New grave marker to honor African American slave who helped Mormon pioneers build their Utah Zion

His name was inscribed on This Is the Place Monument alongside that of the “Lion of the Lord,” Brigham Young, as well as on the pioneer-prophet’s own larger-than-life statue on downtown Salt Lake Lake City’s Main Street.

He labored to build a life for early Utah pioneers who brought him to the valley. He lost his wife and sons but gave everything he had to create Zion in the Beehive State.

But Hark Lay Wales’ contributions remained unrecognized in life, and, when he died in the 1880s, his accomplishments were buried with him in an unmarked grave.

That could be because he was brought to what would become Utah as a slave.

Now, African American activists, historians and a descendant of his slave owner are working to end that anonymity by placing a headstone for him at the Union Fort Pioneer Cemetery at 1484 E. 7830 South Creek Road in Cottonwood Heights, a couple of rows away from a better-known freed slave, Green Flake, and his wife, Martha.

On Memorial Day, this group will host a dedication ceremony and unveiling of a new marker — from Utah Headstone Design in Murray — at the gravesite at 11 a.m.

“We want Hark to be remembered and revered,” says St. George resident Sheri Orton, who launched the project, “this great pioneer man, who may have been the saving grace of so many.”

The Latter-day Saint professional genealogist came upon the slave’s story quite by accident. Orton was packing books for a move and spotted a family history. She leafed through the volume and discovered Lay and his family had come to the West from Mississippi with their slaves, including Hark Lay (slaves often were given the name of their owners).

It hit her — her husband’s great-great-grandfather, William Harvey Lay, was the patriarch in a slave-owning family.

William Lay was not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but his wife was, so they planned to move from the South to Utah. He sent Hark Lay, as the enslaved man was then known, ahead in Young’s vanguard company in 1847 to prepare a home for the family, who would come within the next year.

On July 22, he and two other slaves, Green Flake and Oscar Crosby Smith, scouted the valley for the incoming party. They helped others lay down a trail for the wagons to wend their way down to a new home and then got to work planting crops for the others’ eventual arrival.

All three are memorialized on the monument near the foot of Emigration Canyon — as servants, not slaves.

Historical sources document the baptisms (and rebaptisms) of Flake and Smith into the Utah-based faith, but there is no evidence to indicate that Hark was a member, says Amy Tanner Thiriot, author of the forthcoming volume, “Slaves in Zion: African American Servitude in the Utah Territory.”

Thiriot, an independent Latter-day Saint historian who lives outside Philadelphia, has documented about 100 slaves in the territory between 1847, when the first three arrived, and 1862, when slaves were freed in U.S. territories. Some came with Mormon immigrants, some with the military, some with merchants.

About a third, she says, were baptized Latter-day Saints.

“Hark Wales was born into slavery around 1824, owned by John Crosby of Monroe County, Mississippi,” the historian writes in a profile of him. “When John Crosby died, he left three slaves, Hark, Milly, and Lucy, to his daughter Sytha and her husband, William Lay.”

In 1851, William Lay moved the family to San Bernardino, Calif., taking Hark and other slaves with him.

By that time, the worker had married Nancy, an enslaved single mom with three young sons and who was pregnant with Hark’s second son, Henry.

The move forced Hark Lay to leave behind his family, whom he probably never saw, Thiriot says. “By the time he returned in the 1870s, she had been married to Canadian immigrant James Valentine for years.”

She became a single mother, first when her owner took her to Utah, leaving her first husband behind, the historian says, and again when Hark’s owner moved him to California.

What the relocation did, however, was free him — slavery was illegal in that state.

“The slaves taken to California did not know that living in California would make them free, and their owners actively sought to create in them a fear of freedom,” she writes. “They eventually met a community of free blacks in Los Angeles who explained their situation to them and provoked a habeas corpus action, at which point those held in bondage in San Bernardino left the households of their former owners.”

Upon his liberation, Hark dropped “Lay” and took “Wales” as his last name.

“Hark roomed with Green and Martha Flake’s daughter, Lucinda Stevens,” the historian writes, “and he farmed and mined in Big Cottonwood Canyon.”

He died in the 1880s, likely 1887, though the exact date is unclear, Thiriot says, and was buried in the Union cemetery, which is now kept by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers.

“It has bothered me so much to know that he gave up so much and had no headstone,” Orton says. “An unmarked grave is not acceptable to our family.”

That is why Orton and her husband, Steve, launched a movement to rectify it.

“In memory of Hark’s life and his many contributions to an entire culture, family and history of the great states of Utah and California,” she says to potential contributors, “we wish to memorialize him by placing a monument on his unmarked grave.”

This is the first in what organizers hope becomes a movement to note the burial places of all Utah’s enslaved population.

For them, Orton says, it's about "renewal, remembering and reinstating a forgotten history."

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The grave for Green Flake, who was an African American member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during their first years in Utah, is seen at Union Pioneer Memorial Cemetery in Cottonwood Heights on Thursday, May 23, 2019. Several other African Americans are buried in unmarked graves in this area of the cemetery. One of them, Hark Lay Wales, came to Utah as a slave in Brigham Young's company. He will get a grave marker Monday.

Alice Faulkner Burch is pleased that it was “the descendants of the family which enslaved Hark who initiated this endeavor to mark his grave and give him a celebration.”

Their efforts should “serve as examples to all other descendants of slave families as to what can be done to work to right the wrongs of historically burying our black ancestors in a void,” says Burch, secretary of the Utah chapter of Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society. “Hark saved the ancestors of many of the LDS Church’s white members, yet they don't even know about him or who he is because his part of the church’s story of arrival in Utah has been omitted.”

That’s a shame, she says. “Hark is important to the entirety of the black community in Utah -— non-LDS as well to every black Latter-day Saint member.”

The little-known slave “is our ancestor,” Burch declares, “statehood-wise and spiritual-wise."

And soon there will be a physical reminder for all to see and ponder.