Living History: Slaves arrived in Utah with Brigham Young

The Salt Lake Tribune/February 19, 2010

Listed on the Brigham Young Monument on Temple Square are the members of the first pioneer company to enter the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847.

Three of the names are set just a little apart from the others under the subhead: Colored Servants. These are Green Flake, Oscar Crosby and Hark Lay.

Crosby and Lay accompanied their Mormon masters to California to establish a colony in San Bernardino in 1851. California law prohibited slavery and it is assumed the two became freemen.

Green Flake has a deeper history in Utah. He was baptized in April 1844, by John Brown, an elder but not the radical abolitionist of Bleeding Kansas fame. Loaned to Young by his Southern master, along with a mountain carriage and team, Green was to go ahead with the first company. It was in that wagon, with Green Flake at the reins, that Young entered the valley.

A trickle of blacks entered the state over the following years, both as freemen and in company with their masters.

The real status of these "Colored Servants" became obscured over the years by apocryphal stories of blacks being offered their freedom, but devotedly choosing to remain with their "masters." In reality, when offered freedom, most blacks grabbed their liberty with both hands and high-tailed it to California.

Some are remembered in a newspaper article from 1899 as gazing at the snow-capped mountains surrounding the valley and wondering how -- oh how! -- they could escape to more temperate climes, and comparing their servitude in Utah as being as cruel as that on any plantation.

Slavery in Utah had the weight of law behind it. In 1852, the Utah territorial legislature passed legislation that allowed ownership of human being. Called, "An Act in Relation to Service," it detailed the rights and obligations of "master or mistress" to "servants of the African race."

After establishing fines for having sex with one's slave, the act makes the master liable for feeding, sheltering and clothing his property. He is also free to "correct and punish his servant in a reasonable manner when it may be necessary, being guided by prudence and humanity."

The master was also obligated to provide a total of 18 months education to his slaves between the ages of six and 26 years old; high school, junior high and most of elementary education being deemed a waste of time.

In fact, there was a two-track system of slavery in Utah. Not only were blacks being legally bought and sold in the territory, Indians could also be slaves, though on different terms. The restriction on sex was not mentioned and Indians in bondage had the right to three months of education per year.

The sale of slaves, while rare given how few blacks were in the territory (the 1860 Census lists 59 in Utah, 29 of them slaves) is well-documented. The founder of Brigham Young Academy, Abraham O. Smoot, took a slave whom he'd purchased from the Bankhead brothers with him to Provo. Marina Redd was sold by John Hardison Redd, of American Fork, to a Dr. Pinney of Salem.

Then there is the account of Green Flake's owner dying in an accident in Utah in 1850 and his widow giving Green to the church as a tithing payment. Green worked for Young and Heber Kimball for two years, then was granted his freedom.

A dozen years later, the Civil War effectively nullified Utah's official stand on slavery.

Pat Bagley is The Salt Lake Tribune's editorial cartoonist.

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