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The Mormon pioneers, the story goes, traveled West seeking freedom to practice their idiosyncratic faith beyond the reaches of oppressive mobs.
But not all who endured the long and often harsh trek chose to do so — or found much in the way of freedom when they finally arrived.
Green Flake, Hark Lay Wales and Oscar Crosby Smith were enslaved men whose Latter-day Saint owners tasked them with joining the vanguard responsible for preparing the way for Brigham Young’s wagon train. (In fact, research collected by the University of Utah’s Century of Black Mormons website suggests Flake may have driven the first Latter-day Saint wagon into the Salt Lake Valley.)
Their stories have not always received much attention, but a new monument, which broke ground this month at This Is the Place Heritage Park, aims to change that.
Mauli Junior Bonner is the driver behind the monument, as well as the writer and director of the film “His Name Is Green Flake,” which follows the life of Flake and other Black Latter-day Saint pioneers. Released in June, the movie turned out to be a hit, racking up “best film” awards at festivals around the world.
It was during this period, Bonner said, that the idea of a monument took root.
“We were celebrating winning best film at the Los Angeles Film Awards, and I said, ‘OK, cast and crew, let’s go to Salt Lake and take a picture by the monuments of these people.’”
That plan hit a snag, however, when it turned out those monuments didn’t exist.
“I don’t believe they were intentionally left out of the traditional pioneer story,” he said. “I think that the heroes were picked, and we just kind of kept circulating those.”
By memorializing Flake, Wales and Smith — along with that of the free Black pioneer Jane Manning James — at the popular historical site in the eastern foothills of Salt Lake City, Bonner aims to shake the dust off their memories and diversify the story Latter-day Saints tell about their faith (all but Wales left evidence of having joined the church at some point).
“We’re taking a step back,” he said, “and realizing that there’s more — there are more stories, more men, more women who sacrificed so much, especially those who had to endure enslavement while being an early pioneer.”
A complicated past
Quincy Newell — a professor of religious history at New York’s Hamilton College and author of the book “Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a Nineteenth-Century Black Mormon” — said today’s Latter-day Saints are prone to using the stories of early Black Mormons to make the early church seem more diverse and egalitarian than it really was.
A monument like this one, she said, could be an important step in correcting those false narratives.
“Even just using more accurate language like correctly describing someone as enslaved rather than saying he or she was a servant,” Newell said, “is going to make a huge difference in helping people understand how complicated the early history of the church is.”
On the Brigham Young statue in downtown Salt Lake City, for instance, Flake, Wales and Smith are described as “colored servants.”
Bonner stressed he wants the monument, once complete, “to be for the whole community” and to recognize that the stories of those featured carry significance beyond their race.
“They represent the group that came through Emigration Canyon and were part of that first encampment,” he said. “I want to honor them as part of that group rather than just as Black pioneers.”
At the same time, he hopes it can be a place where Black Latter-day Saints can go and see themselves reflected in the faith’s origins.
“It’s somewhere,” he added, “they can bring their kids and say, ‘Yes, we were here.’”
A greater ‘sense of identity’
Isaac Nkrumah is a Ghanaian Latter-day Saint who first learned about Green Flake through Bonner’s movie. Nkrumah said he had known about other early Black members like Elijah Able, who in 1836 became the first African American documented to have received the priesthood. He would also be among the last to do so in the 19th century due to a priesthood and temple ban the church instituted in the 1850s on Black men and women that would last until 1978.
Still, learning about Flake gave Nkrumah an even greater “sense of identity within the restored gospel,” he wrote in an email, a feeling the forthcoming monument has only underscored for him.
“Personally, knowing that there will be a statue of him and other African American Latter-day Saints at the pioneer historical site,” he said, “helps me feel racially included.”
Bonner, however, isn’t done yet. The Los Angeles-based music producer said a similar monument should exist on downtown Salt Lake City’s Temple Square, which is undergoing sweeping renovations.
Not everyone is equally enthusiastic about the idea.
“It’s been all warmth from church leadership,” he said. “But what I’ve heard is ‘these things take time.’”
Bonner isn’t giving up.
“I felt prompted to make this film and put all the money toward building representation for those who suffered and helped build and work on the temple but never got to go inside,” he said. “Those are unique stories that are hard to hear and fathom.”
Bonner said he can understand why church leaders would hesitate to broadcast such stories at a site that draws so many who are not members of the faith. But the way he sees it, those stories are also faith-promoting, offering examples of those who held onto their beliefs in the face of challenges.
“It’s strengthened my faith on my weaker days,” he said. Plus, he added, it’s better for nonmembers to hear about the church’s complicated history on race from missionaries than from Google.
For Nkrumah, the importance of a monument honoring Green Flake and other early Black pioneers at Temple Square has as much to do with looking forward as it does backward.
“The church is growing rapidly in Africa,” he said. “A monument at Temple Square would help create a sense of belonging for so many people of African descent. It would show that the church is for all races.”