Grand County Council member Mary Mullen McGann, front, makes her case in support of changing Negro Bill Canyon's name during the council's July 7 meeting. Council members Jaylyn Hawks (left), Lynn Jackson and Ken Ballantyne, seated next to McGann, are also pictured. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

The Grand County Council is hoping to settle the controversy surrounding the name of Negro Bill Canyon once and for all.

At its first meeting next month on Tuesday, Aug. 4, the council is set to consider a proposed recommendation that asks the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to change the moniker to Grandstaff Canyon.

Grand County Council member Mary Mullen McGann said she is pursuing the idea after a suspected white supremacist allegedly killed nine people last month at an historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina.

In the wake of that incident, governors and other elected officials have taken steps to remove the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds across the Deep South. McGann told the Grand County Council on Tuesday, July 7, that she believes the time has come to get rid of another symbol that some people consider to be divisive and offensive.

Others, however – including the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP’s) regional office in Salt Lake City – believe the name has historic value and should remain as is.

The scenic canyon along state Route 128 is named after William Granstaff, an African-American settler who lived in the Moab area from 1877 to 1881.

If adopted, McGann’s recommendation would change the current spelling of Granstaff’s last name to Grandstaff, based in part on historical records from Garfield County, Colorado, and its county seat of Glenwood Springs – all of which include the letter “d” in his moniker.

As for the term that’s currently attached to his name, McGann said there is no general consensus as to whether or not the word ‘negro’ is offensive.

“But the tide is moving away from the word … because there is a cringing from the word ‘negro,’ especially by the young, (who feel it is) a derogatory term that was imposed upon them,” she said during the council’s July 7 meeting. “What we do know is the word causes offense to some; let us have the grace to change it.”

However, Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson said he thinks that the current name should remain in place, based on past and recent feedback the council received from the NAACP’s regional office.

According to McGann, NAACP Tri-State Conference of Idaho, Nevada and Utah President Jeanetta Williams stands by her previous position on the issue, and Jackson said that’s one reason why he won’t support a name change.

“They’ve drawn a conclusion,” he said. “They’ve sent us a letter, and they’ve not changed that decision that they find historical context in the name, and for that reason, and for the reason that our own Grand County Historical Preservation Society recommends for historical purposes to retain the name, I certainly don’t support (it).”

Jackson said he appreciates many of the points that audience members raised during the council’s July 7 meeting, and he acknowledged that the canyon “probably” wouldn’t be tagged with the name in this day and age.

But he said he does have concerns about the historical relevance of the name.

“I’m concerned about a lot of old-time local folks in this community who don’t agree with some of the things the speakers said,” Jackson said. “Believe it or not, there’s a whole part of our community that doesn’t agree at all with this name change. They look at it as, yet again, people trying to change the history of Grand County.”

Moab resident Louis Williams counters that there is no place for the term in present-day Moab.

“History belongs in some situations in museums and books,” he told the Moab Sun News.

Williams also takes issue with an old legend that Granstaff said he would shoot people if they didn’t call him by the name N-word Bill. He didn’t believe what he heard, so he set out to conduct his own research about the man and his name.

He disputes state historians’ accounts that portray Granstaff as a renegade and a troublemaker who sold whiskey to the Indians, and says that those kinds of interpretations are just another example of how black history has been erased or modified.

According to Williams, other settlers ran Granstaff out of town because he was a black man who owned livestock.

“He was called this word, this name, simply because they didn’t like him and they wanted to separate him from his cattle,” Williams said. “So he left understanding this.”

Grand County Council vice chair Chris Baird said he shares that interpretation.

“I don’t believe for a second that Mr. Granstaff considered the racial epithet endearingly, and considering that he was run out of town, I don’t think that the community considered the original name of the canyon endearingly, either,” he said.

Baird said he agrees that there is no general consensus as to whether the term ‘negro’ is a pejorative. However, considering the fact that the canyon’s current name is a variation of the original N-word that was used, Baird believes it is offensive in this case.

“I think we’re all aware that the original name was a bona fide racial epithet,” he said. “And with that as the basis for the current name, I do think that the term ‘negro’ just simply takes on a watered-down version of the original term.”

Local residents who addressed the council this week agreed with Baird.

Spanish Valley resident Mike Suarez said he believes the time has come to remember Granstaff not by the color of his skin, but the by the content of his character.

“When the first mention of Mr. Granstaff is the mention of his skin color, then such a mention invites and also compels, not only a color-based judgment of Mr. Granstaff, but also a color-based judgment of the men and women who gave the canyon its original name,” he said. “Such a color-based judgment is unfair and unnecessary to everyone.”

Moab resident Marcia Tendick said it’s nonsensical to her that the community continues to use an epithet.

“It’s not even a title,” she said. “It’s not ‘mister’ or ‘doctor.’ It’s ‘negro.’”

Castle Valley resident Bob O’Brien suggested that the council should reach out to the national chapter of the NAACP, as well as African-American newspapers, and see what they think of the name within its specific context.

“That’s the kind of input that I think might be very powerful,” he said.

McGann said she ultimately believes that the name has become a source of embarrassment for Moab.

“When my family from Chicago was visiting and they saw the sign for Negro Bill Canyon they asked, ‘Are the people living in Moab racist?’” she said. “Many people who interface with the public in our bike shops, river companies, motels and other such establishments often deal with uncomfortable conversations where they have to explain and justify the name of the canyon. The name Negro Bill Canyon does not reflect well on the people of our Grand County.”

Louis Williams noted that efforts to change similar place names have succeeded across the country, and he believes that Grand County can only put the matter to rest if it takes a similar approach.

“If this council decides that they’re going to vote against it, they’re going to have to see it over and over again,” he said.

“Whenever there’s controversy about offending somebody, if there’s any chance that it could be solved in a very simple way, then do that,” he added.

Proposal would ask feds to designate “Grandstaff Canyon”

The name Negro Bill Canyon does not reflect well on the people of our Grand County.

Believe it or not, there’s a whole part of our community that doesn’t agree at all with this name change. They look at it as, yet again, people trying to change the history of Grand County.

The Grand County Council was originally scheduled to review a proposed recommendation to rename Negro Bill Canyon at its July 21 meeting. Grand County Council member Mary Mullen McGann told the Moab Sun News that the proposal has since been postponed to the council’s meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 4.