By Ronald G. Coleman

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 City community.

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 American community.

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.

Disclaimer: Information on this site was converted from a hard cover book published by University of Utah Press in 1994. Any errors should be directed towards the University of Utah Press.