Thelma Steward and Wallace Thurman were walking down Salt Lake City’s Main Street on a Tuesday afternoon when a group of white soldiers bumped into the young black couple.
At 200 South, one soldier pushed Thurman down and started beating his head against the concrete — without provocation, witnesses later told officers. A few of the other men grabbed Steward, several bystanders reported, forced her into a car and drove toward their military base shouting racist slurs. When the two saw each other again, hours later, they were both covered in bruises and blood.
No one was charged. Police had showed up hours after the attack and never identified the soldiers, who were serving at Fort Douglas during World War I.
The April 1918 attack was mentioned only briefly, days later, in one newspaper, the Salt Lake Telegram. And only one book, written decades later, describes it.
But the little-known assault is credited with having a huge impact in Utah: It united the black community and catalyzed members to form the state’s first branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Steward was named the chapter’s first secretary. Thurman signed up as one of the earliest members.
“They were very active in bringing about change here in Salt Lake City,” said the Rev. France Davis, who presides over Calvary Baptist Church, the state’s most prominent black church, and wrote the book that mentions the attack. “They were the prime movers of civil rights.”
Now, 100 years later, the NAACP branch is marking its centennial year — including the February 1919 election of its first president, the Rev. George Hart, also of Calvary Baptist.
But like the chapter’s origin story, much about the history of the group — formed a decade after the national organization — is either untold or undocumented. State newspapers didn’t commonly cover Utah’s black community until the 1970s; The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News for instance, hardly mentioned the local NAACP until 10 years after it was formed. Even then, articles were brief.
“We haven’t been able to find certain things,” said current President Jeanetta Williams. “There was no place where our records were held.”
In recognition of the centennial, Tribune staffers combed through newspaper clippings, letters sent by the Ku Klux Klan and hundreds of photographs; conducted and read dozens of interviews; and searched through library archives.
This is the story of some of the biggest moments, the proudest accomplishments and the loudest rallying cries from what is today one of the most active civil rights groups in the state.
The early years
In one of the Salt Lake City chapter’s first public actions, NAACP leaders demanded that then-Utah Gov. George Dern take action after the 1925 lynching of a black man in Price.
A group of Price residents slowly hanged Robert Marshall, who was accused of killing a deputy sheriff despite little evidence. When Marshall lost consciousness, the mob lit matches under his bare feet to wake him. Photographs show men, women and children smiling by the tree after he died.
Dern called the event “a crime and a disgrace.” But the 11 men charged with the lynching were later freed without a trial.
Historian Larry Gerlach, who wrote the book “Blazing Crosses in Zion,” said it was common knowledge that the men were part of the KKK, which started in Utah about two years after the NAACP branch.
“Community solidarity (and racism) precluded the grand jury from gathering evidence to bring the lynchers to trial,” Gerlach wrote.
Marshall’s hanging was the last of three documented lynchings of black men in Utah, according to research by The Tribune. In the first, a man was shot and hanged in Weber County in 1869.
Another man was killed in Salt Lake City 14 years later. He was dragged by his neck through town behind a horse, according to Davis. Renowned labor activist Bill Haywood, who was downtown at the time and later wrote an autobiography, briefly mentions the killing. “It seemed to me that the policeman, instead of pushing the Negro into the prison, pushed him into the hands of the mob.”
By the early 1920s, a few years before Marshall’s killing, there were hundreds of KKK members in Utah, some historians say. Members openly burned crosses in Ogden, showed up at police funerals and sent threatening letters. A Salt Lake Telegram article from July 1921 reported that the group was responsible for beating up a black husband and wife in Salt Lake City, who said “five white masked men had suddenly appeared at their home.”
Both the Telegram and The Tribune ran letters from KKK leaders, who said they were just trying to create peace.
In 1998, the town of Price gave Marshall a gravestone that called him “a victim of intolerance.” It was a move supported by the NAACP as a way to heal and move on.
1930s to 1960s: Years of segregation
Marian Anderson, an internationally recognized opera singer, was invited to Utah in 1937 to perform at Kingsbury Hall. When she arrived at the Hotel Utah — where most celebrities stayed — staffers wouldn’t allow her inside because she was black. The NAACP arranged for her to stay with one of its members, as it did for other performers.
The next year, the hotel gave Anderson a room but required her to use the freight elevator. “She was required to eat in her room, too, even though she sang with the Utah Symphony and was invited in by a bunch of white women,” Davis said.
In 1939, according to an essay by retired University of Utah professor Ronald Coleman, white residents signed a petition to restrict black residents to housing in just one area of Salt Lake City.
Segregation continued in Utah for decades. Stores had signs that said, “We don’t serve colored here.” Black people were required to sit in the balconies at theaters. Hospitals kept blood donations from black and white individuals separate. A roller rink allowed in people of color only on certain nights. Restaurants made black patrons eat outside. Nightclubs and bars banned the community.
Women worked as maids and men worked as chauffeurs, but many employers refused to hire black workers. NAACP member Albert Fritz, who later served as president, worked out a historic agreement in 1939 with the American Smelting and Refining Co. to hire 75 black workers. They were paid $3 a day.
Most of that segregation slowly ended, Coleman told The Tribune, through “nonviolent direct protests” (a favorite phrase of Martin Luther King Jr.) in the late 1950s and early ′60s.
The NAACP organized college students, including Coleman, then an undergraduate at the U., to march and lobby for a ban on racial discrimination. They told lawmakers they couldn’t find housing because no landlords in the city would rent to black residents. They helped draft HB87, which would have made it “an offense to exclude a person from public places because of his color or national origin.”
It didn’t pass in 1957, when it first ran or the next year. Six years later, Utah was the only state outside of the South that still didn’t have civil rights legislation, according to an article at the time in The Daily Utah Chronicle.
1960s: A new activism
In 1964, the federal Civil Rights Act passed. In 1965, Utah crafted its own version. Then it also adopted a fair employment act. Lobbying by the NAACP was the spur for most of what lawmakers did for equality, said James Dooley, who became NAACP president in the late 1960s.
“It was the only organization that was trying to bring about the changes,” Fritz agreed in a 1983 oral interview kept by the U.’s Marriott Library.
Because The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints barred black members from holding the priesthood, the NAACP called on the faith in May 1965 to stop sending missionaries to proselytize in countries that were dominantly nonwhite, particularly African nations.
“How can they exercise a Christian attitude towards these black nations when none has been shown to less than 10,000 Negroes in Utah?” Patty Carter, an executive board member of the local NAACP, wrote in a letter to The Daily Utah Chronicle, the U.’s student newspaper
In the 1960s, The Chronicle was largely the only Utah newspaper regularly writing about civil rights and discrimination in the state. In 1963, it reported that Utah had long been called “the eleventh Southern state” for its rampant bigotry.
The NAACP continued to hold protests and “prayer marches” at the church’s office building downtown.
After Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in 1968, the branch organized a solemn march in his honor. It was one of the biggest ever held in the state, even to this day.
“I remember that we must have had 12,000 or 15,000 people marching right here in Salt Lake City,” Dooley said in the 1983 interview preserved by the Marriott Library. “When the first people got back,” the last people had “just begun to start moving out.”
1970s: Litigation and negotiation help drive change
To register black voters, NAACP members would drive a van around Salt Lake City using speakers to urge, “Get out the vote.” Members followed behind with the forms to fill out. But, in 1971, the City Council passed an ordinance banning the strategy.
The group got an injunction and was able to continue its drives, which "resulted in a much larger representation in terms of voters,” said attorney Jim McIntyre, now 77, who represented the NAACP in the case.
There are many accounts of Utah teachers being prejudiced against black students. One girl said her instructors would call her “the colored child.” Another said her teacher gave all of the white students valentine cards but none to the black kids in the class. Blacks were considered “ignorant and lazy and shiftless and dirty and unkempt,” Salt Lake City resident Dorris Frye said in a 1984 interview.
The issue came to a boiling point in 1972, when a music instructor at West High School openly and repeatedly called two black students “n-----s.”
The district didn’t want to fire the teacher. So when the NAACP stepped in, administrators agreed to suspend him and hire some black teachers.
Alberta Henry, the first hire, was the first black person to ever work for Salt Lake City School District. Her title was “minority consultant,” and she served mainly as a liaison between the district and the black community.
Don Thomas, who was superintendent at the time, recently told The Tribune that he wanted Henry to report directly to him when she saw cases of bias. That upset some teachers and principals. They complained that she didn’t have a college degree (she didn’t until 1980). They said she would turn them in to the NAACP (she didn’t). They said she would change the curriculum (she did — to add more black history).
“They were ignorant. They had no experience with blacks,” said Thomas, now in his 90s. (He was also an unusual choice for superintendent, hailing from Chicago and the first non-Mormon to hold the position in decades.)
The superintendent said he gave Henry contracts to go to other states and recruit black teachers. Two years in, she had hired 25. Thomas gave every principal $20 to have coffee with Henry and get to know her. Staff had monthly meetings at black restaurants.
Before Henry came on, he said, about 2 percent of the student body was black. But that group had an 80 percent dropout rate. By the time she left in 1986, the dropout rate was 11 percent.
“Her attitude was that we were never moving fast enough,” Thomas said. “I thought we were moving faster than I ever expected.”
In 1975, Henry told The Tribune: “My primary concern is seeing that anyone, any color, gets an education if he or she wants one.”
She later served at president of the NAACP in Salt Lake City, from 1980 until 1992, and died in 2005.
The NAACP turned to the courts again after two Boy Scouts were denied leadership posts in July 1974 because they were black.
The Boy Scouts of America did not discriminate. But in Utah, troops sponsored by the LDS Church required patrol leaders to be deacons’ quorum presidents — which boys were eligible for at age 12. But the church banned black boys and men from the priesthood.
In an initial statement, the NAACP said: “While we very reluctantly acknowledge the LDS Church’s legal right to maintain its doctrine excluding blacks from the priesthood, we are outraged when that doctrine finds expression in the church’s secular activities.”
McIntyre, who had worked on the voter registration case, offered to help after the group had trouble finding a lawyer. Before the boys appeared in court, the faith’s leaders offered a settlement: They would no longer require boys to hold church leadership to move up in Scouts, but they would not change priesthood requirements.
The NAACP, though, continued to put pressure on the issue. Coleman, the retired U. professor, said the group believed “denial implies inferiority” and wanted black church members to be treated equally.
On June 8, 1978, after NAACP lawsuits, a few excommunications and a damning series on the issue published by The Associated Press, church leaders announced that “every faithful, worthy man,” regardless of race, could be ordained, and black women would be allowed in the faith’s temples.
The ban had begun in 1852 with Brigham Young, the church’s second president, who was said to be influenced by the attitudes of the time. Many in the faith had believed it was commanded by God and that dark skin was the “curse” placed on Cain, who, according to the Bible, killed his brother Abel.
“None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the church,” the faith said in an essay in 2013.
Though there weren’t a large number of NAACP members in the church, the group also fought to lift the ban because it believed the policy influenced others in Utah to treat blacks as second-class citizens.
“I thought it would, in time, have an impact on the overall racial climate within the state,” Coleman said.
1980s to 2000: A sniper reignites racism — and activism
As four joggers — two black men and two white women — ran through Liberty Park, a sniper watched. From a nearby vacant field, he fired his rifle six times.
He hit and killed both of the men, 20-year-old Theodore Fields and 18-year-old David Martin.
Police initially downplayed any suggestion that the August 1980 killings were racially motivated because “there is absolutely no evidence to substantiate that,” Chief Bud Willoughby said at the time.
But The Tribune called it “one of the worst racial incidents in Salt Lake City’s history.” And the NAACP, witnesses at the later trial for shooter Joseph Paul Franklin, and Franklin echoed that interpretation.
Franklin, who was sentenced to life in prison for the attacks (and was later executed for other slayings of black people), told the courts he couldn’t tolerate interracial couples and was formerly associated with the KKK. He said he aimed for the two black boys, though he hit one of the 15-year-old girls in the arm.
The NAACP planted trees and put a plaque in the park as a memorial. Dooley, in his final year as president, said “their deaths were not in vain.” The shooting reinvigorated the group — but also reignited racial attacks.
“It just raised the water to a boil,” Coleman recalled.
The black community and the police already had a tense relationship. It got worse. The NAACP had volunteers walk through Salt Lake City’s park to watch for and document harassment by officers.
The KKK in Utah, after years of being dormant, started sending letters threatening to tar and feather black individuals and run them out of town.
“I would get letters, telephone calls, glue poured all over my car, all four of my tires cut, rocks through the window, rocks through the NAACP window,” Dooley said.
Davis, who had recently stepped in to lead Calvary Baptist Church, found his office vandalized and 27 bullet holes in the walls.
“It was scary because crosses were being burned, bullets were being fired into peoples’ offices and houses,” he said. “It was a tough place to be alive. But I was determined to bring about changes here in Utah.”
One success: After years of lobbying, the group persuaded lawmakers in 2000 to rename the state’s “Human Rights Day” to specifically honor Martin Luther King Jr.
Now: ‘More movements to come’
France Davis moved to Utah in 1972. Since then, he’s kept a manila folder stuffed with death threats.
A typewritten one, dated January 1996, promises, “The KKK is active, alive and well” and armed with gasoline and matches. An older one has a drawing of a gorilla and suggests, “Any one of you black apes caught ‘making eyes’ at a white girl will be beaten with bats.” The most recent one is addressed to “you f---ing Obama luvin’ n----.”
They’ve never stopped arriving.
“I could handle it, but when my wife got a letter, she was scared to death,” said Davis, quietly sifting through the stack.
The folder reminds him, he said, that Utah has and continues to struggle with racism.
But, mixed in with the letters, he’s saved newspaper clippings that describe work by the NAACP branch, reminders of times when the very people who have been beaten, abused and mistreated stepped up to defend themselves.
When the branch in Salt Lake City started in 1918, rosters show there were 45 members. Today, there are 500.
The group is now working with Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City and the only black member of the state Legislature, to remove language permitting slavery from the Utah Constitution. “It’s old and it’s outdated language,” she said.
Williams, the current president, said members are also trying to get more people to run for office, fighting a lack of visibility and pushing for a workable hate crimes law.
Above all, the group continues to rally, too, for things it has since its inception: fair housing, jobs, accommodations and equality. And, nationally, the NAACP is working with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to repair relationships and craft education and employment initiatives.
The local chapter is working with another civil rights group, Black Lives Matter, hoping to stop discrimination and shootings by officers against people of color — which, in some ways, echoes issues raised by the lack of action after the 1918 attack on Thelma Steward and Wallace Thurman.
Last year, both groups worked to have a family take down black effigies hanging from a tree as Halloween decorations. Both work with Salt Lake City police to review body camera footage.
“We are doing the exact same things,” said Black Lives Matter’s Utah leader Lex Scott. “We’re just not doing them in suits. We’re doing them in jeans.”
Many of her group’s tactics are based on what early civil rights leaders and the NAACP have done, she said. “They were considered controversial and rabble-rousers, too.”
“There will be more movements to come,” Scott added. “We have a long way to go.”
— Director of Photography Jeremy Harmon contributed to this story.
Do you have a family story or another connection to the history of the NAACP in Utah? Send your insights to reporter Courtney Tanner at firstname.lastname@example.org.