BLM Moves to Erase Evidence of Racism in Moab

Negro Bill Trail gets a new name, and vandals promptly steal the sign.


When people pore over the maps for Moab’s Slickrock or Porcupine Rim trails or look into hiking near the Colorado River, they’re often stopped in their tracks by the name of a canyon: Negro Bill. The racist nickname was given to a 19th century rancher and it stuck to the area where he ran his cattle. Last week, the Bureau of Land Management made a long-overdue decision to change the Negro Bill Trail to a less racially charged moniker, calling it the Grandstaff Trail and rebadging it with a new trailhead sign. Someone apparently didn’t like the change, as it took just five days for vandals to steal the sign.

The trail was named for William Grandstaff, a black man who moved from the American South to Moab in 1877 to become a cowboy and prospector, and the new name reflects his legacy without trivializing his identity.

The BLM recently updated much of its signage along the Colorado River north of Moab and used the opportunity to update the trail with a name that didn’t acknowledge its namesake’s race. The trail and its canyon were initially named with a much coarser racial epithet, which was changed to “Negro” in the civil rights era. There’s no record of anyone calling Grandstaff “Negro Bill” or its alternative during his lifetime.

The sign has been vandalized in the past, but typically with a crossing-out of the word “negro.” Oddly, the BLM spelled the new trailhead differently–Grandstaff, with a “d”–than they did the nearby Granstaff Campground, and the Salt Lake Tribune speculates that the vandalism could have had something to do with the inconsistent spelling. While it may have been perceived as a misspelling, legal documents from Grandstaff’s life show his name spelled in line with the sign at Grandstaff Trailhead.

While some residents lauded the labeling of his race as an intentional and respectful nod to a black historical figure (rare for Utah), others have felt it to be offensive and demeaning. And while the BLM cannot rename the canyon–they only have jurisdiction over the trail–they are advocating for a name change to Negro Bill Canyon as well.

Photo by BLM

 

Showing 8 comments
  • Chris
    Reply

    I can completely understand those grateful for this ‘long overdue’ change. But a part of me laments the white washing of history. If we no longer are able to recall the racism and wrongs of history, how can we put into context where we are today as a society and set our aims on where we want to go?

    In the context of the day, calling someone a negro was not racist, it was matter of fact. While we’ve progressed from that today, I think it’s worth considering that the fact the locals named this canyon after the man, even if it included terms that labeled him as ‘other’, it shows that they respected the man. It was his land, and it was named for him with the label of his day. A black man in Utah in the 19th century after all, was rare.

    But we live in today, so maybe it is just that we think of the man’s surname, and not his label or color. I guess I’m on board, I just dislike binary right/wrong discourses.

    • Matt
      Reply

      Amen brother!Well said.

      • Embarrassed by my family's Mormon history of racism
        Reply

        How did you miss the fact that “in the day” this canyon and trail were named “ni**er bill”? Are you OK with that?

        • Chris
          Reply

          Thank you, Embarrassed,
          Your comment led me to learn that indeed, it was called Nigger Bill Canyon as late as the 1960’s. I’m certainly not OK with that, so why would I be OK with “negro” instead? That’s a vague notion for me. Although words have different meanings for different times, I have no desire to defend a white man that used the word “nigger”, even in a comparatively ‘respectful’ way.

          So maybe, it’s a rational view to think that we can erase past mistakes, what I begrudgingly called “white washing” (which I’m willing to disavow), and in the future we can all unite in honoring the man without having to focus to deeply on the racial aspect because that will have been another barrier we’ve overcome?

          I truly hope for that eventual outcome, and intellectually, I’m uncertain of the best course of action to one day get there; whether it’s progression to future goals or recurrent accurate appraisals of our past actions?

          I guess I hope to see both acknowledged in any informed discussion. We can only get to where we want with a proper understanding of where we have come from. And if that’s a placard that says, “Grandstaff Canyon”, with a backstory on it’s history, that’s OK with me, for what it’s worth.

  • Jay Long
    Reply

    Interesting story; don’t really know how to feel about it. Our politically correct world doesn’t know whether it wants to forget history or remember it.

  • Miles Standish
    Reply

    Why didn’t they call it African American Bill?

    • gringo
      Reply

      Perhaps he or his forefathers were from the west indies?

  • S.Hansell
    Reply

    As a Moab local… I wish I could express to the general public the amount of change shouldered by this community, the huge gaps in our sense of town pride the complete disintegration of the fabric that once covered all the local people here. Everytime we are subjected to change for the comfort of the ever increasing political correctness machine our society is now in love with, everytime we are called on to lead the way in the softening of the American West and each time we make these changes to support the comfort of GUESTS here…we loose a little of what makes this place beautiful and hard. If you wanted to see a watered down version of the West…watch TV. If you want to protect all the hard edges and stretches of bluest blue sky against red slickrock….why can’t it be respected as is and why is it reworked for the masses on a near constant basis…. I would never press my outliers point of view on a place without realizing that by pressing these issues that never applied in that place I may inadvertently be changing it forever. It will never be the same but it happens to be my home. Judge it if you must. Maybe just leave us with the names of the places we’ve shared with all of you and give us the small dignity of a simple name even if the place is broken and all the wild has left this small town in the West.

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