SALT LAKE CITY – Moab resident Louis Williams cringes every time he tells visitors the name of the canyon with the great hike to a stunning arch: Negro Bill Canyon.
Williams, a window cleaner who has lived in Moab for 14 years, is leading a renewed campaign to change the name of the Southern Utah canyon that he and others believe is inappropriate. He has posted an online petition that has garnered more than 600 signatures and plans to submit a formal renaming application to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names.
“People cringe when we have to tell the name of it. The looks on their face is: ‘What did you just say?’” Williams said. “People ask. ‘Why is it named that?’ They don’t ask who he is.”
He wants it to bear the last name of the black cowboy who ran cattle there in the 1870s, William Granstaff. The canyon name has already been changed in the 1960s to “Negro Bill Canyon” from a name that featured a derogatory word.
He said he has dug up history that shows Granstaff’s name was actually spelled with a “d” after the “n.” That’s why he wants it renamed as Grandstaff Canyon.
“Most of the places and streets and trails that were named after settlers just used their last names,” Williams said. “That is what we should do for him.”
Even though efforts in the late 1990s and 2000s to change the canyon name were met by resistance from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Williams is optimistic the idea will gain more traction this time. His campaign is one of dozens across the country to rename canyons, reservoirs, lakes and other places still bearing names deemed derogatory.
There are 757 places with “negro” in the name from Alaska to Florida and Maine to California, according to an analysis of government records.
But the president of the NAACP’s Salt Lake City chapter, Jeanetta Williams, said her organization opposes the name change just as it did when others tried to make the switch.
“If the name changes, it’s going to lose its history,” she said. “Negro is an acceptable word.”
With one of the longest natural arches in the country at the end of the four-mile roundtrip hike, the canyon is a popular destination for hikers visiting Moab. So far, the petition has more than 600 signatures as of Friday – many from out of state. The site has been up since Nov. 11.
“My favorite hike in the Moab area, but I always feel sick to my stomach to repeat the name to anyone and explain the puzzled looks,” wrote Linn DeNesti of Kingston, Wash., in the online petition. “PLEASE honor William Grandstaff and rename this beautiful canyon!”
“Let’s do justice to Moab’s rich history by renaming the canyon in a way that does justice to Bill without alienating or offending residents and visitors alike!” wrote Faye Geiger of Logan, Utah.
Bruce Hucko of Moab put it simply in his comment on the online petition: “It’s about time!”
The NAACP and Louis Williams do agree on one thing: There should be a sign or marker near the trailhead featuring Granstaff’s story.
“We would rather leave it there as it is now, and to get information in the curriculum in the schools about the canyon itself to let people know more about the history,” said Jeanetta Williams.