Vera Black, whose children were taken away because she was a polygamist in a landmark Utah case, dies at 102

(Tribune file photo) Vera Johnson Black's children, left to right, Wilford, Orson, Francis, Emily, Lillian, Elsie and Spenser. The children were placed in state custody after the 1953 raid on Short Creek, which lead to a Utah Supreme Court case that set precedent and is still a cause célèbre for polygamists and their detractors.

Vera Black, who made international news in the 1950s when she let the state of Utah remove her children rather than teach them polygamy was wrong, died Monday in Colorado City, Ariz. She was 102.

One of her sons, Harold Black, said she died in the home of her oldest living daughter. Black had been bedridden for about 30 years after suffering a series of strokes. Her death happened the day before a new Utah law took effect reducing the offense for polygamy among consenting adults from a felony to an infraction — less than some traffic tickets.

In the more than 60 years since Black let her children go into state care, then got them back after she and her husband made the promises Utah sought, the case of the Black family has been a cause célebrè for both polygamists and their detractors. Polygamists and sympathetic scholars and authors have seen the custody case as a government oppressing a religious minority.

Arizona’s 1953 raid on Short Creek, near its border with Utah, which happened a few months before proceedings against the Blacks began, and the custody case have been cited as a reason for a multigenerational mistrust by polygamists of child welfare and protection agencies. Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, to which Black and many of her descendants belonged, compared Utah’s treatment of the Blacks to what Texas did in 2008, when it removed children from the Yearning for Zion ranch.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Vera Black and Dan Barlow in 2008 in Colorado City, Ariz.

Critics of polygamy have appreciated the 1955 Utah Supreme Court decision that upheld the children’s removal. That ruling, which has been cited in subsequent polygamy cases, found the religious protections in the Utah Constitution did not extend to polygamy.

The opinion also said the Black kids met the state’s definition of neglected children due to what the Utah Supreme Court described as “an immoral environment.”

“The good name of this State and its people,” the majority opinion said, “committed to sustaining a high moral standard, must not be obliged to suffer because of the unsavory social life of [the Blacks] and others claiming the constitutional right under the guise of religious freedom to bring shame and embarrassment to the people of this state. ... There must be no compromise with evil."

Still, the state’s high court gave Black and her husband, Leonard Black, an option: The children could remain with their mother as long as she did not live with their father. Vera Black also had to sign an agreement to teach her children that polygamy was against the law and that she would discourage them from entering the practice.

The first condition was not an issue. Leonard Black had two other wives with whom he could stay. But Vera Black refused to sign any such statement critical of polygamy.

“It is an upright life,” she said of polygamy.

She changed her mind June 11, 1956, almost five months after seven of her children had entered a foster home in Provo. (Then-4-year-old Vaughn was ill and had been allowed to stay with his mom.) With the state making plans to place at least some of the younger children for adoption, Leonard and Vera Black appeared in front of 6th District Juvenile Court Judge Durham Morris.

Vera Black signed the agreement and gave verbal promises to the judge. Leonard Black testified he would teach his children to obey Utah laws and that he would support them.

The family was reunited two days later.

“I don’t like to go back on some of the things I believe,” Black told The Salt Lake Tribune the day of the reunion, “but my children are my first responsibility.”

Polygamous roots

(Tribune file photo) Commissioner Edith Garner gives Vera Johnson Black final instructions at the state hospital. Seven of Black's children were placed in state custody after the 1953 raid on Short Creek.

Black was born into Mormon-based polygamy as Vera Johnson on Dec. 5, 1917, in Fredonia, Ariz., to Warren Elmer Johnson and Viola Spencer. Her paternal grandfather was a polygamist who bought the Colorado River ferry in Lees Ferry, Ariz., from John D. Lee’s widow after Lee was executed for his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

One of Vera Black’s paternal uncles was Leroy Sunderland Johnson, who was the leader of the Short Creek community — later incorporated into the adjacent towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. — and the prophet of what became the FLDS.

The Johnson family belonged to the group of so-called Mormon fundamentalists who lived along the Utah-Arizona line and continued practicing polygamy after the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began to abandon plural marriage in 1890.

Leonard Black legally married his first wife, Verna Colvin, in 1928. He entered into a “spiritual marriage” with Vera Johnson about 1934 or 1935, according to court documents, and she started using his surname. Not long after that union, Leonard Black spiritually married Vera’s sister, Larna.

| courtesy of the Utah Historical Society Leroy S. Johnson talks on July 26, 1953, in this photo from the state of Arizona's raid on the Short Creek polygamous community. The photo is part of a collection made available from Salt Lake Tribune negatives digitized by the Utah Historical Society.

The family’s troubles began — as they did for everyone living in Short Creek — on July 26, 1953. Police and agents from Arizona stormed the community and removed 263 children and mothers, including Vera Black’s two sister wives.

Vera Black and her children lived on the Utah side. Then-Utah Gov. J. Bracken Lee declined to have his state join Arizona in the sweep. But after the arrests, according to “Kidnapped From That Land: The Government Raids on the Short Creek Polygamists” by Martha Sonntag Bradley, the Arizona attorney general called Utah 6th District Juvenile Court Judge David F. Anderson.

The Arizona official expressed concern for Short Creek children north of the state line. Anderson convened a meeting with juvenile probation and welfare agents, and an investigation of the Utah polygamists’ children got underway.

By December 1953, Anderson was considering 20 petitions alleging a total of 80 children were being neglected by parents who were not teaching them proper morals. According to Bradley’s book and later scholarly works, Vera and Leonard Black’s children were picked as test cases.

Vera Black was turning 36 years old. Her children and their ages at some point in 1953 were Orson, 17; Lillian, 12; Spencer, 10; Elsie, 8; Emily, 6; Wilford, 5; Ivan, 4; and Vaughn, 1.

Photos courtesy the Utah Historical Society This photo is from the 1953 Short Creek raid.

The mother and children lived in a two-room home with no indoor plumbing, according to court records. The austerity and the fact five of Leonard Black’s older daughters with his other wives had already entered into plural marriages became the rationale for the Utah Department of Public Welfare to declare Vera Black’s children neglected.

During a March 1954 trial, the Blacks acknowledged they had a polygamous marriage but said they had not lived together since the raid. Anderson, who visited Vera Black’s home to investigate the living conditions, found her household an “immoral environment” and ordered their children into foster care.

A welfare agent arrived at Vera Black’s door on June 4, 1954, to take her seven oldest children. At the urging of Juanita Brooks, the famed Mormon historian who viewed what was happening to the Blacks as an outrage, Vera Black insisted she accompany her children. She was allowed to ride with them as far as Cedar City before she was directed to get out of the car and say goodbye.

Winning, losing

That same month, Vera and Leonard Black scored a legal victory. A state district court judge in St. George found Anderson’s ruling unconstitutional. The children were allowed to come home within a week of the new ruling.

(Tribune file photo) Vera Johnson Black's children, left to right, Wilford, Orson, Francis, Emily, Lillian, Elsie and Spencer. The children were placed in state custody after the 1953 raid on Short Creek, which lead to a Utah Supreme Court.

The 1955 Utah Supreme Court decision then restored Anderson’s order. The children were allowed to remain with Vera Black while she and her husband appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The nation’s top court declined to hear the case in December 1955, ending the parents’ legal options. When the parents refused final offers to disavow polygamy and promise not to teach it to their children, the Blacks received a notice that welfare agents would come for the children Jan. 10, 1956. The notice included a request for Vera Black to have her seven oldest children ready to travel.

A crowd of Short Creek residents gathered at Vera Black’s home in a show of support. But no one tried to prevent the Washington County sheriff and welfare agents from taking the kids. (A similar scene played out when Texas authorities entered the FLDS temple in 2008. Sect members stood in front in protest but did not attempt to stop law enforcement from going inside.)

Journalists from United Press wire service were in Short Creek and published an account that ran in newspapers across the country. The article quoted young Wilford saying, “I’m not going, Mommy, I’m not going.” Ten-year-old Elsie insisted she would take the family cat with her, though the article didn’t say whether the feline made it to Provo.

Two days later, United Press took photographs of Vera Black giving a goodbye hug to her children at the Provo foster home. One photo has since been placed in the Library of Congress.

Vera Black was allowed to visit her children. Orson, who by then was 19 but went with his siblings, was permitted to travel for work and schooling. Meanwhile, public lobbying continued.

When the governor declined to intervene, Vera Black held a news conference in Provo seeking sympathy for her cause.

“I just couldn’t sign that document,” she said. “It was against my conscience and my religion. God help me to regain my children.”

Personal trials

Utah’s plans to place her younger children for adoption changed Vera Black’s thinking. She agreed to the state’s terms and was reunited with her children.

By then, Utah had altered its approach to dealing with plural families. Those other Short Creek custody cases were adjudicated without removing the children.

The Blacks returned to Short Creek. Vera and Leonard Black had two more sons, Harold, in 1959, and Sheldon, in 1962, but life didn’t return to normal.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Vera Black in 2008.

When he came home, Wilford showed severe symptoms of what would eventually be diagnosed as autism. Family and social service providers have helped care for him ever since. Through the years, the Blacks have attributed his autism to the trauma of being separated from his mother. They have not offered any medical evidence for the claim, but their supporters have used it to criticize Utah’s treatment of the family.

When a dispute over governance split the polygamists in Short Creek during the 1980s, Vera Black’s family opted to follow her uncle Leroy Johnson and the man who would succeed him, Rulon Jeffs. That group officially incorporated as the FLDS in 1991.

By then, strokes had left Vera Black largely uncommunicative and dependent on her family. She spent her final decades living with her children as they provided her around-the-clock care.

For the Black family members, comparisons between what they went through and the 2008 Texas raid were not abstract. Some of Vera Black’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren were among the 468 kids Texas authorities placed into protective custody. This time, no one was forced to renounce polygamy or pledge not to teach it. Two months after the children were removed, the Texas Supreme Court effectively ordered the children back to their families.

In a 2018 interview, Harold Black said his mother and siblings eventually took the view that their separation during the 1950s was a trial — the personal and spiritual kind — that made them stronger.

"She didn’t believe in holding [hard] feelings or anything,” he said.

Vera Black is survived by 10 of her children — her oldest daughter died in infancy, Harold Black said — as well as dozens of grandchildren.

Leonard Black died in 1977. Vera Black’s two sister wives, Verna and Larna, died in 2001 and 2002, respectively.

On Wednesday, Harold Black said the family planned to hold services in St. George, though those plans were pending.