Debbie Walton of Colorado Springs, Colorado, read an interpretive sign about 19th Century settler William Grandstaff during a visit to Negro Bill Canyon on Wednesday, Aug. 9. Although the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has renamed the trailhead, the Utah Committee on Geographic Names is recommending that its federal counterpart should not rename the canyon itself. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

Negro Bill Canyon should not be renamed because there’s no consensus among two key African-American groups that the word “Negro” is derogatory, a state advisory panel said last week.

The Utah Committee on Geographic Names declined on Thursday, Aug. 3, to support a name change that a majority of Grand County Council members formally backed in January. In its recommendation, the state committee cited mixed reactions to the proposal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP’s) regional chapter on the one hand, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission on the other.

NAACP Tri-State Conference of Idaho, Nevada and Utah President Jeanetta Williams is perhaps the foremost opponent of the name change in Utah.

Williams told the Moab Sun News earlier this year that the word “Negro” should not be construed as derogatory. It’s a common place name, she said, and one that groups like United Negro College Fund and the National Council of Negro Women use to this day.

But in a letter to the committee, the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, a state organization whose mission is to promote diversity, equity and human rights, called the moniker a “racially offensive descriptor.”

The state committee’s vote against the name change came exactly seven months after the county council voted 5-2 in favor of a letter that asks the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to formally rename the popular hiking area “Grandstaff Canyon.”

The scenic recreation area about 7 road miles northeast of downtown Moab was originally named for William Grandstaff, an African-American settler who lived in the area from 1877 to 1881. (In the past, his last name was commonly spelled in the Moab area as “Granstaff,” but historic records from Glenwood Springs, Colorado – where he lived later on in his life – include the letter “d” in his surname.)

Grand County Council vice chair Mary McGann, who led the charge to recommend the name change after several previous attempts failed, said the state committee’s vote is a sign of Utah leaders’ historic attitudes toward African Americans.

“I’m disappointed, but not surprised,” she said. “Utah fought against the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday very strongly … and the state has had a record of not being strong on civil rights issues.”

However, McGann hadn’t expected a vote on the issue to come up when it did: She said that no one from the committee contacted her or the county council to inform them of the Aug. 3 meeting, or the agenda item in question.

In hindsight, McGann said she feels like she “dropped the ball.”

“I need to be more proactive (on this issue),” she said. “I just kind of relaxed and moved on to other issues.”

However, the committee’s recommendation is by no means her last chance to weigh in on the matter: The ultimate authority over name changes on federal lands rests with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which is expected to make a final determination about changing the name later this year.

The federal board discourages name 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.

But McGann said she’s optimistic that supporters of the name change will have better luck with the federal board.

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 has said, is an offensive symbol of oppression that tarnishes Grand County’s image among visitors.

Moving forward, she hopes to make her case in favor of the recommendation as a longtime resident, now-retired teacher and elected county official.

“I haven’t given up,” she said.

Utah Committee on Geographic Names ex-officio member David Vincent declined to comment on his panel’s recommendation and referred all questions to committee executive secretary Arie Leeflang.

Leeflang said he is not authorized to discuss the committee’s vote.

BLM to keep “Grandstaff Trailhead” name

No matter which direction the U.S. Board on Geographic Names takes, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) Moab office is standing by its September 2016 decision to replace the old “Negro Bill Canyon Trailhead” signs at the mouth of the canyon.

BLM spokesperson Lisa Bryant said her agency has the regulatory authority to rename campgrounds, facilities and trailheads – although not the name of the canyon itself.

In this case, she said, the BLM installed new “Grandstaff Trailhead” signs as its way of honoring the man. While the first set of signs were stolen within a matter of days after they were installed — and later retrieved from the nearby Colorado River — their replacements have been untouched to date.

In the future, Bryant said the BLM is hopeful that visitors can have meaningful and respectful conversations about Grandstaff and the role he played in the area’s history.

“It’s pretty unique and it’s an interesting story,” she said. “We don’t know that much about him.”

BLM Canyon Country District Manager Lance Porter said his agency recognizes that there are many valid perspectives and opinions about the naming of the canyon. But he and Bryant noted that the history of Grandstaff and his ties to the area is still on display for all visitors to see.

“We invite the public to visit this beautiful canyon and read the interpretive sign at the trailhead to learn more about him,” Porter said.

The question of proper signage near the trailhead has been one of Williams’ main concerns: If the U.S. Board on Geographic Names ultimately approves the change, Williams has said she 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 earlier this year. “If they can keep the history intact, where people actually know who William Grandstaff was, that would be a good thing.”

During a recent visit to the canyon, Moab resident Michael Wilson voiced similar sentiments, noting that someone long ago etched a variation of the Negro Bill name – using the actual “N-word” – on the sandstone above the canyon floor.

“I don’t know why they changed (the name of the trailhead),” Wilson said. “It’s history. It even says it on the rock up there.”

Wilson said he believes the change in trailhead names has likely caused confusion, leading some visitors to drive by the new Grandstaff Trailhead signs and keep going because they’re still looking for Negro Bill Canyon.

He said he agrees with Williams’ position that the word “Negro” is not offensive.

“There’s nothing wrong with that name,” he said. “I think it’s an overreaction.”

Although McGann said she thought the name change was a “done deal” – and now turns out not to be – she thinks it’s inevitable that the Negro Bill name will eventually give way to a new moniker for the canyon.

“It’s going away,” she said. “It will happen in my lifetime.”

McGann hopeful that feds will rename canyon

It’s going away … It will happen in my lifetime.