For a moment Betty Sawyer held the soil in her palms, feeling the dark, gravelly earth against her skin.
The dirt here, she explained, shifting the pebbles and grains over in her hands, has a painful history. “And you have to touch it to understand it.”
She turned toward a clear glass jar sitting nearby and placed her handful of soil inside with a soft clink. On the side it said: “Thomas Coleman. Salt Lake City, Utah. December 11, 1866.”
About 100 people followed after Sawyer on Saturday, adding their own scoops until the jar was slowly filled.
The dirt they collected was from the site where Coleman, a Black man, was lynched more than 150 years ago, under the shadow of what is now the Utah Capitol. He was left for dead with a sign that said: “Notice to all N------. Take warning. Leave white women alone.”
The group then repeated the somber task two blocks away, at roughly 150 S. State, where a second Black man, William “Sam Joe” Harvey, was hanged by a mob and dragged through the streets in 1883.
They are the two known Black individuals who were lynched in Salt Lake County, both at places that people pass every day without knowing. There are no markers or signs.
“And there are possibly more that we don’t know about,” said Sawyer, who leads the NAACP in Ogden. “We know there are so many nameless folks who lost their lives to this kind of racial violence.”
The soil collection Saturday was a grim and solemn memorial for members of the Black community and others in Utah who say Coleman’s and Harvey’s lives and deaths have never been properly recognized. They wanted to take the time to remember them, pay tribute and, hopefully, bring peace and healing to the places where they were killed.
Their efforts are part of a national movement to record the spots where Black men, women and children were lynched, which has happened in every state in the country. Led by the Equal Justice Initiative, the soil from these locations is housed at an exhibit at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, which showcases brutality against Black people in America, including slavery and incarceration.
The museum has more than 800 of the soil jars on display in a lit wall showing the various red clays of Texas, light sands from North Carolina and thick dirts from Tennessee where the killings occurred. The two from Utah will now be added to that. The curators hope to someday have representations from all 4,400 catalogued lynchings of Black individuals across the United States.
Some people in Utah don’t know — or don’t accept — that this type of racist violence occurred here, said Paul Reeve, a professor at the University of Utah. He has been studying the cases, starting with Coleman, to illuminate the reality.
“This is one way,” he said, “to make sure their lives are remembered and the injustice is remembered, too. Racial violence is a part of Utah’s history.”
Touching the soil, Sawyer said, helps her physically connect back to the time and place of the lynchings. Her grandfather, she said, used to tell her mother: “God made this dirt, and he isn’t making any more.”
She believes the earth holds onto the past, the blood that was once spilled there. “You just feel it,” she said. “I can feel it.”
What happened to Coleman
At each site, it was as much a reckoning as a commemoration.
They started with a vigil for Coleman, who was 35 years old when he was killed in 1866 at what was then called Arsenal Hill. The building no longer exits, but city records from then show it is now green space at the south end of the Capitol, near 300 N. Main.
According to newspaper articles from the time, some boys playing in the area found Coleman’s body dumped next to a building. A coroner later reported that Coleman had been beaten on the head with a large rock, found nearby with blood on it, and he had been stabbed in the chest and throat with his own knife, also found in the area with his named etched into the handle.
The Salt Lake Telegraph, playing off the threatening racist sign that was found with Coleman, speculated that the Black man had been seeing a white woman and a “rival friend” took vengeance. No one was ever held accountable for his murder; and the newspapers acknowledge there was little effort by police to do so.
“The gumption to take a human being, in a country that believes in justice and fairness, and decide whether that person should die, I just …,” Robert Burch trailed off on Saturday. He leads the Sema Hadithi African American Heritage and Culture Foundation, which works to research and publicize Black history in Utah and organized the event.
The reports — and even Coleman’s official death record — referred to him by a cruel nickname, “N----- Tom.”
Reeve said the records of these deaths all come from a white and biased perspective. There were Black newspapers in Utah, but they didn’t start until the 1890s, after both killings.
“All we have are these crumbs,” he said. “The victim’s side wasn’t told. Utah’s Black history doesn’t get told in the same way or in the same degree as the more prominent narratives of Utah history.”
From the accounts, it’s unknown if Coleman was killed by one person or multiple people. Generally, to be considered a lynching, an act must involve collective violence, meant to enforce a racial order. But Reeve, along with fellow professor James Tabery, who has also worked on the project, pushed to have Coleman’s death included by the Equal Justice Initiative because the sign placed on him was “aimed at sending a message to Utah’s Black community.”
“He was deemed to have stepped outside the racial order in one way or another, and this was a violent act of racial terrorism to not just tell that person but the whole community that they won’t let that happen again,” Tabery added.
Beyond his death, there is little known about Coleman. He was believed to have arrived in Salt Lake City in 1848 from Mississippi, likely enslaved by two converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He changed his last name from “Bankhead,” the name of his enslavers, upon emancipation. Some records also list his name as “Colburn.”
It is noted in a few places that he worked for LDS leader Brigham Young at his Salt Lake City motel.
At the spot on the green Capitol lawn where it’s believed Coleman’s body was found, the organizers placed a red and blue flag with a white star. It represents Juneteenth, which commemorates the day in 1865, nearly three years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, that slaves in Texas found out they were free.
Several people cried at the site. One woman sang a beautiful, somber rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
What happened to Harvey
From there, the group marched to the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building, where the city jail used to sit, and where a second Black man, Harvey, was handed over by police to a white mob of more than 2,000 individuals.
Before his death, Harvey had been working as a shoe shiner on Main Street after arriving here from Colorado in early August 1883, according to newspaper reports from the time. He was an Army veteran, also around 35 years old.
On Aug. 25 that year, accounts say Harvey went into a Black-owned restaurant asking for more work, worried about starving to death. He allegedly got in a fight with the owner, who called police.
The reports say that Harvey fired his gun and killed the city marshal when he arrived. Harvey was then taken into custody.
The Salt Lake Herald-Republican wrote that officers severely beat Harvey while he was being held, stomping on him and hitting him with a billy club and brass knuckles until his face was “a mass of blood and bruises.” Meanwhile, outside the jail, a mob chanted “Hang the son of a b----.” They demanded that Harvey be turned over to them.
According to an article in The Salt Lake Tribune, the police “gave up their victim to the crowd, which proceeded to hang him.” And the mob reportedly cheered when a noose on a nearby shed was placed around Harvey’s neck.
After he died from the hanging, the crowd then dragged Harvey’s lifeless body through the streets.
A white jury decided not to charge anyone with his death.
On Saturday, the Rev. Robert Merrill, a pastor at the Baseline Christian Fellowship in Salt Lake City, recounted what is known and asked: “How could this happen? Because people decided the life of a Black person was not the same value as a white person. There was no due process, no justice.”
And that still continues today, he said, mentioning the 2020 deaths of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer and Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed by white men while jogging in Georgia.
“1883 isn’t so far away when we see what’s happening in 2022,” Merrill added.
Members of the crowd answered back with calls of “amen” and “that’s right.”
He then read off some of the headlines about Harvey that published after his lynching. The Tribune called it the “most exciting and furious day ever in Salt Lake.” The Herald-Republican championed the “swift vengeance meted out to the assassin.” The Deseret News called it one of the most “thrilling tragedies.”
Several of the press accounts also referred to Harvey as “a dog.” One said he was a “semi-barbarian.”
It’s hard to read those and picture what Harvey went through, said Miriam Padilla, choking up.
“There’s just so much fear,” she said. “And I think about my own ancestors and what they went through.”
Padilla softly touched her head, her chest and then the ground before she grabbed some of the dirt and put it in the jar for Harvey. She said it’s a Caribbean tradition that stems from West Africa and is meant as a sign of respect for the dead.
Ramesus Stewart-Johnson followed her, adding his own two large handfuls of soil. He was joined by his son, Sebastian Stewart-Johnson, and other members of the Black Menaces at Brigham Young University, including Rachel Weaver and Kylee Shepherd, who are trying to start conversations through social media about racism in Utah and in the LDS Church.
At the event, the senior Stewart-Johnson said he thought about how 60 years ago, if a group of Black people marched down the street here, there would have been a line of white people screaming at them.
“Our country wants to brush things like this aside,” he said. “But this reminds you how dark the heart of man can be.”
In addition to the deaths of Coleman and Harvey, there are at least two other recorded lynchings of Black men in Utah.
In 1925, a group of Price residents slowly hanged Robert Marshall, who was accused of killing a sheriff’s deputy despite little evidence. When Marshall lost consciousness, the mob lit matches under his bare feet to wake him, according to former U. professor Ronald Coleman’s research.
Photographs show men, women and children smiling by the tree after he died.
Historian Larry Gerlach, who wrote the book “Blazing Crosses in Zion,” said it was common knowledge that the men who perpetrated it were part of the KKK in Utah, which did have members here. They were charged but freed without a trial, according to an article in The News Advocate in Price.
Another lynching, noted by Ronald Coleman, happened in Weber County in 1869. There is little known or recorded about it, except one person saying it happened because the man “was a damned N-----.”
At the time of that death — and Coleman and Harvey’s — the records indicate there were about 250 Black people living in Utah. Today there are 38,000. But the percentage, about 2% of the population, actually remains the same in both periods.
There were also other lynchings in the state, including the killings of George Segal, a Japanese man, and Ah Sing, a Chinese man, as well as several Native Americans, who were not named in Gerlach’s research
Reeve and Tabery, who have made a website about Coleman and Harvey, plan to add those killings over time. And other counties, such as Carbon County, where Marshall was killed, could also do a soil collection event.
Burch with the Sema Hadithi Foundation, which is named after the Swahili words for “tell the story,” said the event Saturday is just the beginning. The groups are also working to get historic markers at the spots of the lynchings. And they collected an extra jar of soil at each location to possibly house someday in a Utah museum on Black history, which doesn’t currently exist.
To improve the future, Burch said, people must acknowledge the past.
“Here in America we refuse to have that truthful conversation,” he said. “But we need it to heal. We have to understand it.”
Alongside Sawyer, he threw the last handful of soil into each jar before they were sealed with a thin silver lid. And he dusted off his palms.