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Requests To Rename 'Negro Bill' Canyon Rebuffed

The national discussion over the issue of racism has led to new efforts by some in Utah to rename Dixie State College in St. George, and Negro Bill Canyon in Moab.

This week, in a4-3 vote, the Grand County Council once again rejected a proposal to rename Negro Bill Canyon. The majority cited opposition to the name change by the NAACP office in Salt Lake City. The change was originally proposed last year by African American resident, Louis Williams, who has argued that the current name clouds the real history of William Grandstaff, one of Moab’s earliest settlers.


“Nobody mentioned that he was the first settler to live here without being attacked by the Indians. For 22 years they didn’t attack him. Historians said nothing about that,” Williams said. “Does the fact that the settlers called him nigger, is that a value of history?”


Williams’ cause was taken up by Grand County Council member Mary McGann.


“I firmly believe that the majority of African Americans in Grand County want the name changed. However because of a difficult time they have had blending into and becoming part of this community, they are not comfortable coming out publicly. I can understand their fear after reading some of the hateful comments thrown at me,” McGann said.


At two recent public hearings, Moab residents overwhelmingly supported the name change. 


“I was raised with the word ‘nigger’. I was raised in Southern Utah, on the other side of the state, and it was very common. It is offensive, and the word “negro” is just a prettied-up version of the word nigger.” “We have Dewey Bridge. We have Wolfe Ranch. We have Helen M Knight School. And then we have Negro Bill Canyon, and it just is nonsensical to me that we continue to use an epithet.” “I couldn’t really care less about the NAACP. I care about Louis and the people in our community that this deeply offends.” “So with a thank you to Bob Dylan, who I’m sure would condone our efforts today, ‘How many canyons must a man walk down before we call him a man?’ How much time has to pass before we call him a man? How much history has to be explained before we call him a man?”


The majority members on the council were not swayed by the comments, saying they had received numerous phone calls and emails from citizens who oppose the name change and regard it as an attempt to “take away our history.” But Kayla Weston, a Moab High School senior, said the history needs to be rewritten. 


“To state that we are celebrating black history by keeping this name alive is tokenism at best. It comes off as a bad attempt to claim you aren’t a racist because, well, you have this black friend. Negro Bill is our black friend. And we say we can’t change it because this is part of our history,” Weston said. “So what is this history? The one regularly told around here is that he was run out of town, accused of selling alcohol to the Indians, which is anecdotal at best. So just what is it that we are celebrating? That we ran him out of town? I’m sorry, NAACP, but I speak for a younger generation.”


The spectacular canyon in question was “Nigger” Bill Canyon until 1968, when the N-word was stricken from 143 place names across the US at the behest of Lady Bird Johnson. In West Texas, “Dead Nigger Creek” became “Dead Negro Draw.” In Burnet, Texas, “Nigger Head Mountain” became “Colored Mountain.” Currently there are still more than 750 names that still use the word “Negro,” including “Runaway Negro Creek” near Savannah, Georgia.


In St. George there is a similar battle over the interpretation of local history. Defenders of the name “Dixie State College” say it’s an innocent reference to early attempts to grow cotton in Southwest Utah. But detractors note that Confederate sympathizers were prominent among St. George’s pioneers. The college sports moniker was “The Rebels” until 2009, and a statue of Confederate soldiers with the Confederate battle flag was not removed from the campus until 2012.

Originally from Wyoming, Jon Kovash has practiced journalism throughout the intermountain west. He was editor of the student paper at Denver’s Metropolitan College and an early editor at the Aspen Daily News. He served as KOTO/Telluride’s news director for fifteen years, during which time he developed and produced Thin Air, an award-winning regional radio news magazine that ran on 20 community stations in the Four Corners states. In Utah his reports have been featured on KUER/SLC and KZMU/Moab. Kovash is a senior correspondent for Mountain Gazette and plays alto sax in “Moab’s largest garage band."