Utah is the fastest growing state in the nation, according to data from the 2020 U.S. Census — and some of that exponential growth comes from the state’s burgeoning Black community.
A new book, compiled by the head of the Utah Black Chamber, is filled with testimonies from entrepreneurs, artists and business owners who are part of that story.
“Black Utah: Stories from a Thriving Community” is a collection of interviews with Black Utahns — a group ranging in age from 26 to 86, and includes musician Bri Ray, ballet dancer Katlyn Addison, Rev. France Davis, his son France II and his wife Melanie, and state legislator Sandra Hollins — talking about their experiences in Utah. (The book is on sale now on Amazon.)
James Jackson III, the executive director of the Utah Black Chamber, interviewed the 33 trailblazers profiled in the book. The motivation to compile the interviews into a book in 10 months came from a simple fact: The Utah Black Chamber has been around for 13 years, yet people are still just finding out about it. “It’s [about] putting the Black community on the map,” he said, “[to] connect with them more, identify opportunities to help them out, to let the overall community know there is a Black community here for them.”
Census data shows that 1.5% of Utah’s overall population identifies as Black, making it one of five states in the country with only 2% of its population identifying as Black. (The others are New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and Wyoming.)
The census also found the West as the region of the country with the smallest population of Black people, at 10%.
But while Utah’s Black community may be small, in relation to the entire state, the book shows it’s flourishing.
The Utah Black Chamber has 360 members. Some were born and raised in the state, others are transplants. All, Jackson believes, have stories to share.
The power of lived experiences
Aanjel Clayton is a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant for the consulting firm Shift SLC and the recruiting platform PowertoFly. She’s also the director of New Pattern Utah, a coalition that supports Black women-owned businesses.
Clayton, who grew up in Utah and was educated in the Davis School District, said she hopes her contribution to the book can offer something to the younger generation: Representation of a new wave of Black society.
Her conversation with Jackson centers around growing up in Utah and on her DEI work. In a way, it comes full circle. Clayton said she grew up with an “ingrained respect” for elders in the community and learning from them.
“I never really saw anyone [in their] 20s or 30s really in the spotlight or heard about the impacts that they were making [in] the community,” Clayton said. “So I always thought, ‘Oh, you got to be like older to start doing stuff right?’”
Clayton added that it’s important for younger people to see someone like themselves in society. “I think oftentimes high schoolers and young folks, they make significant impacts on history … for them to see there are younger people that are taken seriously, there are younger people whose voices are heard and who are making a positive impact on our space,” she said.
The same thread of thinking is found in Betty Sawyer’s testimony for the book. Sawyer is the president of the Ogden branch of the NAACP, and a co-founder of the Project Success Coalition, which organizes Ogden’s annual Juneteenth festival. Sawyer is a self-described “East coast transplant,” and her interview focuses on her move to the state.
Sawyer said there are recognizable themes throughout the book, like hard work and perseverance, but there’s an unspoken power to hearing stories.
“The other part is the value of people’s lived experiences,” she said. “Someone else may be inspired to write a book, to tell their story, and that’s something that we don’t do a lot of — recognizing the power of storytelling is a part of our culture.”
Working on the book allowed Jackson to connect with these individuals on a personal level, rather than just a business one. It allowed them, as a community, to explore different facets of Black culture. It’s a nod toward the broader idea of what it means to be Black in Utah.
Jackson notes that his organization changed its name from the Utah African-American Chamber to the Utah Black Chamber for that exact reason, because Black is more inclusive.
Sawyer noted that “oftentimes, we’re looking at the majority culture, but recognizing too in the book that our culture is not monolithic. There’s just not one Black culture in Utah.”
The book is divided into nine chapters, based on different experiences of background. Jackson said he’ll always remember the way this project allowed him to connect to people he’d only met in passing before, such as Addison, a principal artist at Ballet West and one of the few Black prima ballerinas in the country. Or, how Jackson learned that Chef Julius Thompson, the owner of Sauce Boss Southern Kitchen, has been on his own since high school. Thompson put himself through school and navigated from Chicago to Ogden, and eventually pursued his dream of becoming a chef and making people happy through food.
The book, Jackson said, is a chance for Black Utahns to tell their own positive stories, and clue people into what’s actually happening in their community.
“I think this whole process [has] helped humanize who we are,” Sawyer said. “People have a tendency to just watch or pay attention to what they may see on television, but not that these are living, breathing communities that are throughout the state of Utah.”