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Petition launched to change name of 'Negro Bill Canyon'

By John Hollenhorst | Posted - Nov 20th, 2012 @ 11:59pm

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MOAB — A petition drive is underway to rename a popular canyon just outside of Moab because some people find the current name "embarrassing," or "disrespectful."

Officially, it's called Negro Bill Canyon, and for some, the name is an awkward reminder of outmoded racial attitudes.

"We definitely found the name a little alarming," said Sarah Bates of Boulder, Colorado. She visited the canyon with her husband during a break from a business trip through Moab.

In recent decades many places, institutions and sports teams have been given new names because of a growing awareness of people's sensibilities, especially minorities.

There's no better example of the problem than the scenic and popular canyon a short distance up the Colorado River from Moab.

"Really nice canyon, nice trail," said Elliott Bates after completing a run in the lower part of Negro Bill Canyon.

"I think it's borderline inappropriate, the name," Bates said, "and so I think it should be changed."

The canyon was named for William "Bill" Grandstaff. According to Moab resident Louis Williams, who researched Grandstaff's history, he lived in the area from 1877 to 1881.

"One of our first pioneers," Williams said. "We should give him some respect."

Last week, Williams launched an on-line petition drive that quickly drew support from several hundred people. He eventually plans to petition the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, asking the board to change the name to "Grandstaff Canyon."

"I've had people who work in bicycle shops, who do tours, who say to me, 'it is embarrassing to have to say Negro Bill,' " Williams explained.

For nearly 100 years the canyon had an even worse name, Williams pointed out, a racial slur beginning with the letter "N."

"It was a variant of 'negro', which we all know what that is," Williams said. "It was changed in the 1960's because (First Lady) Lady Bird Johnson didn't like it."

But it wasn't long before the word "negro" began to fall out of fashion, prompting at least two previous efforts to remove the word from the name of the canyon.

Both efforts failed, partly because of opposition from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Jeanetta Williams, President of the NAACP's Salt Lake chapter, said her organization hasn't adopted a position yet on whether to support the newest petition drive.

I don't think he introduced himself that way and I know that isn't the way his parents named him.

–Louis Williams, Moab resident

"There's a lot of arguments back and forth on that," she said. Williams herself is torn. She believes the name 'Negro Bill Canyon" has some value in reminding people that black people have a place in Western history.

"Often we find that African-American history, black history, is lost, stolen or strayed," Jeanetta Williams said, "and we don't want the history to get lost."

But Louis Williams says the name "Negro Bill Canyon" and its earlier, ruder, variation are disrespectful to a man who lived and died, with the respect of many.

"I don't think he introduced himself that way and I know that isn't the way his parents named him," the Moab resident said. "All the other settlers in this area have got the respect of their given names. So I think we should give a little bit more homage to Mr. Grandstaff."

"Maybe that would be a little more respectful," said Sarah Bates during her morning jaunt through the canyon. "But either way, I think it's a beautiful canyon and it's great that he has it as his namesake."


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