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Residents, visitors pushing for name change of popular canyon near Moab

Published: Friday, Nov. 23 2012 3:24 p.m. MST

MOAB — A petition drive is under way to rename a popular canyon near Moab because some people find the current name "embarrassing" and "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, Colo., who 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. Now, locals and visitors say, a new name is needed for 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, and so I think it should be changed," Bates said.

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.

"(Grandstaff was) one of our first pioneers," Williams said. "We should give him some respect."

Last week, Williams launched an online petition drive that quickly drew support from several hundred people. He eventually plans to petition the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, asking for the canyon's named to be changed 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," he said. "It was changed in the 1960s 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 NAACP. Jeanetta Williams, president of the association's Salt Lake chapter, said her organization hasn't adopted a position yet on whether to support the newest petition drive.

"There's a lot of arguments back and forth on that," she said, adding that she is torn on the matter.

Jeanetta Williams said 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," she said, "and we don't want the history to get lost."

But Louis Williams says the name "Negro Bill Canyon" and its earlier 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," Sarah Bates said 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."

E-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com

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