Negro Bill Canyon stays just that

\Water from Negro Brill Canyon empties into the Colorado River three miles northeast of Moab. Photo courtesy of BLM Moab field office.
\Water from Negro Brill Canyon empties into the Colorado River three miles northeast of Moab. Photo courtesy of BLM Moab field office.

For now, it’s still Negro Bill Canyon

MOAB, Utah – Negro Bill Canyon wasn’t called that originally. The first word was one now almost universally frowned upon as a hateful epithet.

The canyon just east of Moab was named for William Grandstaff, who trailed cattle from the Colorado up the canyon toward the La Sal Mountains. Researchers at the Frontier Historical Society in Glenwood Springs, Colo., say Grandstaff probably was born in 1846 in Alabama, perhaps as a slave.

Grandstaff (sometimes spelled Granstaff) lived in the Moab area from 1877 to 1881. Why he left isn’t absolutely clear. Some say he was run off. Also unclear is his race. A Colorado census in 1885 listed him as white and living in Chaffee County, where Buena Vista and Salida are located. A few years later, in 1889, he was in the mining town of Leadville, Colo., where he ran for municipal constable. A few years later, he owned a bar at a coal-mining camp up South Canyon, just west of Glenwood Springs.

He died in 1901, and the two newspapers in Glenwood Springs, the Avalanche Echo and the Post, said he had some mining claims. They made no mention of his race except a reference to “old Portugee,” a variant of Portuguese. That might suggest a mixed race.

Grandstaff likely didn’t call himself “Nigger Bill,” as the canyon was originally called, points out Louis Williams, writing in the Moab Times-Independent in 2013.

In the 1960s, the branch of the U.S. government responsible for names on public lands changed the canyon’s name to the one currently used. It was part of a broad expurgation of the word “nigger” from geographic names across the country.

“This reexamination of the name was appropriate for the 1960s, but it is no longer enough,” says Williams. “Ultimately, we have achieved nothing more than replacing one racial handle for another.”

After the terrorist attack in Charleston, S.C., this year, Mary Mullen McGann, said she believed the time had come to eliminate the name. “The horrible events that happened in South Carolina spurred me to do it at this point because words are symbols, and symbols are powerful,” McGann, an elected supervisor in Grand County, told the Moab Sun News.

(For another discussion about symbols in the aftermath of Charleston, see the conversation with musician Wynton Marsalis at the Aspen Ideas Festival in July.)

The arguments continued back and forth in the pages of Moab’s two newspapers this summer. Some objected to the proposal as trying to change history. Others pointed to the original name as a reminder of a dishonorable past in American history.

“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,” said Chris Baird, vice chair of the Grand County Council.

But is the word “negro” pejorative? Martin Luther King Jr. used it broadly. It’s a Spanish word, meaning black.

Baird told the Moab Sun News that there’s no doubt the original word was a bona fide racial epithet. “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.”

Moab resident Marcia Tendick concurred with that opinion. “It’s not even a title,” she told the Sun News. “It’s not ‘mister’ or ‘doctor.’ It’s ‘negro.’”

Others cited economic implications.

“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,” said McGann, the county commissioner.

The Bureau of Land Management, which administers the canyon, has no say-so over the canyon name, but it has chosen to name the campground there Grandstaff and plans to rename the trailhead.

The U.S. Board of Geographic Names is the final arbiter of the name for the canyon, as it is for all geographic names in the United States on public lands. It relies heavily on input from local elected officials. Absence of that support caused proposed name changes in 1999, 2012, and 2013 to all fall short.

This proposal fell short, too, but the reason might surprise you. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is fine with the status quo. “Negro is an acceptable word,” Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP’s Tri-State Conference in Idaho-Nevada-Utah, told the Sun News in 2013. “We would rather leave it there as it is now and get information in the curriculum in the schools about the canyon itself to let people know more about the history.”

With no objection from the NAACP, the Grand County supervisors, in a majority vote, stayed the course.

Allen Best