Romney and Race: A Family Debt
The final insult to Harvey's body was yet to come. It was taken down, tied to the back of a buggy, and dragged through the streets while the crowd cheered.
The mob mentality was condemned by LDS Church leaders and individual pioneers after the fact. Rachel Woolley Simmons wrote in her journal:
A tragedy . . . Andrew Burt was shot by a Negro that he was called to arrest . . . This enraged the bystanders to such frenzy that they lynched the murderer on the spot . . . I think the mob were on a par with the murderer . . . I am sorry it happened in our city, it don't show a Christian feeling.
We have no way of knowing how much of this history George Wilcken Romney heard from his great-grandfather's own mouth. George Romney was eight years old when Wilcken died. There would have been an opportunity for conversation, since the Romney family returned from Mexico and settled in Idaho four years before Wilcken's death. It is hard to imagine that the Romneys wouldn't have visited family en route to their new destination, or that the story would have been forgotten. The event was mentioned in Wilcken's obituary, though Elijah Abel's part in it was not.
This story could well have been foundational for George Wilcken Romney, who took bold, defiant stands in favor of the Civil Rights Movement—at a time when the LDS Church restricted priesthood from men of African descent. Did the Romney children know the history of the man who saved their ancestor's life, or of the shameful lynching that came afterward? Lynchings are etched into the crawl spaces of U.S. history, but this one in particular is directly tied to the experiences of Charles Wilcken—and the hero, for Wilcken's family, was a black man.
Mitt Romney would do well to learn more about his own family's past and the part that black pioneers played in it. He and all those involved in government owe a debt to the past and a promise to the future.
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.