Grand County Council member Curtis Wells [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

If the Grand County Council’s voice carries any weight with federal officials, Negro Bill Canyon could eventually be renamed “Grandstaff Canyon.”

The council voted 5-2 on Tuesday, Jan. 3, to send a letter that formally asks the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to change the name of the canyon; Rory Paxman and Curtis Wells voted against the majority.

Both names recognize William Grandstaff, an African-American settler who lived in the area from 1877 to 1881.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has already changed the signs at the popular recreational area off state Route 128 to “Grandstaff Trailhead,” although it lacks the regulatory authority to change the name of the canyon itself. While vandals subsequently stole the signs and dumped them in the nearby Colorado River, the agency is moving forward with plans to replace them.

The theft and damage to the signs was just one of the higher-profile incidents that highlight the controversies and political and cultural divisions surrounding the issue, which have also unfolded at county council meetings.

Castle Valley resident Bob O’Brien said he told himself five or six years ago that he didn’t understand why anyone would want to change the name, noting that slain civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. used to refer to “Negro people.”

But O’Brien told the council that when the issue last came up for a vote in August 2015, he was struck as local African-American residents in the audience urged the previous council to support the name change.

“The deep hurt and pain of these four African-American people weighs heavily on me,” he said.

No one from the public spoke out against the council’s Jan. 3 vote to recommend the name change. But reactions on the Moab Sun News’ Facebook were decidedly more mixed, with commenters like Jack Mallicote citing the council’s recommendation as an example of “political correctness” and liberalism run amok.

“Now who is going to know the story of ‘Negro Bill’?!!” he wrote. “I enjoyed looking him up and gathering information on the man after hiking the canyon and wondering who he was. Damn … liberals (with) their ‘white guilt’!”

To be clear, though, the council’s recommendation is just that: a recommendation. Final authority over name changes on federal lands rests with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which discourages such changes unless it determines that they’re “necessary,” and there are compelling reasons to adopt any revisions.

Attempts to correct or re-establish historical usage of a word are not valid reasons to change a place name, the board says, adding that its decisions lean heavily on the side of local use and acceptance of a word in question.

For that latter reason, the board in 2001 rejected a request to rename the canyon. The issue resurfaced again in 2012 and 2013, and then again in 2015, when Grand County Council member Mary McGann became the latest council member to pursue the name change.

McGann first decided to revisit the issue after white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine people in 2015 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.

As was the case with previous votes on the issue, McGann’s 2015 motion failed. In between then and now, progressives gained a five-seat majority on the council, and the vote on the recommendation was one of the new majority’s first actions of 2017.

Without speaking at length about the issue, McGann said this week that the change is needed to properly honor Grandstaff.

“It’s an issue of showing respect to a gentleman who was one of the founders in this county,” she said.

Wells thanked McGann for her passion and thoughtfulness on the issue, and said he is torn over the matter.

“I currently feel like it’s inappropriate to refer to someone by the color of their skin, but this is also a cultural issue,” Wells said. “Regardless of hot-button issues, there is a significant, significant portion of our community that is deeply frustrated by this on a number of levels.”

Like previous council members who voted against similar recommendations, Wells said he is mindful that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP’s) regional chapter opposes the name change.

“This is an entity that, by definition, seeks to eliminate discrimination (toward) colored people, and 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 hypersensitive and looking to jump on a soapbox, I think, is a shame in a community like this …”

On the other hand, Grand County Council member Chris Baird and council chair Jaylyn Hawks said they were swayed by the comments that came up during the council’s August 2015 meeting. The meeting was likely the most racially diverse in the council’s history, Baird said, and local African-American residents unanimously supported McGann’s proposal.

“All of the folks who showed up at that meeting, who do live in this county, were there to support the name change,” Baird said. “The NAACP is certainly an authoritative source, but they’ve already made it clear that they are going to support their chapter, regardless of what their chapter head’s position is.”

Hawks echoed Baird, adding that she doesn’t believe NAACP Tri-State Conference of Idaho-Nevada-Utah President Jeanetta Williams speaks on behalf of local African-American residents.

“I was very, very moved and touched by the African-Americans that we had in this room (in 2015) – local people, particularly the high school students – who cared enough to come in,” she said. “And I feel like we owe more respect and honor and allegiance to those local people here than we do to the chapter head in Salt Lake City.”

Williams told the Moab Sun News that the word “Negro” should not be construed as derogatory, and she said the late civil rights icon Julian Bond fully supported her position on the issue.

“There are a lot of different places or groups and things that use the word ‘Negro,’ because it’s not a derogatory name,” she said, mentioning the United Negro College Fund and the National Council of Negro Women. “Some people are trying to claim it is, without fully being knowledgeable about it.”

In the event that the Board on Geographic Names approves the change, Williams is concerned that Grandstaff’s unique place in local history will be lost, unless adequate interpretive signs or informational kiosks are in place.

“They’ll think he was just another person in the area, without the full knowledge of who he was,” she said. “If they can keep the history intact, where people actually know who William Grandstaff was, that would be a good thing.”

Members split 5-2 over letter asking federal board to designate “Grandstaff Canyon”

It’s an issue of showing respect to a gentleman who was one of the founders in this county.

Regardless of hot-button issues, there is a significant, significant portion of our community that is deeply frustrated by this on a number of levels.