SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The renewed national scrutiny of the Confederate flag has officials again considering changing the name of Utah’s Negro Bill Canyon, a title that’s offensive to some but a point of historical pride for the state’s largest NAACP chapter.
Grand County Councilwoman Mary McGann said the name of the picturesque canyon in southern Utah is outdated at best.
“We should evolve,” she said Wednesday.
She’s planning to ask the council to recommend a name change to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names as soon as Aug. 4.
The Moab canyon is named for William Granstaff, a black cowboy who ran cattle there in the 1870s. Landmarks named for white historical figures aren’t generally prefaced by race, McGann said, and the canyon should bear his last name instead.
But Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake City chapter of the NAACP, says the name isn’t offensive. She’s drumming up support to keep the name that makes it clear the canyon is named for a black historical figure.
“We don’t want to lose the history,” she said. She’d like to see the council tackle other issues facing black residents instead, like housing discrimination. Though her group supported changing the name from a more derogatory word decades ago, they’ve opposed other efforts over the years to make a wholesale revision.
One of those pushes was led by Moab resident Louis Williams. His research shows William Granstaff never went by Bill, and he’s dug up history that shows his last name was actually spelled with a “d’’ after the “n.” The current name doesn’t honor the pioneer’s story, he said, and it should be renamed as Grandstaff Canyon.
“I don’t know anybody who would die and want their name to be left like that,” said Williams, who is not related to the Salt Lake NAACP president.
Moab’s canyon is not the only American landmark with a similar name. As of 2012, there were more than 700 places in the U.S. with “negro” in the name, according to an analysis of government records.
The canyon is a popular hiking spot in Moab, a town about 230 miles southeast of Salt Lake City that attracts tourists from all over the world to its unique red-rock landscapes in nearby national parks. While the hike, which features one of the longest natural arches in the country at the end of the four-mile roundtrip, is popular with visitors, the name makes many of them uncomfortable, said McGann. If the name changes, signs could tell Granstaff’s full history.
Another councilman, Lynn Jackson, says many locals support the name as it is and he’ll vote to keep it. “For me, the history is what it is,” he said.
McGann said she brought up the issue to the council after the June 17 massacre of nine black church members at a Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina sparked the removal of Confederate flags from public property and displays across the South. Dylann Roof, a white man who appeared in a photo with a Confederate flag, is charged in the killings.
“It’s time to remove all symbols which, on some level, justify having a certain race of people distinguished differently from another race of people,” she said.