Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Negro Bill Canyon petition follows Gilpin County's lead in dumping "Negro Hill"

The hike leads to a southern Utah canyon with a stunning view. The canyon itself has a name that stuns many of the hikers who hear it: Negro Bill Canyon. And this name was changed in the '60s to clean up a more derogatory title that ostensibly honored a black cowboy who ran cattle in the area in the 1870s, William Granstaff (born Grandstaff).

"People cringe when we have to tell the name of it," Louis Williams, a window cleaner in Moab who's leading the charge to change the name to Grandstaff Canyon, told a reporter. "People ask, 'Why is it named that?' They don't ask who he is."

Last year, Gilpin County manager Roger Baker began asking why an official spot near the cemeteries outside of Central City was still called "Negro Hill" -- an improvement over the name that had been used more than a century ago, "Nigger Hill."

"The origin of the name is somewhat murky," Baker wrote in a letter to county residents in October 2011, explaining why he was going for a name change, "but it probably had to do with the lynching on the hill of a black man, George Smith, for the robbery and murder of William Hamblin in Quartz Valley, just over the hill. The crime took place in 1868, and at least a semblance of legal procedure was followed -- in fact, the case was appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court. Still, the crowd at the hanging on February 18, 1870, certainly demonstrated some markedly brutal behavior according to the local paper. While we never want to forget even these unpleasant aspects of our common heritage, there's no doubt that while the execution can never be undone, certainly the offensive name should be rethought."

Baker's thinking led him to file an appeal with the United States Board on Geographic Names, part of the U.S. Geological Survey, in which he suggested that the hill be renamed for Clara Brown, one of Colorado's most prominent African-American pioneers, who started life as a slave and became a prominent businesswoman in Central City.

In April, the Board on Geographic Names approved the proposal to change Negro Hill to Aunt Clara Brown Hill.

Williams is now following the same path, and earlier this month posted an online petition that will accompany the application to the Board on Geographic Names. Here's the background Williams offered on the petition:

This is an effort to honor one of Moab's very first settlers, William Grandstaff, by changing the name of Negro Bill Canyon to Grandstaff Canyon. The use of the moniker "negro" is offensive to many people, creating embarrassment for our community. His name should be spelled correctly and his story told, including this unique individual's contribution to history as well as his race.
But his campaign faces some unlikely opposition -- from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "If the name changes, it's going to lose its history," Salt Lake City chapter president Jeanetta Williams told the Associated Press. "'Negro' is an acceptable word."

In fact, it's apparently still acceptable at more than 750 places in this country that have "negro" in their name. But not in Gilpin County.

From our archives: "Negro Hill: Official name of spot outside of Central City finally changed to honor Aunt Clara Brown."

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun