Romney and Race: A Family Debt
Editor's Note: This is the sixth in a series telling the stories of significant black Mormons in history. Read earlier posts:
George Wilcken Romney: Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; Civil Rights activist; Governor of Michigan; Mitt's dad. His middle name—Wilcken—comes from his maternal great-grandfather, Charles Henry Wilcken, a man whose life was saved by one of the first African Americans to join the LDS religion: Elijah Abel, baptized in 1832. Abel was the first black man to be ordained to the LDS priesthood under the hands of Church founder, Joseph Smith, Jr.—a fact that may come as a surprise to many who think no one of African descent was permitted into the Mormon priesthood until 1978.
Wilcken was a "special police officer" in Salt Lake City. In this role, he was summoned to a scene in 1883 that would be the backdrop of a tragedy.
The chain of events started at a restaurant owned by African American entrepreneurs Francis and Mary Grice. The Grices had offered a job to a black ex-soldier, Sam Joe Harvey. When Harvey (who was drunk) learned that the proposed job was twelve miles outside the city, he let out a torrent of profanities. As Grice pushed him out the door, Harvey pulled a .44 pistol. Grice called the police. Marshall Andrew Burt and Charles Wilcken answered the call, as did the aging Elijah Abel, likely because he was black.
In the midst of the chaos, Sam Joe Harvey escaped and then returned, having added a rifle to his arsenal. When Marshall Burt approached him, Harvey raised the rifle and asked, "Are you an officer?" Upon Burt's affirmative reply, Harvey fired. Burt was killed. In the ensuing scuffle, Elijah Abel and Charles Wilcken attempted to wrestle the gun from Harvey. Wilcken grabbed the ex-soldier by the throat, but Harvey was still armed, and fired a shot into Wilcken's arm. Bleeding profusely, Wilcken still managed to push his assailant into a ditch. Now Harvey aimed his pistol directly at Wilcken's chest, preparing to fire. At that moment, Elijah Abel leapt to the rescue and twisted the gun out of Harvey's hands. Wilcken survived.
Judge Lynch then swept into Utah.
Sam Joe Harvey was bound and taken to jail, but the guards were quickly persuaded to let him out, and to turn him over to the gathering crowd.
Newspaper accounts (gathered by Harold Schindler in his In Another Time, 166-69) spare no detail:
He was swarmed over, stomped, and beaten while men ran about yelling for rope. Harness straps cut from teams in front of city hall were passed forward and, when they were found too short, used to whip the wretched prisoner. Still he struggled to break free. . .
A crudely made noose was pulled roughly over Harvey's head as he squirmed to wrench free. Hands reached out to drag him another hundred feet to a shed west of the yard. The rope was tossed over a main beam. Men grabbed the rope and hoisted Harvey by the neck several feet from the ground. . .From the moment he was pulled up he reached above his head for the rope as if to ease the noose that was strangling him. One of the crowd leaped to a carriage nearby and kicked first one hand, then the other until Harvey let go. He gasped, his body jerking in a final spasm before his arms dropped limply to his side.
Margaret Blair Young teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University. Her best known novels include the Standing on the Promises trilogy, co-authored with Darius Gray. These three books give the history, with some fictional liberties taken, of Black Mormon pioneers. The updated and revised versions will soon be available through Zarahemla Press and at Amazon.com. Gray and Young also made the documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, now available wherever LDS books are sold, and shown monthly on the Documentary Channel. Young is currently working on a film about Mormon missionaries in Africa, titled Heart of Africa.