In recent weeks, I, like many others, have been doing my best to listen to Black community members as they push for greater equality in this country and, more specifically, at our university. To my surprise, I have learned that many buildings at Brigham Young University are named after men who treated many of God’s children as less than they were. Even more horrifically I learned that Abraham Owen Smoot, of whom I am a direct descendant and am named after, was among these men.
Though the exact nature of his slave ownership is not known, it is irrefutable that a Black man named Tom was owned by my fourth great-grandfather. Some sources indicate that he may have owned three slaves in his lifetime. He practiced and supported the ownership, suppression and devaluation of certain children of God entirely based upon the color of their skin. I have been devastated in the past month or so since learning this and have been left wondering how I, in my position as both a student of the university and his descendant, should react in order to provide all of God’s children and my ancestry with respect.
I have come to the conclusion that I must strongly encourage Smoot’s name to be taken from the administration building. I recognize my grandfather’s incredible contribution to BYU and Provo. Along with this, I understand his positive reputation as an ally to the American Indians of the area. I feel a genuine love for Abraham, and look forward to meeting him someday. However, his ownership of other humans is not something that can be overlooked or condoned by an organization that claims to love all persons, and it most certainly cannot allow his name, a name I bear, to mark the buildings of Brigham Young University.
My grandfather was a slave owner. His name is tarnished by that fact. A harsh reality that has changed the perception I hold of my own name.
It is not acceptable in my eyes for him to be memorialized on the same campus on which minority students are expected to live comfortable lives wherein they do not feel threatened by a racist culture. I recently viewed the BYU orientation video. It states that the Honor Code dictates that we must respect all children of God regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. Put bluntly, I do not believe it is possible for the university to show adequate respect for the hardships of its minority students while it retains the name of my ancestor on a central campus building.
I propose that we change the name to another Latter-day Saint hero, or, as suggested by the BYU Black Student Union, we remove all names from campus buildings, as my ancestry is not the only one that causes serious racial and moral conflict.
As for the legacy of Abraham Owen Smoot, it cannot live on now as it once did. We must do our best to separate ourselves as a school from his image as it no longer fully aligns with the vision that BYU should strive for. This does not mean that his legacy will be forgotten or that we will leave him behind.
When each one of us leaves this life, it is not our earthly name that keeps a piece of us here, it is our actions and their greater impact on future generations. We now know that Brother Smoot left behind two lasting impacts. He saved BYU from collapse so that students in the future could intertwine secular and spiritual learning. He also added to the generational and systematic oppression of the Black community. By taking his name off the administration building, we retain the positive side of his legacy and take the next step forward in mending the pain and suffering caused by his ownership of other human beings.
Abraham Owen McKay is a freshman at Brigham Young University.