Descendants of slaveholder Smoot argue renaming BYU building ‘accomplishes nothing’ in addressing racism

(photo courtesy Utah State Historical Society) Abraham Smoot

Abraham O. Smoot led a rich life, full of achievement and service to the people of 19th-century Utah, to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and to the faculty of Brigham Young Academy (later University), including paying their salaries for some years.

Smoot was a justice of the peace, mayor of Salt Lake City and, later, Provo, and a state legislator. He served nine proselytizing missions, was a bishop four times, and a stake (regional) president for 13 years.

The early Mormon leader and businessman also held three slaves — Tom (Church) from Tennessee, Jerry (Lewis) from Kentucky, and Lucy (Crosby) (Lay) from Mississippi.

That is why a group of current and former BYU students has launched a petition to remove Smoot’s name from the school’s administration building.

“Despite not being raised in a slaveholding home, and initially supporting [church founder] Joseph Smith’s abolitionist sentiments, upon moving to Utah he made the decision to become a slaveholder,” the petition reads. “… We must change the name of the building housing the university’s highest officers. It cannot continue to bear the name of a man who held slaves, some of whom were near the age of the students on campus.”

Now the Smoot family — which includes about 14,000 descendants — wants to provide a fuller picture of the man.

In a recent letter to Smoot’s progeny and to BYU, leaders of the family argue that their forefather deserves to be remembered for all of his contributions, not just for being a slaveholder.

“We, the Abraham Owen Smoot Family Organization, denounce slavery. Slavery is wrong,” the letter begins. “It is terrible that it was very prevalent in the American culture and that it has existed in many cultures throughout history.”

Still, it is impossible to understand “enough of the context, culture and happenings 160 years ago,” the letter continues, “to be able to place judgment on the motives, decisions and virtues of those early pioneers.”

‘Accomplishes nothing’

The descendants acknowledge that their ancestor was from the South and was a slaveholder.

“We know that he shared the restored gospel with Jerry and Tom. It is documented that Jerry and Tom joined [the church] prior to A.O. Smoot giving them their freedom. Nine years after joining the church, Tom died at the age of 42 of ‘inflammation of the chest,’” the letter continues. “After being given his freedom, Jerry stayed with and lived with the Smoot family and also moved with the family when [they moved] to Provo.”

The Smoot family letter, signed by more than a dozen descendants, reasons that the BYU administration building bears his name “because of his monumental sacrifice and contribution to this institution.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) The Abraham O. Smoot Building, Aug. 8, 2019, on the campus of Brigham Young University. Some former and current BYU students want to remove Smoot's name from the building. Smoot held slaves back in the 1800s.

Removing his name “accomplishes nothing. In addressing racism at BYU, solutions are available,” it says. “...An attempt to smear and cancel A. O. Smoot and Brigham Young and what they did 160 years ago accomplishes nothing.”

Some of the historical information provided in the letter is not accurate, says historian Amy Tanner Thiriot, author of the forthcoming volume, “Slaves in Zion: African American Servitude in the Utah Territory.”

“Smoot did not free anyone. Jerry is not known to have been a baptized member of the church,” Thiriot says. “Jerry did not go with Smoot to Provo; he drowned and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Salt Lake Cemetery.”

Reading the Smoot collections left her “with great respect for the public service of A.O. and Margaret Smoot,” the historian says. “I also have respect for the public service of enslavers like George Washington, but that doesn’t extend to even the faintest attempt to excuse human rights abuses, including human trafficking, unfree labor, coercion or other forms of abuse connected to the institution of slavery.”

As for Tom, he was granted his freedom, not by Smoot, who was his bishop, explains University of Utah historian Paul Reeve, but by Republicans in Congress, who outlawed slavery in the territories in 1862 “because they recognized slavery as evil.”

Such U.S. leaders, he notes, also “were products of the 19th century.”

‘Unwilling to be honest’

Celebrating Smoot’s achievements “without grappling with his failings does all of us a disservice,” says Reeve, author of “Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness,” sends “a signal that BYU and the church are unwilling to be honest about racism in the present because they can’t be honest about it in the past.”

Further, it tells Black BYU students “that they don’t matter, at least not as much as white Latter-day Saints with wealth and influence; that their Black LDS ancestors in this church didn’t matter, that Tom didn’t matter as much as Abraham,” he says. “Is there a balance that demonstrates with concrete action, not mere platitudes, that BYU honors Tom’s pioneer legacy as much as Abraham’s, that Tom and Abraham are in fact ‘alike unto God?’ ”

Both the Smoot family letter and the petition were shared with BYU’s newly formed committee “Race, Equity and Belonging Committee,” says school spokeswoman Carri Jenkins. “We look forward to sharing the work of the committee and its recommendations when they are available.”

For their part, the BYU students who are seeking to remove Smoot’s name from the building say the family’s concerns “are understandable.”

Their group’s intention, according to the petition, “is not to negate any contributions Abraham O. Smoot made. We make no holistic judgement on the man, nor do we see it as our role to do so. Rather, we simply see his decision to enslave Black Americans as one that makes him an inappropriate choice for a campus which cherishes diversity among its students, faculty and staff.”

That remains the students’ position, says Tristan Quist, one of the organizers. “We are seeking a safer, more welcoming campus, and we are confident that the committee, the administration, and the BYU community as a whole will make the right decisions regarding this issue going forward.”