Pioneer benefactor’s ties to slavery raise questions for BYU, where a building bears his name

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Abraham Smoot Building, Aug. 8, 2019, on the campus of Brigham Young University.

Abraham O. Smoot was hailed in a 2015 Brigham Young University magazine article as being “undaunted, powerful, and immovable … [having] a dignity to his presence, a rugged grandeur.”

The 19th-century pioneer and benefactor was lauded for being a leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and for financing the forerunner to the faith’s flagship school. The administration building on the Provo campus even bears his name.

Nowhere in these accolades, however, does it mention that Smoot owned at least one slave — and, historians say, likely more.

(Photo courtesy of Utah State Historical Society) Abraham Smoot

While doing research this week for his groundbreaking database, Century of Black Mormons, scholar W. Paul Reeve discovered that an enslaved man known only as “Tom, Brother Churches [sic] black man,” had been baptized into the church.

Reeve, a professor of Mormon studies at the University of Utah, was already aware of the outlines of Tom’s life, he said in an interview Thursday, because of the work of other researchers, including Amy Tanner Thiriot, but not about his church membership.

Tom came to Utah in 1852 as an enslaved man of Haden Wells Church, a Latter-day Saint convert from Tennessee. They were in Smoot’s migrant company and settled near Smoot, who would become mayor of Salt Lake City and, later, Provo.

Several months ago, the Salt Lake City Cemetery contacted Reeve about Tom’s possible Latter-day Saint membership while preparing a headstone for his unmarked grave in the historic burial grounds.

So Reeve went to the church’s Family History Library downtown and found a June 1854 baptismal record for Tom from the Sugar House Ward, the same congregation where Smoot was the bishop.

At some point, Reeve said, Tom was transferred from Church to Smoot.

“A record of the transaction does not survive,” he said.

Tom died April 29, 1862, of “inflammation of chest” and is described on his death certificate as “Tom, a Negro, belong’ to Bhp Smoot.”

Two months later, Republicans in Congress outlawed slavery in U.S. territories — a law that would have freed the black convert in Utah if he had just lived about seven weeks longer.

It troubles Reeve to realize that any enslaved Mormons’ best hope for freedom rested in the hands of the U.S. Congress, not with fellow Latter-day Saints in Utah, which allowed slaveholders to keep the men and women they owned.

In the midst of the debate about slavery in the Utah Territory, then-church President Brigham Young — who sided with those who would allow it — declared in 1852 that all blacks bore a “curse” and no longer would be eligible for Mormon priesthood or temple privileges.

Fellow Latter-day Saint apostle and territorial legislator Orson Pratt argued against legalizing slavery, saying it was “enough to cause the angels in heaven to blush.”

Young and his backers prevailed, though, and such attitudes led to more than a century of exclusion for the church’s black members. The faith lifted the ban in 1978.

Learning about Tom, a fellow Latter-day Saint who died enslaved to his bishop has “haunted me,” Reeve said. “Finding his records personalized it for me in a way that studying the law hasn’t.”

The story of BYU’s Smoot having slaves comes at a time when several prominent U.S. universities are grappling with the mixed legacy of slavery and race in their founders.

William & Mary, the second oldest university in the country, is associated with titans in American history — Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington — and was dependent on the labor of enslaved people.

It is now working on a memorial to African Americans enslaved by the Virginia school, according to its website.

Georgetown University in the nation’s capital is beginning to reckon with its past slavery ties.

“Despite its origins as a beacon of religious tolerance and republican liberty,” Adam Rothman wrote for the Association of American Colleges & Universities, “Georgetown was built on the backs of enslaved people.”

Harvard, Princeton, Brown and others “were intimately connected to the slave trade and slavery,” according to Leslie Harris of the Transforming Community Project at Atlanta’s Emory University.

Schools are considering renaming buildings named for Confederate soldiers, slaveholders or officers in the Ku Klux Klan.

Would BYU consider doing the same? School spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said Thursday the information was too new, so she declined to comment or “speculate.”

Melodie Jackson, a recent BYU graduate in American studies and former vice president of the school’s black student union, would like to see the school at least balance the legacy of the enslavers and the enslaved.

“Being a black student at BYU and knowing that Abraham Smoot was an enslaver,” said Jackson, who heard about the leader’s slaves in a class there, “meant that there was no place for blackness at that school.”

To Jackson, the conversation about reparations for blacks doesn’t have to be about financial remuneration — but rather about being honest when it comes to institutional involvement in slavery.

Utah had a choice between being a slave territory and a nonslave territory, she said, and it chose the former.

Maybe there could be a plaque next to the Smoot building, she said, or a new building named after an African American.

Said Jackson: “We need to change our public memory.”