MOAB — The controversial “Negro Bill” trailhead sign on what's known as "River Road" in the Moab area was replaced over the weekend with a sign that instead says "Grandstaff Trailhead," in a move that eliminates a racially offensive term in the popular recreation area.
More than two dozen signs were switched out along state Route 128 that traces the Colorado River north of Moab, said Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Lisa Bryant.
Replacing that specific trailhead sign — although it was part of a "new look" the agency is incorporating — also signals a change in the official position of the BLM in Utah over the use of "Negro Bill trailhead" as a geographic marker.
"It's been an ongoing discussion in the community," Bryant said. "The way people have looked at it has been evolving and the way BLM looks at it has evolved. The BLM is now on record of being in favor of renaming the trailhead and the canyon."
The campgrounds and nearby trailhead previously sported the name "Negro Bill" after William Grandstaff, a black cowboy who ran cattle in the area in the 1870s.
"There are all sorts of tales surrounding him, from him being a cattle rustler to a local hero," said Grand County Council Chairwoman Elizabeth Tubbs.
The council has taken the name change up at least a couple of times in the last several years. The council voted 4-3 in August of 2015 to keep the name of the canyon. A similar effort to change the name was defeated in 2013.
"Like everything in this county, we always have strong sentiment on both sides of every issue and this was no different," Tubbs said.
Those advocating for a name change made impassioned pleas about the offensiveness of the moniker, she said.
"There were very heartfelt pleas by people in the community on changing the sign on the basis that this is not the kind of sign we want to show visitors," Tubbs said.
On the other side, there are those who favored keeping the name for historical reasons, with Tubbs adding that she was against the change.
"I did not particularly like the word or name, but I felt like we were trying to sweep something under the rug that could have been a teaching moment in our history," she said. "We had a person who happened to be African-American who lived in the area which was fairly unusual about this part of the country at the time."
Last year, Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake chapter of the NAACP, also opposed the effort to change the name. She said the name wasn't offensive and was a point of pride because it makes clear the canyon is named for a black historical figure.
Tubbs said with the name change, she doubts the issue of the canyon name will surface among visitors.
"I don't think we'll ever get a question about that canyon again," she said.
Grand County Councilwoman Mary McGann said she is thrilled the sign was changed.
"I am ecstatic. When my husband gets off work we are going to drive down there and he is going to take a picture of me at the trailhead," she said Tuesday.
"I was very bothered by it," she added. "I thought it was inappropriate at this time in our history."
In 2001, there was a request to change the name of the canyon, but entities like the city of Moab, Grand County and others were not in agreement to the point where it resulted in a decision at the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, an agency within the U.S. Department of Interior.
McGann said she is hopeful a vote by the Grand County Council will change that for the canyon and wilderness study area, adding she believes it could up early next year.
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