Castle Valley resident Bob O'Brien told the Grand County Council that he doesn't like the history behind the name of Negro Bill Canyon. But he said he agrees with Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson that the community is divided over a proposal to rename the popular hiking spot "Grandstaff Canyon." [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

Federal land managers won’t have to replace the signs at the Negro Bill Canyon trailhead anytime soon.

The Grand County Council voted 4-3 on Tuesday, Aug. 4, against a proposed recommendation that would have asked the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to rename the popular hiking spot “Grandstaff Canyon.”

Council members Ken Ballantyne, Lynn Jackson, Rory Paxman and Elizabeth Tubbs opposed the motion from Mary Mullen McGann, while Chris Baird and Jaylyn Hawks joined McGann in supporting it.

Before the council’s vote, McGann approached the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP’s) U.S. headquarters with the hope that it would take a formal stance against the current name – a moniker that the regional NAACP office supports. But McGann said the group told her that as a rule, it will not interfere with a regional chapter’s positions on an issue.

Ballantyne later spoke for the majority when he said he would not summarily dismiss NAACP Tri-State Conference of Idaho-Nevada-Utah President Jeanetta Williams’ views on the historical significance of the canyon’s name.

“I think if they had a different opinion and they had come and asked us to change it, my vote would obviously be different,” he said.

Jackson echoed Ballantyne.

“Their national headquarters apparently didn’t see fit to weigh in, and they have been fairly consistent in their view that it provides some historical context for the settlement of Moab,” he said. “And irrespective of what we think about (the NAACP’s) current management in the tri-state area … I think that should be honored. They are the group that represents black American people, and they should know.”

Jackson said his vote is also shaped by the Grand County Historical Preservation Commission’s support for the current name, as well as his belief that a majority of local residents oppose efforts to rename the canyon.

The name change issue last came before the council in 2013, and McGann said she decided to revisit the proposal after a suspected white supremacist allegedly murdered nine people this summer at an historic African American church in Charleston, South Carolina.

The word “Negro,” she said, is an offensive symbol of oppression that tarnishes Grand County’s image among visitors.

“Many people who interface with the tourist industry find themselves explaining and apologizing for the present name,” she said. “Visitors have asked: Is Grand County full of racists?”

As she made her case in support of the proposal, McGann waved a copy of an internationally popular travel book in the council’s direction. The guidebook’s section on the Moab area states that it will no longer refer to the canyon it calls “Morning Glory Canyon” by its current name, stating that some words should be stricken from the record.

McGann also sought to revise the common local spelling of settler William Granstaff’s last name, based on numerous historical records from Garfield County, Colorado, and its county seat of Glenwood Springs – all of which include the letter “d” in his moniker.

Granstaff – or Grandstaff – lived in the area from 1877 to 1881, and McGann has said the name change is the appropriate way to honor history, as well as the pioneer himself.

McGann said that contrary to Jeanetta Williams’ views on the issue, a majority of local African American residents – as well as many other citizens – support her efforts.

“I was elected to represent the citizens of Grand County – not the national NAACP tri-state (chapter),” she said.

The outcome of Tuesday’s vote saddens and disappoints her, she said. Still, she said she thinks it’s just a matter of time before the current name is changed, because younger Americans cringe at the use of the word “Negro,” which has not been in widespread use since the 1960s.

Jackson said he can understand why people nowadays are offended by the term. But residents should not have to apologize for what their ancestors did or didn’t do, he said.

“It’s hard to go through life and not be offended,” he added. “I mean, you can be offended any day you want by reading something or going somewhere, and I just don’t know where we stop as a society, once we start heading down that road, to try to find terms for anything that someone somewhere doesn’t find offensive. I think that’s a slippery slope – you can’t get off.”

Baird said he thinks that the actual history of the area has been whitewashed, noting that the late 19th Century was a “fairly dark” time in Grand County; he also pointed out that the canyon’s current name is a variation of the original N-word that was used.

One thing that bothers him, he said, is that some people will try to rationalize the name by understating the racist history and racial intolerance that existed at the time.

“Racism was patently ubiquitous across the United States, and so it’s really kind of silly in my opinion for anybody to downplay racism as a component of Granstaff’s story here,” Baird said.

Hawks called the issue a complex one, and said she appreciates those who have come forward to share their thoughts about it.

“I’ve never been real crazy about the name,” she said. “But on the other hand, do I wish it had stayed buried and not been brought to this council? Yes.”

Having said that, Hawks said the matter deserves the same thoughtful consideration that any other issue does.

It’s unfair, she said, to suggest that council members are wasting their time by revisiting the issue.

Council members and county staffers are juggling a lot of plates, Hawks said, and just because the public has put the issue front and center does not mean it’s the only one that officials are dealing with.

While Hawks addressed criticisms of the council’s priorities, Paxman took issue with characterizations that portray defenders of the current name as intolerant or worse.

“I don’t think that anybody in here sees themselves as racist,” Paxman said. “I would hope not, because some of the accusations that have been posted around (are) pretty unbelievable. I just hope that our community is a little bit better than that.”

Members of the public who spoke about the issue during the council’s meeting were unanimously supportive of the proposed name change.

Moab resident Louis Williams read a message he said he received from someone who stated that Granstaff was already turning over in his grave when the canyon’s name changed from the N-word to “Negro.” The current name is meant with no disrespect to “colored folk” in this day and age, the person claimed.

“If you vote for this to keep it the same way, you’re supporting that attitude, and that would really be a sad way to look at Moab, I think,” Louis Williams said. “If we’re worried about the history of Mr. Granstaff, we would worry about the misspelling of his name. We would worry about the fact that nobody’s mentioned that he was the first settler to live here without being attacked by the Indians … Just the fact that settlers called him (the N-word), is that a value of history?”

Poison Spider Bicycles employee Stacey Hernandez said she finds it awkward to say the name out loud when she talks to customers about worthwhile places to visit near Moab.

“People get so offended,” she said. “Being on the other side of the counter is uncomfortable and unfriendly.”

On the other hand, comments on the Moab Sun News’ Facebook post about the vote were unanimously supportive of the outcome on Tuesday.

“Thank goodness, now maybe they can move on to some issues that could make a difference here in our little Moab, besides trying to rewrite history,” Mary Mallon Nelson wrote.

“Hallelujah let it stay Negro Bill Canyon. Enough of this politically correct BS,” Max Schafer wrote.

Members split 4-3 against McGann’s proposal to dub site “Grandstaff Canyon”

I think if (the NAACP) had a different opinion and they had come and asked us to change it, my vote would obviously be different.

Racism was patently ubiquitous across the United States, and so it’s really kind of silly in my opinion for anybody to downplay racism as a component of Granstaff’s story here.