AFRICAN AMERICANS IN UTAH
African Americans in Castle Dale, 1924
Although permanent settlement of African Americans in Utah began with
the arrival of Brigham Young's advance party in July of 1847, there was
a black presence in the area almost twenty-five years before the arrival
of the Mormons. Men of African descent, including James P. Beckworth and
Jacob Dodson, were members of the fur trapping and exploratory expeditions
that traversed the mountains and valleys of the territory that was officially
named Utah in 1850.
The Brigham Young party that arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847
included three African Americans - Green Flake, Oscar Crosby, and Hark Lay.
These men were slaves of southern Mormons who sent them ahead to help prepare
for the arrival of the Mormon caravans that were to follow. By 1850 there
were approximately sixty blacks residing in the Utah Territory. The majority
were slaves living in Salt Lake, Davis, and Utah counties. Although slavery
was not sanctioned by law until 1852, the religiously homogeneous community
accepted the servile status of the majority of black residents. Slavery
officially ended in 1862 when the United States Congress abolished slavery
in the territories.
The majority of slaves in Utah worked on the small farms that were scattered
throughout the territory, although a few worked in businesses in Salt Lake
City. Although Brigham Young never intended that slavery flourish in Utah
he did accept the biblical explanations utilized by proslavery apologists
to justify the enslavement of blacks. Black slaves were bought and sold
in Utah. A few slaves escaped and joined wagon trains traveling through
the territory. However, for many slaves the snowcapped mountains appeared
too formidable an obstacle to overcome in their quest for freedom. The dawn
of freedom that came during the course of the Civil War marked the beginning
of a new era of expectation for Utah blacks as well as African Americans
throughout the United States.
A few of the black pioneers who settled in Utah during the pioneer era did
so because of religious reasons. They were members of the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints and joined their fellow Mormons in seeking refuge
from influences hostile to their beliefs. They also wanted to participate
in the building of Mormondom's newest Zion.
The James family - consisting of Isaac, his wife Jane, and sons Sylvester
and Silas -were the first free blacks to settle in Utah. Isaac James and
Jane Manning met and subsequently married in Nauvoo, Illinois, prior to
the Mormons' forced evacuation. The family arrived in Utah in the fall of
1847. The James family shared the trials and tribulations faced by other
pioneers attempting to support themselves in this new land. They were joined
by other black Mormons, including the Elijah Abel and Frederic Sion families,
in settling pioneer Utah.
The expansion of the national railroad network, the growth of the mining
industry, and the presence of the military increased the African American
population in Utah Territory from 118 in 1870 to 677 in 1900. Black males
found employment as cooks, waiters, and porters on the railroads and in
hotels. Although few blacks actually worked in the mines, the wealth derived
from mining and other commercial enterprises led to the employment of many
black women as domestics in the homes of white Utahns.
In 1886 the army sent two companies of the Ninth Cavalry "buffalo soldiers"
to help establish and maintain a post on the Uinta frontier. Various companies
of the Ninth were stationed at Fort Duchesne for approximately the next
fifteen years. Lieutenants John Alexander and Charles Young, two of only
three African Americans to graduate from the United States Military Academy
at West Point in the nineteenth century, both served at Fort Duchesne. Benjamin
O. Davis, Sr., America's first black general, briefly served at Fort Duchesne
following the Spanish American War.
The Army's decision to transfer the Twenty-fourth Infantry to Salt Lake
City's Fort Douglas was opposed by some segments in the white community.
The African American community was delighted with the news and turned out
to welcome the unit comprised of black soldiers when it arrived in 1896.
One year after the arrival of the Twenty-fourth, a newspaper which had originally
opposed the presence of black soldiers at Fort Douglas issued an apology.
During their three years in Salt Lake City soldiers of the Twenty-fourth
became an integral part of the local African American community and contributed
to the social and athletic entertainment for all segments of the Salt Lake
By the 1890s the small black community had numbers sufficient to establish
its own churches, political organizations, newspapers, and social and fraternal
groups. Both Trinity African Methodist Episcopal and Calvary Missionary
Baptist churches have continued to maintain their historical roles in addressing
the secular as well as the spiritual needs of the state`s black communities.
African American ministers continue to work together along with other leaders
in the black communities to address the needs of their people. When the
noted black educator Booker T. Washington visited Salt Lake City in 1913
he gave a special lecture at Calvary Baptist church for the local African
In addition to having local newspapers such as the Utah Plain Dealer
and the Broad Ax, the African American community has historically
maintained communication links with the larger black community of the region,
nation, and world. Black Utahns regularly sent information on local activities
to black newspapers in San Francisco, Portland, Minneapolis-Saint Paul,
and Chicago. Blacks in Utah established an NAACP chapter in 1919, approximately
ten years after the national organization was created. The Masons, Elks,
and their female counterparts are examples of fraternal organizations that
have historically served the needs of many black Utahns.
As the black population increased during the 1890s and the early decades
of the twentieth century, racially based discriminatory practices expanded
throughout the state. Blacks in Utah were in a position similar to African
Americans throughout the United States - they were a numerical minority
residing in the midst of a majority who believed in the notions of white
superiority and black inferiority. This belief was shared by both the LDS
and the non-Mormon segments of Utah's white population. African Americans
were routinely denied access to public accommodations. J. Gordon McPherson,
a veteran of the Spanish American War, was prevented from serving on a jury
after complaints from several white jurors. State law prohibited interracial
couples from obtaining a marriage license.
Employment opportunities for blacks were generally limited and this influenced
the decision of many young blacks to relocate outside of the state. The
departure of a number of college-educated blacks eroded the potential leadership
pool of blacks who were native born or raised in Utah. Restrictive covenants
limited access to housing. Also, in those places where they were permitted
to enter, blacks had to sit in the balcony section of theaters or stand
outside of the ballrooms where black entertainers were performing. The 1925
lynching of Robert Marshall in Price is an example of the more extreme form
of racial discrimination. The efforts of some white residents to force the
removal of black residents from the area near the City and County Building
in Salt Lake City to prevent visitors from coming in contact with them illustrates
the more common form of race prejudice that existed in Utah.
Some scholars have suggested that the discrimination against African Americans
in Utah was greatly influenced by the development of a policy which denied
Mormon black males the priesthood. The LDS Church maintained that it was
possible to support civil rights and preserve the then existent religious
practice. However, the position that denial of the theological priesthood
had no sociopolitical significance was not accepted by most blacks.
Expanded hotel facilities and dining car services on the railroads in addition
to the building of defense installations such as Hill Field resulted in
the growth of Utah's black population during the World War II era. As significant
numbers of African Americans migrated from the South to the West in search
of better opportunities, a small number selected Utah as their new place
of residence. In addition to finding employment on the railroads or at government
arms manufacturing shops and defense installations, some found employment
at the local hotels and the American Smelter Refining Company.
In the aftermath of World War II, black Utahns, like African Americans in
other parts of the nation, began to focus their attention on issues of racial
injustice on both the community and the national levels. An NAACP branch
was established in Ogden in 1943. The Salt Lake NAACP branch was reinvigorated
and both branches actively supported the quest for civil rights. Non-violent
demonstrations were held in support of the national civil rights agenda
as well as in hopes of influencing the Utah Legislature to pass open housing
legislation. In July 1974 the Salt Lake Chapter of the NAACP filed a suit
on behalf of two black Boy Scouts who were denied leadership posts in a
troop sponsored by the LDS Church. The position of senior patrol leader
was linked with the church priesthood and since blacks could not hold the
priesthood they could not aspire to the senior patrol leadership position.
The suit was dismissed in November 1974 when the LDS Church agreed to open
all positions in church-sponsored scout troops to all boys "without
regard to race or ethnic background."
The racial climate in Utah gradually improved during the 1960s and 1970s.
The United States Supreme Court decision overturning prohibitions against
interracial marriages and the federal government's passage of the 1964 Civil
Rights Act eliminated some of the more overt forms of discrimination. The
Utah legislature, however, has not historically taken a proactive role in
the quest for social justice.
Governor Calvin Rampton appointed Donald Cope in 1972 to serve as the state's
first black ombudsman. One year later, Governor Rampton issued an executive
order creating the Governor's Advisory Council on Black Affairs. A modified
version of this council continues to exist.
On 8 June 1978 the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints issued a letter announcing that the priesthood was open to "all
worthy male members of the Church...without regard to race or color."
This announcement had an immediate impact upon the status of blacks in the
LDS Church, and it possibly portends well for the future status of all African
Americans residing in the state of Utah.
Professional basketball franchises have been a positive influence in improving
the racial climate in Utah. The American Basketball Association's Los Angeles
Stars moved to Salt Lake City in 1970. They changed their name to the Utah
Stars, and some of their black players were popular not only because of
their athletic ability but also for their individual contributions to the
community. In 1979, the National Basketball Association's New Orleans Jazz
relocated to Utah and became the Utah Jazz. The popularity of the NBA coupled
with the organization's public relations efforts involving players and the
team's winning record has elevated some Jazz players to a celebrity status
in the community. The players are looked upon as role models on and off
the court by all segments of the population.
In 1976, the Reverend Robert Harris, a Democrat from Ogden, became the first
African American elected to the Utah State Legislature. Terry Williams,
a Democrat from Salt Lake City, was elected to the Utah House of Representatives
in 1980, and served from 1981 to 1982. Williams was the first African American
to serve in the Utah Senate, representing Senate District One from 1983
to 1986. Governor Scott Matheson appointed Judge Tyrone Medley to the Third
Circuit Court in 1984. The Utah legislature reluctantly voted in 1986 to
make the federal holiday observing Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday a
state holiday. The state holiday is named Martin Luther King/Human Rights
Day. The favorable vote was influenced by external considerations as well
as broad-based support from a cross-section of the Utah populace.
The visibility and acceptance of African Americans in a variety of positions
is gradually increasing at many levels within the state of Utah. Companies
in the private sector such as Delta Airlines, American Express, Northwest
Pipeline, Innovations Consulting, Inc., and Zions Bank realize that they
have a vital interest in promoting diversity and have sought to lead by
example. Public and higher education has also played an important role in
advancing diversity within the workplace and the role of local, state, and
federal governments cannot be overlooked. The recent efforts of the Aryan
Nation, a white supremacist group, to establish an office in the Salt Lake
area were strongly rebuffed by a broad cross-section of the community representing
a variety of racial, religious, political, and ethnic groups. This is in
striking contrast to a non-response to the NAACP's 1979 request that civic
and religious organizations and government officials join in denouncing
the Ku Klux Klan's efforts to actively recruit and spread their message
of hate throughout the state. According to Professor Larry Gerlach of the
University of Utah, an expert on the Klan in Utah, "the silence was
deafening: not a single religious leader, governmental official, or newspaper
publisher publicly voiced opposition to the formation of the Klan."
In 1980 and 1981 opposition to the Klan efforts was expressed by the Episcopal
Diocese of Utah, by Mayor Glen Cannon of Draper, and by the local media.
Most Utahns chose to ignore the issue.
An improved racial climate in Utah for African Americans and other people
of color will depend on increased tolerance, respect for differences, and
awareness of the need for inclusiveness in every facet of community life.
If Utahns can embrace these goals, the state has a great chance to truly
become a "crossroads of the West" in a meaningful sense.
See: Newell Bringhurst, Saint Slaves and Blacks: The Changing Place of
Black People Within Mormonism (1981); Ronald G. Papanikolas, ed., The
Peoples of Utah (1976).
Ronald G. Coleman