It will always be “Negro Bill Canyon” to some longtime local residents, but as of Tuesday, Oct. 12, the scenic recreation area northeast of Moab is officially known as “Grandstaff Canyon.”
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names voted 12-0 last week to formally rename the canyon after William Grandstaff, an African American settler who briefly lived in the area from 1877 to 1881. One board member declined to vote on the matter.
“His name was Grandstaff; it was not Negro Bill,” board member Wendi-Starr Brown said, according to The Associated Press. “I’m pretty sure that’s not how he wanted to be addressed in life.”
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) previously renamed the trailhead in 2016 and installed new “Grandstaff Trailhead” signs there; many people who posted comments on social media sites assumed the issue was put to rest at that time. But the ultimate authority to rename the canyon itself rested with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which last rejected a 1999 request to rename the canyon in 2001.
The name change issue resurfaced in 2012 and 2013, and then again in 2015, when Grand County Council vice chair Mary McGann brought it back to the forefront.
McGann told the Moab Sun News that she first decided to revisit the matter 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.
McGann pressed ahead on the issue when four local African American residents contacted her and urged her to support the name change.
“That’s what I represented: A group of people … who were offended by the name,” she said.
A 5-2 majority of county council members voted in January to send a letter to the federal board in support of renaming the canyon, but the momentum behind the council seemed to waver in early August. Without consulting the council ahead of time, the Utah Committee on Geographic Names declined to endorse the position that the council now holds.
McGann said the state committee’s decision to oppose the name change caught her off guard. In response, she talked to the federal board’s members at length, sent them her published columns on the issue and made sure that they understood where she and a majority of other council members stand.
“I thought, ‘I’m not going to sit on my laurels this time,’” she said.
Grand County Historical Preservation Commission chair Dave Vaughn, who opposed the name change, took the opposite approach: A year or so ago, he said, his board did not reply to the federal board’s requests for comments about the change.
According to Vaughn, that’s because his board was no longer unanimous in its opposition to any revisions.
“I didn’t do anything on our end because I just didn’t feel like I had the support,” he told the Moab Sun News.
Vaughn does, however, have a personal contact on the Utah Committee on Geographic Names, and he voiced his concerns to that person when he asked for them ahead of that board’s vote.
“I personally am sad the federal board did not follow the lead of the state board, and I will continue to refer to it as Negro Bill Canyon,” Vaughn said.
There are many others who share his view, he said: In recent weeks, Vaughn received several calls from lifelong or longtime local residents who were dead set against the name change.
“I’m sure the older members of the community will continue to call it (Negro Bill Canyon), too,” he said.
For Vaughn, the name “Negro Bill” is a testament to Grand County’s unique history.
As evidenced by Grandstaff’s presence here, he said, Grand County has always been a diverse community in historically “white, Mormon Utah,” and residents should be proud of that fact.
“I just feel that we’re gutting the whole history of that place out there by changing the name,” he said.
“‘Grandstaff Canyon’ doesn’t tell you anything about the man,” he said. “At least with ‘Negro Bill,’ you knew who he was, and that’s lost now.”
Vaughn’s position had a powerful voice in National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Tri-State Conference of Idaho, Nevada and Utah President Jeanetta Williams – perhaps the best-known 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.
Residents and visitors react to name change
For visitor Judy Dobles of Rochester, New York, though, the new name is more respectful of diversity.
She noted that prominent places in her hometown have been renamed, such as a bridge that was named in honor of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony.
“I think Moab is not the only place where we’ve renamed something,” Dobles said.
But La Sal resident Kristl Johnson called the board’s decision “sad.”
“People come to Moab on vacation, fall in love with it, move here, and then try to make it more like where they came from,” Johnson wrote on the Moab Sun News’ Facebook page. “Thus ruining Moab. If they want it to be like where they came from, they should go back.”
“The country’s history is currently being washed away in the name of political correctness,” Johnson added. “(There is nothing) I can personally do about that but teach my kids and pass memories down through them. My point is that there will always be people who move to an area and try to ‘improve’ it…or change it to make it more like ‘home.’”
Moab resident Kord Jackson suggested that the authority to rename places on surrounding public lands should be left up to those who grew up in the community.
“Don’t you just love when people who ‘moved here’ get to make all the decisions for the locals?” Jackson asked. “If you weren’t born (and) raised here, you will never truly understand what it means to be a Moabite (and) the history we all cherish.”
While the federal board is solely responsible for the name change, much of the anger toward its decision has been directed at McGann, who said that many comments are along the lines of “you suck” and “I hope you die.” One person sent her a particularly threatening message, which she forwarded on to the Moab City Police Department.
The comments are disturbing, McGann said, but they validate what she set out to do when she began to push for the new name.
“It makes me realize that it needed to change,” she said.
When the council previously began to revisit the issue, McGann said, she received just one thoughtful message from a person who asked her to consider the possible impacts that the name change could have on the county’s history.
McGann said that person’s concern was the one thing that gave her pause, but she noted that the word “Negro” was not part of the canyon’s original name: It replaced the universally offensive and pejorative “n-word” that predated it.
“If that’s your true concern, that’s not the historic name,” she said.
History is better preserved at a prominent trailhead kiosk, she said, where visitors can find information about Grandstaff and his ties to the area.
“When you just see the name of the canyon, it does not preserve history,” McGann said. “A kiosk does.”
The kiosk profiles an official census record with Grandstaff’s signature, which notably includes the letter “d” in his surname – a controversial side issue in its own right.
In the past, his last name was commonly spelled in the Moab area as “Granstaff,” and some local residents continue to spell it that way, claiming that the other spelling is incorrect. But historical records from Glenwood Springs, Colorado – where Grandstaff lived later on in his life until his death in 1901 – include the letter “d” in his surname.
Barry Akin of Rochester, New York, said he can understand the concerns that some people may have about the potential loss of history following the name change.
“But what’s deemed acceptable changes with time, and that seems to be what the change is all about,” Akin said.
For his part, Akin found the trailhead kiosk to be interesting and informative, offering visitors important details about Grandstaff’s life.
“It still honors the original pioneer of the canyon,” Akin said. “… By using his last name – Grandstaff – you’re not going to forget about him.”
Official change to “Grandstaff Canyon” proves bitterly divisive for some local residents