Friday, July 31, 2015

Whitewashing The Past: The Renaming Of Negro Bill Canyon

Near Moab, Utah, there is a popular hiking canyon currently named Negro Bill Canyon.  The name used to be one that is now extremely offensive (it also start with "N."  I think you can figure it out.), but it was changed to "Negro" back when "negro" was a polite and correct term for a person of African-American heritage.  Clearly, there are several problems with the name "Negro Bill Canyon."  One is that no one uses the term "negro" much now, and it sounds borderline offensive.  Also, the man in question was most certainly never called "Negro Bill" by anyone while he was alive, so it's sort of silly to name the canyon that.
The media is covering both of those reasons when they discuss the possibility of renaming the canyon yet again.
From the Salt Lake Tribune today we have this:

Amid Confederate flag scrutiny, Utah reconsiders controversial canyon name

The renewed national scrutiny of the Confederate flag has officials again considering changing the name of Utah's Negro Bill Canyon, a title that is 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Grand County Councilwoman Mary McGann said the name of the picturesque canyon in southern Utah is outdated at best.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 is 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 are not generally prefaced by race, McGann said, and the canyon should bear his last name instead.


Naturally, there are some opposing views.  Jeanetta Williams of the NAACP of Salt Lake City does not like the idea of losing the part of the name which identifies William Granstaff (or possibly Grandstaff, as some claim the name was spelled that way) as Black.
Granted, this is also a good point in the argument about whether or not to change the name to Granstaff or Grandstaff Canyon.

Now, my point in this post is not whether or not the name should be changed.  My point is that everyone in the media is whitewashing William -- not by shedding a racial identifier, but by ignoring history.

Let me clarify something here: the Shafer family was among the first settlers of Moab, Utah.  And my grandfather, John Lloyd "Sog" Shafer, is quite famous there, having The Shafer Trail, Shafer Canyon, Shafer Basin, and Shafer Trail Overlook named after him.  (The Shafer Trail is one of the most famous Jeep/mountain biking trails in the US, possibly in the world.  People come from all over the place to try the thing.  My mother says they'll never know how scary it can really be, though, as they'll never have the chance to ride down it with my grandfather driving his pick up truck, pointing out cattle grazing grounds along the way and paying zero attention to the hairpin curves.)  My father is his longest-surviving child.  Dad's memory is good and sharp, and he remembers the local Moab history of Bill.
According to Dad, Bill was not, as the Tribune puts it, someone who "ran cattle."  Bill was a cattle rustler and a bootlegger who hid up the canyon to stay away from authorities.  Another man also had his stolen cattle up the canyon as well, but the other guy ran from the authorities first, leaving Bill as the main person living up the canyon.
Bill Gran(d)staff was Moab's own local outlaw, and all the locals knew he lived up that canyon, so eventually it came to be called by the name they had for the owner, "N--- Bill."  At the time, the name was sort of a mildly affectionate tribute to their own outlaw.  (Please note: it's extremely unlikely that Bill called himself by that racial epithet, but it is how he was referred to by locals from Moab at the time.  I'm not condoning that name; I'm merely explaining.)
So, to me, the problem with what's in the news is not that people are trying to whitewash William Gran(d)staff's skin color; the problem is that people are whitewashing the past.  The canyon was named for an outlaw.  That shouldn't be left out when people talk about Bill.  (He was apparently quite successful at what he did, also, but he eventually ran when authorities caught up with him.)  He was what he was: African-American, clever, successful, and an outlaw, a bit like Robert Leroy Parker.  (Parker is better known as Butch Cassidy, and nobody ever whitewashes his history.)
Personally, I think the canyon might be renamed Outlaw Canyon to reflect both men who were there, as well as avoid racial problems.  (However, I do think changing "Negro" to "Black" and thus having "Black Bill Canyon" has a certain piratical ring to it.  :) )
But whatever is done about the name of the canyon, the media needs to be truthful about the past.  Stop pretending Bill was something other than what he was.  It is not racist to admit he was a colorful character for more reasons than his skin tone.

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