BYU explores ‘unsettling truths’ about slavery in early Utah and the hope of LDS racial reconciliation

Conference shines a light on racism in the school’s early curriculum; the showdown between church President Brigham Young and apostle Orson Pratt; indentured Native American servants; and how family history can heal and help make connections.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lita Little Giddins, with BYU's Office of Belonging, attends the Brigham Young University conference on “Truth and Reconciliation,” which presented research on the history of race and slavery at BYU on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024.

Provo • On New Year’s Eve, Lita Little Giddins joined other Black Americans online for “Watch Night.”

The annual celebration commemorates the historic occasion in 1862, when enslaved and free African Americans gathered in churches across the nation, singing praises to God, worshipping and waiting for news of freedom — that Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had taken hold.

“To this very day, Watch Night and freedom services continue across this nation,” said Giddins, associate vice president of Brigham Young University’s Office of Belonging. “Black congregations reflect on the past and the hopes for the future.”

That’s what Giddins, a Black member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said was happening Friday at a one-day conference titled “Truth and Reconciliation: A Conference of the BYU Slavery Project.” “While we are gathered in this space together, I will continue to watch. Gathering and watching are part of the work of the Lord and his purpose.”

More than a dozen researchers, scholars, historians, students and guest speakers spent the day sharing research and discussing slavery and servitude; the historical issues of race as they played out on various college campuses; the origins of Mormonism’s now-discarded priesthood/temple ban on Black members; enslaved pioneers; “blackface” in BYU yearbooks; “whitewashing” a women’s Relief Society photograph; Native American indenture laws; the Provo school’s first Black student; race in Brigham Young Academy’s curriculum; the “Red Power” movement at BYU; and the use of family history tools to find community and connection.

Christopher Jones, who teaches history at BYU, organized the slavery project in 2019 “in response to finding an unsettling truth about one of his ancestors’ relationships to slavery,” said historian Matthew Mason in the opening session.

Since then, it has developed into “a collaborative project of faculty and students studying the legacies of Indigenous and African slavery,” Mason said, “and the founding of Brigham Young University, as well as campus histories of race an”d ethnicity.”

It now includes at least two undergraduate classes and ongoing work of research assistants in collaboration with faculty.

“The things we have learned about race relations at BYU and in its larger context, through this research, have been at times very uncomfortable,” Mason said. “...But there are good reasons to engage with this material anyway — both from the point of view of history as a discipline and of aspiring disciples of Jesus.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People attend “Truth and Reconciliation,” a conference presenting research on the history of race and slavery at BYU on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024.

This conference is “predicated in part,” he said, “on the idea that only grappling honestly with the truth of our own history with race will help us move towards the reconciliation necessary to achieve that Zion community.”

While the Latter-day Saint community “both then and now has not always done right by our own,” the scholar said, “it is very possible for us to do better going forward.”

Here are highlights from the presenters and their research:

Enslaved Black pioneers

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Amy Tanner Thiriot, Independent historian and family history instructor at BYU-Idaho, poses for a photo with vocal director and filmmaker Mauli Bonner as they attend “Truth and Reconciliation,” a conference presenting research on the history of race and slavery at BYU on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024.

Around 100 Black pioneers appear in reliable documents as being enslaved in the Utah Territory, according to independent historian Amy Tanner Thiriot, author of “Slavery in Zion: A Documentary and Genealogical History of Black Lives and Black Servitude in Utah Territory, 1847-1862.”

They came to Utah from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky and Texas. Before that, their families appear to have come from North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. DNA from descendants shows African, European and Indigenous origins, Thiriot said. “Their European ancestry would have come, to speak very bluntly, from the rape of enslaved women.”

In 1862, Congress passed a law ending slavery in the U.S. territories, she explained, but “it’s unclear whether the enslaved people in Utah knew that they were free or whether they remained in bondage until the end of the Civil War.”

A body of “false mythology developed over time about slavery in Utah,” Thiriot said. “In addition, many [enslaved Latter-day Saints] were simply forgotten. And some were actually written out of the stories.”

Some asserted that “owing to their belief in Mormonism, the slaves were liberated but came to Utah,” she said. “Not only was this untrue, it was the first of many similar stories invented by many…descendants of Utah slavers.”

Their histories are beginning to be found and published, Thiriot said, celebrating an African saying: “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”

Brigham Young versus Orson Pratt

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) W. Paul Reeve, chair of Mormon studies at the University of Utah, presents at Brigham Young University's “Truth and Reconciliation,” a conference presenting research on the history of race and slavery at BYU on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024.

In the mid-19th century, Utah, along with the rest of the U.S. was grappling with the question: Can human beings be held as property?

During the 1852 and 1856 legislative sessions, frontier Utah lawmakers “attempted to chart a moderate course somewhere between the harsh brutality of chattel slavery as practiced in the south and immediate abolitionism advocated by a radical minority in the north,” W. Paul Reeve, chair of Mormon studies at the University of Utah, explained. “Their answer was a middle path …that included a conservative form of gradual emancipation, which legally transformed African American slaves into servants and implied that the condition of servitude did not pass on to the children of enslaved parents who were born in Utah.”

Legislator and Latter-day Saint apostle Orson Pratt wanted any such bills rejected. He also advocated for Black male voting rights.

“I hope there is wisdom, right and intelligence enough within the bosom of this honorable council to spurn the idea with indignation,” Pratt said. “Shall we assume the right without the voice of the Lord speaking to us and commanding us to introduce slavery into our territory?”

The apostle further rejected the idea of viewing people with African ancestry as “descendants of [the biblical] Cain being responsible for a murder in which they took no part.”

But in Young’s 1852 speech, the Latter-day Saint prophet — and Pratt’s ecclesiastical superior — authoritatively condemned Black men and women as children of Cain.

Reeve sat with copies of that speech, and “punctuated its racism, with periods and commas and tears,” collectively mourning with fellow believers “what could have been.”

The scholar does not see the faith’s nearly 130-year-long priesthood/temple ban as a “divine timeline meant to happen that way.”

(Courtesy of The Abominable Slavery) A new database means the public can now access, among other documents, fiery speeches from church and state leaders Orson Pratt, left, and Brigham Young about slavery, race and voting rights — topics that often divided the two men.

These political and spiritual leaders “had choices,” Reeve said. “It seems to me a mistake to continue to claim that we don’t know the origins of the priesthood/temple restrictions in our faith.”

Once Latter-day Saints come to terms with “the truth of our history,” the historian concluded, “we can then pivot to the redemptive work of reconciliation.”

Could the same campus that honors benefactor Abraham Smoot also remember those he enslaved — Tom, Jerry and Lucinda? Reeve asked. “What if the redemptive work of reconciliation included classes on Brigham Young’s speeches from 1852 in their entirety, sitting with the weight of their short- and long-term implications? What if we also read some fantastic anti-slavery speeches, and reconciliation included honoring [Orson Pratt’s] courage to stand alone for freedom?”

Those apostle’s words, the historian said, “offer us a dose of courage about what still could be.”

Buying ‘Lamanite’ children

Utah’s Territorial Legislature enacted a statute that legalized the purchase of the Native American children (often seen as descendants of “Lamanites,” dark-skinned peoples described in the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon) for a maximum of 20 years, said Brian Cannon, chair of BYU’s history department, which was twice as long as the New Mexico statute allowed. The church’s prophet-president Brigham Young encouraged the passage of this law, saying it was “a means of saving the children from …savage barbarity and placing them upon an equal footing with a more favored portion of the human race.”

Researchers have been able to identify “about 400 of these children by name,” Cannon said. About a fourth of them “died before the age of 20.…They had very low levels of immunity to disease.”

Some 60% were purchased from Indian captors; 18% were given away by relatives; 14% were captured in battles, raids or from battle survivors.

“The separation anxiety that some of these children [endured],” he said, “would have been intense.”

White American superiority on an LDS campus

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young University student Jason Nouanounou speaks with W. Paul Reeve, chair of Mormon studies at the University of Utah, during “Truth and Reconciliation,” a conference presenting research on the history of race and slavery at BYU on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024.

During the late 19th century, U.S. academics “overwhelmingly perpetuated white supremacy ideology to justify white control of power,” said Aïsha Lehmann, a sociology graduate student at the University of Illinois Chicago.

Lehmann examined the journals and notes of Latter-day Saint apostle James E. Talmage, who taught classes at Brigham Young Academy, as well as perused the school’s student newspapers.

“I found that at BYA the racist ideas carried with them religious ramifications,” she said. “BYA instructors had incredible spiritual influence and credibility when teaching these problematic views on race.”

In his essay on the development of Utah and its original inhabitants, Talmage gave theological and doctrinal backing to “racist rhetoric.” He taught that “God himself ordained the progression of white people over other races.”

First steps toward belonging

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young University student Jason Nouanounou helps moderate a panel discussion of “Truth and Reconciliation,” a conference presenting research on the history of race and slavery at BYU on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024.

It’s not uncommon to see people characterizing the way of thinking, acting and speaking of other cultures, races and ethnicities “as inferior,” said Anthony Bates, managing director of BYU’s Sorensen Center for Moral and Ethical Leadership, “using preconceived, mistaken and often sarcastic ideas, generating attitudes of contempt, indifference, disrespect and even prejudice against them.”

Unfortunately, the Black Latter-day Saint said, “BYU is not exempt.”

Students of color pack “a double burden,” he said. In one arm, “they carry the weight of racial harm, depression, small and large, and in their other arm, they carry the fatigue of their friends.”

They attend classes “hoping to learn just like other students learn only to hear all too often an ignorance laced in the knowledge of their professors,” Bates said. “And then they return to the private space of dorm rooms and meal halls and study rooms and places off campus only to find they have a new job, teaching, explaining, debating, exposing the racial truths, but they are only beginning to deeply understand themselves. [That] labor is totally unfair and cruelly taxing.”

BYU students as well as all Latter-day Saints “cannot build faith and testimony, gather others into a communal sense of covenant belonging, and be ignorant, dismissive, skeptical, critical or discriminatory about someone else’s lived experience,” he said. “...Belonging is an aspiration, our true call to action.”

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