This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
This might or might not be news to you: Some of Utah's early settlers had black slaves.
The three blacks who came with Brigham Young's party were slaves. The LDS Church's twelve apostles had asked the members in Mississippi to send men to help with the westward emigration. John Brown (who would become bishop of Pleasant Grove for 29 years) and others decided to provide four slaves; Brown would go along to "take charge of them." As they traveled to Council Bluffs, the weather turned severely cold, "which was extremely hard on the negroes," Brown wrote. Two of the slaves died from "winter fever." The other two, Hark Lay and Oscar Crosby, accompanied the First Company westward. ("Hark was always hard to manage," reminisced Amasa Lyman Jr.)
Green Flake, the third black, was born a slave in North Carolina and, along with his master's family, converted to Mormonism. James Flake, his master, sent Green, a carriage and mules to Brigham Young to help with the journey. Later, Mrs. Flake "donated" Green to the LDS Church as "tithing." Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball used his labor for two years, then granted him freedom.
Slave "tithing" was not unheard-of. In 1857, John Brown "consecrated and deeded" to the church an "African Servant Girl" worth $1,000.
LDS apostle Orson Hyde explained in 1851: "We feel it to be our duty to define our position in relation to the subject of Slavery. There are several men in the Valley of the Salt Lake from the Southern States who have slaves with them. [These included non-Mormons; for instance, Judge William Drummond had a slave.]
"When a man in the Southern States embraces our faith, and is the owner of slaves, the church says to him, if your slaves wish to remain with you, and to go with you, put them not away; but if they choose to leave you, or are not satisfied to remain with you, it is for you to sell them, or to let them go free, as your own conscience may direct. The laws of the land recognize slavery, and we do not wish to oppose the laws of the country. If there is sin in selling a slave, let the individual who sells him bear that sin, and not the church."
One man, named Williams Camp, chose to sell. In 1856 his slave "Dan" escaped, and Camp forcibly brought him back. Charges of kidnapping were brought against Camp, and according to Hosea Stout, "there was great excitement on the occasion" corresponding to the nationwide controversy over slavery. The court acquitted Camp, but maybe Dan was too troublesome; he sold Dan to Thomas Williams, who in 1859 sold the same " 'negro boy' Dan" (26 years old!) to William Hooper.
The Millennial Star editorialized in 1851 that "slaves that are [in Utah] appear to be perfectly contented and satisfied."
However, according to the Black newspaper Broad Ax, former slave Alexander Bankhead recalled in 1899 that "the slaves always congregated in a large room or hall on State street. There they would discuss their condition, and gaze in wonderment at the lofty mountains, which reared their snowy peaks heavenward, and completely forbade them from ascertaining how they could make their escape back to the South, or to more congenial climes. For we were assured that their lives in the then new wilderness, was far from being happy, and many of them were subjected to the same treatment that was accorded the plantation negroes of the South. Mr. and Mrs. Bankhead now own a little home, including twenty acres of land. They are both devout and strict Mormons."
The attitudes of the time may astound us now. But instead of just criticizing the past, we might let history influence us to look at ourselves. Are there any people whom we ourselves are exploiting or treating as less deserving of basic rights?
* KRISTEN ROGERS-IVERSEN can be reached at email@example.com.
Sources: Article by Ronald G. Coleman in Peoples of Utah; articles by Jack Beller and Dennis Lythgoe in Utah Historical Quarterly; The Salt Lake Tribune, May 31, 1939.