A week-old petition to change the name of Negro Bill Canyon, near Moab, has already attracted hundreds of signatures.
The petition is to the USGS Board of Geographic Names, and it’s not he first effort to change the name of Negro Bill Canyon, named after early black settler William Grandstaff. 12 years ago the board declared there was no community support for a name change, because Grandstaff allegedly called himself "Nigger Bill." Louis Williams, a 14-year Moab resident, has long been skeptical of that claim.
"As soon as I found out the story about it, I did not believe it. I just couldn’t accept the idea that William Grandstaff came here and said, 'My name is Nigger Bill.' I just couldn’t believe it. So for 14 years I’ve said to myself, 'I’m going to find out, I’ve got to change this.' So it’s been something that’s been on my mind for a long time."
Williams says local historians either "didn’t care" or just "ignored" what happened to Grandstaff after he left Moab to end his life in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
"When I first started on this I thought it was just a simple story – a man was here, he ran off, he left. But as I started digging and looking, that started to show me that he had a little bit more character than had been portrayed in the local history books in Utah. He apparently had quite a few friends in Glenwood Springs, where he died, because during his burial, and the memorial for his burial, quite a few people showed up, showed their respect, and there was a heartfelt article in the newspaper a couple of days after. The local historians have tagged him as a renegade, a troublemaker, maybe a rustler they say, here in Utah. But when I look at him in Colorado, he was a gentleman who was nominated to run for constable in Leadville, Colorado. The two newspaper articles about his death were very respectful and loving."
Williams also discovered different accounts of how, four decades ago, the word 'nigger' finally disappeared from U.S. place names.
"And one of them is that at one point during the 60s, when Lyndon Baines Johnson was president, Ladybird Johnson noticed that there are a hundred plus more places in the United States that carry the name 'nigger.' She didn’t like it, so she had Lyndon, Mr. President Johnson, pressure the Interior Department to have them changed. That is the reason why this location and four other locations in Utah, plus another hundred across the nation had the word 'nigger' changed to 'negro.'"
Williams discovered that in the past, even the black establishment in Utah opposed the name change for Negro Bill Canyon.
"The NAACP in Salt Lake City, they didn’t believe it should be changed, either. And the reason they didn’t want it changed: People wouldn’t know that he was a black man. There’s a couple of things wrong with that, and one is, he was of mixed race, so he was not totally a black man. And the other thing is that we can explain his mixed race, and his story, without putting a moniker on his name."
In a week the petition, which is online at signon.org, has already been signed by people from all over the country. Williams thinks this time modern communications will make the difference.
"Here we are in 2012, and we have Facebook, we have Twitter. Now I believe we can drum up enough support for it."