African American History Culture : Our pioneering enslaved ancestors preparing another 'God's' people towards prosperity

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Well-Known Member
Oct 25, 2005
Utah's black pioneers


In 1838, a 10-year-old black boy was given as a wedding present to James and Agnes Flake in North Carolina. He went by the unusual name of Green and, according to custom, took the surname of his white slave owners. Later, after moving to Mississippi, Green Flake's life intersected with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when the family converted to the faith.

Green was a teenager when he migrated west with Brigham Young to settle in the Salt Lake Valley. Flake family folklore suggests that Green drove the very wagon from which Young is alleged to have uttered the famous words, "This is the right place. Drive on."

After Green built a cabin in the valley, he walked back to Nebraska to guide the Flakes to their new home in the Utah territory.

He was one of 100 black pioneers to make the historic journey west in the mid-1800s. Though he died in 1903, he will be among a group of five black pioneers who will be accepted as honorary members of the Brigham Young chapter of the Sons of the Utah Pioneers on Thursday.

Slavery was acknowledged by the Mormons and was legal in Utah Territory until after the Civil War. Attitudes, even among leaders of the church, varied. Joseph Smith, the church's founder, was himself an ardent abolitionist campaigned for U.S. president in 1844 on an anti-slavery platform. Under his leadership, at least one black man was ordained to the church's priesthood.

On the other hand, records indicate that Brigham Young may have owned Green Flake at one time.

A Census of Utah Territory shows there were 50 blacks in Utah in 1850 and lists 24 as free and the other 26 as slaves.

"Black pioneers were both slave and free, Mormon and non-Mormon," said University of Utah professor Ronald G. Coleman in the anthology "The Peoples of Utah."

"They shared the experiences of journeying to a new land and participating in its settlement and subsequent development," he said.

Back in 1933, when it was organized, Sons of the Utah Pioneers viewed the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 as the meridian of time. An ancestor wouldn't qualify as a pioneer after that because it was too easy to get to Utah.

But one no longer needs a pre-'69 pedigree to get into the group. Membership is currently extended to anyone who shares the group's principles and ideals. The Brigham Young chapter started accepting honorary members earlier this month.

One of the commitments of the 44 chapters of members is to honor and recognize people who have made or who currently make significant contributions to Utah pioneer heritage.

Chapter president Maughan Lee said even after years of celebrating the Utah pioneers there are still people who have been overlooked. Slaves and free blacks who came more than 1,000 miles with approximately 70,000 Mormon pioneers make up one of the lesser known groups, he said.

Lee said he hopes Thursday night's gesture will help open up the history of these often overlooked local settlers.

"It is about time somebody did this," Lee said. "They have not been recognized as having the significant role that they did."

About 100 members and their spouses will gather at the Riverside Country Club to learn about the lives of four black men and one black woman who are being honored as part of Black History Month.

Along with Flake, Hark Lay and Oscar Crosby arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in the vanguard company with Brigham Young in 1847. The three are listed as "coloured servants" on the Brigham Young monument in downtown Salt Lake City.

"I don't think people quite know or realize what they did for us," Lee said. "They blazed the trail. They moved rocks and built the bridges to make it possible for Brigham Young to ride into the valley."

Elijah Abel and Jane Manning James will also be honored as free black pioneers who made many sacrifices to join the Mormons and travel to Utah.

Local resident Janice Cherry will sing the Baptist hymn "Precious Lord" at Thursday's gathering. She said she is glad that black pioneers in Utah are finally being acknowledged.

"I am a pioneer for being the first black member of the church in my family," she said. "But these five people really are pioneers in the sense that they were the first black people in LDS history. It is nice to see them honored.

Early blacks in Utah

While Flake, Lay and Crosby were the first blacks to come to Utah with the Mormons, they were not the first in the territory's history.

Black men started coming to Utah a quarter-century before, on exploration and fur-trapping trips in the 1820s, according to .

Margaret Young, a local historian who has spent several years researching and writing books about black Utah pioneers, said a majority of blacks in early Utah were slaves who were brought to Utah by their southern masters. Converted slave owners often gave their slaves a choice about joining the new church and coming west with the family.

Young said the idea of Mormons owning slaves is discomforting to some people.

"People want to think that as soon as they joined the church they freed their slaves," Young said. "So this makes people very uncomfortable." Some slaveholding Southern families, not long after arriving in Utah, left to found settlements in California. And since California was free, many of their slaves were freed, Young said.

But slavery was legal in the Utah territory. Documents show that both the church and the territorial government accepted the practice. Early converts were drawn from all parts of the country, including the slaveholding South.

But slavery was widely condemned in America's northern states, birthplace of the church. Mormon missionaries were also bringing large numbers of converts from Britain, which had outlawed slavery in 1833 and was actively interdicting the slave trade on the high seas.

In 1847, when the Mormon pioneers left Iowa for the Great Basin, the slavery debate was intensifying in the states. But Utah Territory was a long way west, insulated from the controversy by the vast plains and slow communications. The Mormons were more concerned about survival and the establishment of Zion.

Dale Bills, a spokesman for the LDS Church, said Utah territory was not a major factor in the national debate over slavery before the Civil War. "A few slaveholders settled in the territory prior to the outbreak of the Civil War," Bills said. Territorial law allowed servants of all types, indentured servants as well as slaves, to be brought in with written approval of a territorial court, he said.

Brigham Young gave a speech to the Legislature as territorial governor in 1852 outlining policy about treating slaves kindly, Margaret Young said.

Also in 1852, the Legislature passed a documented called "An Act in Relation to Service," which outlined an agreement between owners and their servants, professor Coleman said.

In part, the agreement said an owner must provide "comfortable habitation, clothing, bedding, sufficient food, and recreation" for each servant. In return the servant or slave must "labor faithfully all reasonable hours, and do such service with fidelity as may be required."

End of slavery

Slavery in Utah was banned in 1865 after the Civil War, and some freed slaves in the South began trekking west to Utah to join the Mormons. But free black pioneers like Green Flake were also part of the early pioneer companies.

Jane Manning James, a free black woman who settled in Utah, walked 800 miles from Connecticut to Illinois to meet up with the Mormons in 1843. She later continued her journey and settled in Utah territory.

Both blacks and whites suffered equally on the long trip, Young said. "Everyone coming across the plains was working pretty darn hard. Based on what I have read, I believe things were on pretty much equal footing. When you are on a journey like that, everybody has to work."

And when they got to the valley, everyone again shared trials.

In her life story, James explained the historic cricket invasion that affected many Utah farmers. She wrote:

"My husband worked for Brother Brigham, and we got along splendid -- until the grasshoppers and crickets came along carrying destruction wherever they went, laying our crops to the ground, stripping the trees of all their leaves and fruit, bringing poverty and desolation throughout this beautiful valley."

James is remembered in the journal of white pioneer Eliza Lyman. In 1849, Lyman's husband went on a church mission to California and left nothing to eat in the house. On April 8 and April 13 Lyman wrote:

"He left us -- that is, Paulina, Caroline, and I -- without anything to make bread, it not being in his power to get any ... Jane James, a colored woman, let me have two pounds of flour, it being about half she had."

Many former slaves and some of the original free black pioneers, like James' husband, Isaac, left Utah, Coleman said. Others stayed -- and stayed close to each other.

"These people intermarried and lived in close proximity to one another in Union, the east Millcreek area, and the Eighth LDS ward, now called Central City," he said.

Coleman estimated there are about 150 descendants of the early black pioneers living in Utah. One descendant is still a church member, Young said.

In Utah today

"There were never a lot of blacks in Utah, and not for very long," Young said. "Again it was a rough climate for blacks in the whole country, and Utah was no different."

The black population in Utah has always grown slowly, said Richard O. Ulibarri in his article, "Utah's Ethnic Minorities: A Survey." While there were 270,000 Utah residents at the turn of the century, there were only 678 blacks, Ulibarri said.

Don Harwell, one of the estimated 20,000 blacks living in Utah today, said he loves life in Utah.

"Life is good," he said. "We love Utah. We would not leave for all the tea in China. But we are sort of stubborn. We are not going to be driven from anywhere."

Harwell is a member of the LDS Church and the president of Genesis, an arm of the church organized to support black members.

Having grown up in Los Angeles as a non-Mormon, he said he is not surprised black Americans have stayed away from Utah. During the more than 100 years that the church banned black men from holding the church's priesthood, many blacks assumed they were not wanted -- in the church or in the neighborhood.

"Nobody is going to go someplace where they know they're going to be excluded," he said. "That is a hard thing."

As the numbers of blacks in Utah grows, Harwell said black Utahns and black members of the LDS Church tend to stick together for support. Dozens of black Utahns gathered with hundreds of residents of all races in January at Brigham Young University to celebrate the birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

Harwell was the keynote speaker at the event, and his words addressed the pioneer heritage of both black and white Mormons.

"Your parents were given the opportunity to be free, and you are given the opportunity to be great. You are the dream," he said.

"The Peoples of Utah," can be read online at

This story is continued with: Elijah Abel - Black Pioneer
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A1.

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