional office for Idaho, Nevada and Utah, could not be reached for comment this week. But in July 2013, she told the Moab Sun News that her organization believes the current name should remain as is.
“If the name changes, it’s going to lose its history,” she said at the time. “’Negro’ is an acceptable word … We would rather leave it there as it is now and get information in the curriculum in the schools about the canyon itself to let people know more about the history.”
In light of the ongoing changes in attitudes about the Confederate flag, McGann said she plans to ask the NAACP if it has reconsidered its position on the name change.
“As an elected official, I feel that it is important to have Grand County be viewed in a better light than that portrays us,” she said.
She said her efforts are driven in part by family members from Chicago, as well as tourists and local business owners, who told her that they are appalled by the name “Negro Bill.”
“They are taken aback,” she said, noting that the canyon’s original name included the incontrovertibly offensive N-word. “They are offended by the name.”
However, Moab resident Tricia Hedin, who joined a group of Grand County High School athletes for a trip up the canyon on Wednesday, July 1, said she doesn’t believe that a name change is warranted.
“I just think it’s historical, so I would leave it the way it is,” Hedin said.
GCHS student Ryan Reed said he agrees that the history behind the name is important, although fellow student Ryan Lewis said he can understand why some visitors might be disturbed when they see the signs to Negro Bill Canyon.
“It could probably change for the tourists who take offense to it,” he said.
Still, Lewis said the current name is unlikely to trouble some local residents.
“The people who are familiar with it and know the background are going to be comfortable with it,” he said.
That list of “some local residents” most definitely does not include Louis Williams, who previously launched a signon.org petition that led to the county council’s 2013 vote on the issue.
His still-active petition also aims to change Granstaff’s last name to “Grandstaff,” based on his research indicating that Bill’s last name included the letter “d.”
“The use of the moniker ‘negro’ is offensive to many people, creating embarrassment for our community,” his petition says. “His name should be spelled correctly and his story told, including this unique individual’s contribution to history as well as his race.”
Tubbs said the name clearly stood out to her the first time she saw an official sign to the canyon.
“It didn’t cause me any distress, because I didn’t know about any of the history behind it,” she said. “It did strike me as curious.”
She said that she herself doesn’t have strong feelings about the issue one way or the other, but she anticipates that any related action the council may take could turn out to be controversial.
“Any way we go with this, I think we have a divisive issue,” she said.
NAACP opposed 2013 proposal to recommend new moniker
As an elected official, I feel that it is important to have Grand County be viewed in a better light than that (name) portrays us.
Louis Williams could not be reached for comment.