In 1862, an enslaved black pioneer was buried with little fanfare in a pauper’s grave in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. The man, who was identified only as “Tom (a Negro),” would not live to see the abolition of slavery just three years after his death.
On Thursday, city officials dedicated a granite grave marker for Tom — a move that represented not only remembrance but also a gesture of reparation and a refusal to run away from a relatively recent past some would rather forget.
“Today, on the 400th anniversary of slavery in America, we take a small step toward rectifying the wrongs of our past,” Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said at the ceremony. “We acknowledge that this community, which places great importance on our heritage, participated and profited from the systemic brutalization of people deemed inhuman because of the color of their skin.”
More than 50 people attended the dedication Thursday, which featured musical numbers from Ogden’s Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir City and remarks from prominent black leaders like Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, and Jeanetta Williams, the president of the Salt Lake chapter of the NAACP. City officials estimated they spent about $2,000 on Tom’s gravestone.
Records suggest Tom was born in Tennessee around the year 1820. He and his slave owner, Haden Wells Church, traveled to the Utah territory as members of Abraham Smoot’s overland migrant company. Smoot, a prominent religious and political leader who went on to become the second mayor of Salt Lake City, eventually acquired Tom, according to the city.
Tom was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Sugar House ward on June 24, 1854. He died a few years later, around the age of 42, of “inflammation of the chest.” On his death certificate, he is described as “Tom, a Negro, belong’ to Bhp Smoot.”
“Tom was among the earliest pioneers to this valley, individuals to whom we have erected great monuments,” Biskupski said. “Yet in a final dehumanizing act, Tom was left without even the most basic monument — a gravestone to mark his final resting place.”
Enslavement of black and Native American people occurred legally in Utah until slavery was abolished with the end of the Civil War.
While Tom was almost forgotten to history in the century since his death, Smoot has been lauded for his leadership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and for financing the forerunner to the faith’s flagship school, Brigham Young University. The administration building on the Provo campus even bears his name, a reality that has sparked questions for some since the slave owner’s history has come to light.
There are likely other enslaved people who were buried without recognition at the Salt Lake City Cemetery. Recognition of Tom came as a result of research conducted by the late Mark Smith, the longest-serving sexton at the cemetery, as he worked on his book about the cemetery’s history.
Williams said she saw the event Thursday as an important way not only to remember Tom but also to recognize the legacy of enslavement and black Americans’ fight for freedom and equality.
“We must never forget,” she said. “When folks say, ‘We don't want to talk about slavery anymore, we want to forget about that part of history,’ it is up to all of us to say, ‘No.’”
Hollins, the only black lawmaker on Capitol Hill, added that remnants of slavery still remain in Utah. Just this year, she sponsored a resolution in the state Legislature to strike an exemption from the state’s constitution that outlaws slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for a crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
The proposal passed easily through both the House and the Senate and now goes to voters for a final decision in the 2020 election.
“We cannot change history,” Hollins said, “but we can recognize it, learn from it, honor it and continue to teach it to future generations. In the words of our black national anthem: Out of our gloomy past here now we stand at last where the white gleam of our star is cast.”