This Is the Place Heritage Park, honoring the arrival 175 years ago of Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley, now tells a more complete story of their epic journey.
Monuments were unveiled Friday at the state park in the eastern foothills celebrating the significant contributions of Black pioneers, some of them slaves.
Green Flake, Hark Wales and Oscar Smith — all three enslaved — entered the valley July 22, 1847, two days before Brigham Young, leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reportedly declared, “This is the right place.”
On their historic arrival, Flake, Wales and Smith scouted the area, tilled the ground, planted crops and laid down a trail for their enslavers and vanguard wagons that soon would follow.
On Flake’s monument, it reads: “Green is known to have driven the first wagon into Emigration Canyon … on July 22 … Brother Flake and many others like him trusted in God’s promise of a reunited family after this life.”
A joint monument recognized both Wales and Smith, saying, “As enslaved men, Hark and Oscar were keenly aware of what it felt like to desire freedom, even if the freedom the Saints sought was that of religious worship.”
James, perhaps the best-known Black female Latter-day Saint this side of Gladys Knight, eventually was “sealed” to Smith as a “servitor.”
Her stone notes that the “groundwork laid by Flake, Wales and Smith … helped make it possible for families like Jane’s to survive the hardship of the journey.”
In front of the stone slabs are individual bronze sculptures of James, Flake, and (together) Wales and Smith that were created by artists Stefanie and Roger Hunt of Lehi’s Metal Arts Foundry.
Hundreds gave a standing ovation Friday as Flake’s descendants pulled the sheet off the stones and statues, located on a plaza behind the towering memorial with Young perched on top.
Those descendants then pulled together in a group hug.
“That was amazing,” Black Latter-day Saint Tamu Smith, of Sistas in Zion fame, said afterward. “It was not planned.”
As Friday’s ceremony began under a sweltering sky not unlike that July day 175 years ago, Betty Sawyer, president of Ogden’s NAACP branch, looked out on the crowd and said, “You look gorgeous,” then quipped, “It’s OK. You can clap.”
She offered the invocation for the ceremony, addressing the “God of our past, present and future,” who recognizes the “weary years and silent tears” of those pioneers, and urging deity to help all who will come to this monument “reflect and remember” what these pioneers meant to the Beehive State.
Ellis Ivory, head of This Is the Place Foundation, described a meeting last year with Mauli Junior Bonner, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who pushed for the monuments, and Tamu Smith.
After the unveiling, a visibly shaken Bonner threw out most of his prepared remarks, and asked, “Now I’m supposed to talk through my tears? It’s more beautiful than I could have imagined — not just the statues but you all being here. It’s beautiful. … I didn’t think we’d see this much diversity in Utah — ever.”
Bonner — writer, producer and director of the film “His Name Is Green Flake” — commended the example of these enslaved pioneers for “enduring something incredible for their faith.”
“We don’t tell these stories of enslavement to cause guilt or pain or shame,” Bonner said. “We tell them because they’re true. … Can we not draw strength from them?”
If Black Utahns “don’t know where we came from,” he added, “how will we know how far we’ve come?”
In this moment, “we will not be divided,” Bonner said. “In this moment, we can be who we hope to be.”
[Mauli Junior Bonner talks about his quest for the monuments in our “Mormon Land” podcast.]
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox offered a few remarks, mentioning his lack of awareness of racial issues growing up in rural Utah and then discovering his own pioneer ancestor had owned slaves.
“I hope this monument inspires my kids,” Cox said, “and that we can learn from each other.”
This was followed by a stirring rendition of “Child of God,” a song Bonner composed for his talented family to perform. It is an original piece, not to be confused with the classic Latter-day Saint children’s tune titled “I Am a Child of God.”
After several verses, the singers invited the audience to stand and join in and many did, raising their arms and swaying.
“I love to listen to Black singers,” senior Latter-day Saint apostle M. Russell Ballard said after they sat down. “You know how to sing.”
He, too, pointed to the crowd’s obvious medley of faces, saying, “Utah is a state where God’s children of all cultures, all races, can come together and enjoy and love one another.”
The 93-year-old Ballard, a great-great-grandnephew of Joseph Smith, offered a brief dedicatory prayer, reiterating “how precious and important every child of God is,” encouraging all attendees to “go arm in arm to help each other on this sojourn.”
He asked God to “bless all here today and their posterity that they will feel the blessing of these Black pioneers.”
In a private interview after the ceremony, fellow apostle D. Todd Christofferson said he was moved by the stories of these trailblazers.
“If they could make the journey as slaves,” Christofferson said, “we can do our very best at everything we are asked to do.”
Eldon Udell of Clovis, Calif., a great-grandson of Flake and the eldest of his descendants at the dedication, was speechless as he listened to the ceremony, which he had dreamed of but never expected.
“It was overwhelming,” Udell said. “I never thought anything like this was even possible, much less come to fruition.”
It was hard for him to fully grasp the tragedy of slavery, Udell said, but he was humbled to be descended from an enslaved man. “I am proud of the person he was.”
To Tamu Smith, Friday’s commemoration was the culmination of years of pushing for recognition since 2017, when discovering that she, too, was one of Flake’s descendants.
“The unveiling for me was speaking a truth and having that validated by [church] leaders and the governor, rather than getting pushback,” Smith said. “It felt like being rediscovered by your family, like being adopted and then finding your real family. "
What’s next for Bonner and Smith?
Bonner is at work on a project about Elijah Able, a Black Latter-day Saint who was ordained to the priesthood in the faith’s early years, Smith said, and Smith herself is leaving for Ghana with a group of Latter-day Saints to give workshops on these developments — part of the church’s partnership with the national NAACP.
It’s all, she said, part of the journey.