Brigham Young and “Slavery in Zion”

Brigham Young and “Slavery in Zion” April 8, 2024

 

Brother Green Flake. sdalfkjlfksjlk
An artistic enhancement and colorization of a public domain 19th-century photograph of Green Flake. Probably taken in Salt Lake City, Utah around the 1890s.

For one of the monthly reading groups to which we belong, we read Amy Tanner Thiriot, Slavery in Zion: A Documentary and Genealogical History of Black Lives and Black Servitude in Utah Territory, 1847-1862 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2022).  Her biography on the back cover of the book identifies Sister Thiriot as “an independent historian and adjunct university instructor in the BYU-Idaho Family History Research program.”

Our discussion was on Sunday night.  The book is not a smoothly flowing historical narrative, but rather a kind of compendium of genealogical information about, and basic biographies of, the one hundred or so enslaved Black people who stayed for at least a brief time between 1847 and 1862 in what later became the State of Utah.  I was impressed by the vast amount of research that Sister Thiriot clearly did in a multitude of (to me, at least) mostly quite obscure sources.  Moreover, Slavery in Zion provided me with a very unaccustomed perspective on an aspect of early pioneer life among my people and in my adopted state.

Candidly, I was dreading the book more than just a little bit.  Brigham Young, for example, famously said several things on racial matters that make me cringe, and I was worried that, among other things, the book would be a litany of horrors in that regard.  But it wasn’t.  Slavery was horribly wrong and unjust, of course, and I’ll have one or two heartrending illustrations of the fact in future posts.  Not in this one, though, which has a different focus.  I intend to draw on the book for what will, most likely, eventually be several blog entries.

First of all, though, let me stipulate what cannot be denied.  Brigham Young and other Latter-day Saint leaders of the pioneer era held racist attitudes that would and should not be tolerated today.  (So did many other leaders and thinkers beyond the Church.)  But Brigham and his associates seem, on the whole, to have held “paternalistic” (87) and, truthfully, relatively humane views toward Blacks, as compared with not a few of their contemporaries,

And the issue arose early.  Along with fellow enslaved Black men Oscar Smith [sometimes called Oscar Crosby] and Hark Wales [sometimes called Hark Lay], Green Flake was among the very first—and possibly the absolute first—to enter into the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.  Indeed, Thomas Bullock records an incident in his diary suggesting how very faithful Green was to Brigham Young’s religious teachings and admonitions.  (73)

The documentary evidence is fragmentary, but after telling three enslaved men that their entry into the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847 mean that they were free, he [Brigham Young] learned to respect Southerners’ claims to slave property: That did not mean that he cared for Southern slavery.  Despite his strong racial views, he disliked both African American and Indigenous slavery, and he tried to find practical and human solutions when presented with specific problems regarding the enslaved.  When a colonizing mission left for San Bernardino in 1851, Brigham Young wrote to William Crosby, “we do not wish to encourage the sale of Blacks in these vallies.”  Latter-day Saint apostle Wilford Woodruff wrote to Thomas L. Kane two years before, “We are a peaceful and industrious people . . . we do not wish to have any thing to do with the ‘vexed question’ of slavery.”  He explained, “[W]e deemed it expedient not to introduce a clause into our constitution prohibiting the introduction of slaves into the State of Deseret, but slavery can never be tolerated there.”  (7-8)

Wilford Woodruff wrote to Thomas L. Kane that “the inhabitants of the State of Deseret will never sustain in any wise the institution of slavery in their midsts.”  (89)

Green Flake (1828-1903) provides a very interesting sample case.  He was baptized in April 1844 and was, as noted above, a member of the very first pioneer company to enter the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, on either 21 July or 22 July 1847.  Later that year, many of the Saints who were newly arrived in the Valley, underwent rebaptism as a symbol of renewed commitment to the Gospel and the Kingdom.  Green Flake was one of those.  He was rebaptized on 8 August 1847, and then reconfirmed by Wilford Woodruff.  (221)

Brigham Young had told Green Flake he was free when he arrived in the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847, but around 1853, he secured Green’s freedom and granted him land for a farm.  When Agnes Flake tried to sell Green in 1854, Brigham Young sidestepped her request, and Green Flake remained a free man.  (18; compare 30, 116, 221)

Martha married Green Flake, probably around 1853.  Their descendants remembered that the couple paid Martha’s former enslavers with produce until Brigham Young told them to stop since they owed the Bankheads nothing.  (162)

In the early 1850s, Brigham Young hired Green Flake, ensured his freedom under the terms of An Act in Relation to Service [on which more later], and provided him with a transition to freedom that included a grant of land in the Salt Lake Valley and ongoing guidance and protection.  (135)

Brother Brigham’s “paternalistic” attitude toward Blacks, which is (by our standards) racist (and probably informed by particularly Southern biblical exegesis of the day) and kindly, is on full display here:

In an ambiguous statement, shortly after Flake began to work for him, Brigham Young said in a sermon, “the Abolitionest are vary fearful that we shall have the Negro or Indian as Slaves Here . . .  The Master of Slaves will be damned if they Abuse their slaves.”  He said, “Yet the Seed of Ham will be servants untill God takes the Curse off . . .  I Have two Blacks.  They are as free as I am.  Shall we lay a foundation for Negro Slavery[?] No God forbid And I forbid.”  (112)

But how did Green Flake feel about Brother Brigham?

Many years after both men died, a granddaughter recalled, “Green shed tears at the death of Brigham Young and helped dig his grave and was at the funeral of the beloved President.”  (114; cf. 222)

Upon the death of Green Flake in 1903, the Deseret News wrote that

Bro. Flake had reached the honorable age of 76, which means, to all who knew him, 76 years of honest, hard work for the betterment of humanity, and for an exaltation in his Father’s kingdom.  (cited at 145)

Here, though, is Sister Thiriot’s judgment on a charge that I have encountered more than once among criticisms of Brigham Young:

For years, authors and journalists have repeated the myth that Green Flake was donated to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as tithing.  The account is based on one late and unreliable memory.  The event only begins to make sense when understood as part of a series of transactions involving five or more enslavers and Brigham Young, who seems to have stepped in and hired Flake when the situation reached an impasse.  (16, 108-114)

And here’s another interesting case:

In early 1860, Brigham Young wrote to [widowed and divorced Duritha] Lewis since he had heard she was frequently asked to sell [an enslaved man named] Jerry.  He advised her that if she must sell him, “ordinary kindness would require that you should sell him to some kind, faithful member of the Church, that he may have a fair opportunity for doing all the good he desires to do or is capable of doing.”  He suggested that since Jerry was forty years old, he was not worth as much as a younger man, but if “the price is sufficiently made, I may conclude to purchase him and set him at liberty.”  (95)

There’s more to come, in a few days.

 

 

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