From the Archives: Black Mormon Internationalism in the 19th Century; or a Haitian-born African American in Utah Reports on the Fourth of July, 1873

By July 4, 2018

I’ve been slowly making my way through Paul Ortiz’s new book, An African American and Latinx History of the United StatesIn a chapter on the Cuban Solidarity Movement of the 1860s through the 1890s, Ortiz quotes an 1873 letter from “an African American in Salt Lake City,” published in the black-owned newspaper, The Elevator.[1] Curious to learn more (and anxious to see if there were any clues where the SLC correspondent was a Latter-day Saint), I searched for the original letter in the digitized version of the paper (courtesy of the California Digital Newspaper Collection), and to my great delight, discovered that it was written by Francis H. Grice, a “mulatto” Latter-day Saint, artist, entrepreneur, and restaurant owner who arrivedin the Salt Lake Valley in 1848, along with his wife, Martha.[2]

At some point, Grice moved to California, and while there, took an active interest in and lent regular support to The Elevator, started in San Francisco in 1865 by Philip Alexander Bell. After moving briefly to Elko, Nevada, Grice ended up back in Utah by 1872, where he served as the paper’s Salt Lake City correspondent. Because he was Haitian by birth, the paper relied on Grice for commentary on international black affairs, including especially in the Caribbean. His July 4, 1873 letter weighs in on Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain during the 1860s and 70s, and briefly reflects on Independence Day celebrations in Utah. I reproduce it here in its entirety, believing in provides an unparalleled look into the attitudes and activism of one black Mormon in 19th century Utah.[3] 

Correspondence
[From our Salt Lake Correspondent]

Salt Lake, U.T., July 4, ’73.
Mr Editor, —We hail with gladness the returning anniversary of our glorious national birthday, and let us in an appropriate manner with the enthusiasm which characterize the Americans in honor of the day of days, the Easter or Passover of our national liberty, from the oppressive yoke of England, and let us forever swear before the shrine of liberty against all forms of royalty; and never shall we bow our knees to crowns or sceptres; for we as American citizens, standing Peers to Kings and Potentates of the earth; for our revolutionary fathers have secured for themselves their posterity, and the oppressed of all nations a free existence, and formed a just and free government.

The Greeks may look back on the history of the heroic achievements of their ancestors, and point with pride to Acropolis, Marathon and Platea — crowned with monuments of their valor. The Swiss peasants have congregated themselves together on the fields of Morgarten and Laupen, and decorated the graves of their martyred dead with garlands of flowers, whose actions preserved the independence of the Swiss Republic, against the powerful empires by which they were encircled. The Romans, in their superstition attached and paid veneration to the rock of the Capitol, and loaded its temples with the spoils of the world; but we as American citizens will ever venerate the Fourth of July with pride and gladness. The eyes of the oppressed sons of Europe are fixed upon us as a living example of freedom; where millions of her sons found an asylum, and where the unhappy found solace, and the persecuted reposed from tyrants under the cognomen of royalty; standing now upon our shores as citizens of our free government, champions of freedom and liberty—then let the fire of freedom and republicanism ardently burning ‘neath the azure skies, shedding its invigorating influence among the inhabitants of the earth, unfurling its redeeming standard on continents and the isles of the sea. France and Spain have already caught the kindling influence of that fire of freedom and have hurled emperor and king from their high and elevated positions to the ground, and have proclaimed a republican form of government.

The republics of olden time, as Greece, Rome and Carthage have passed away in oblivion, but with the protection of Omnipotence, our great republic shall live now and evermore, with all its freedom and glories in splendor, with all its arts and sciences, and all that is great, grand and good, tending to the amelioration and the condition of mankind, and to their elevation, irrespective of color or nationality. We extend our hand of fellowship to all oppressed sons of earth, who are willing to accept our civilization and customs, and are willing to let their dead bones remain in the sacred soil of America, sanctified with the blood of our patriotic sires.

Hail glorious Fourth! Hail stars and stripes, which fill the hearts of freemen with delight, the beacon and pilot for the children of earth, from a long obscure night of oppression and wrong; our stars will illuminate them in their pilgrimage to our shores, while our constellations blazed brightly dispelling the darkness and gloom, and will strike their oppressors with amazement and blindness like Saul of old, until they themselves bow down on their knees before the shrine of liberty, repent of their sins and join the rank of freemen.

Hoping ere long that the inhabitants of the Antilles will flock to our shores, renouncing the crowns and sceptres by which they are bound, and increasing our political influence in every part of the wide domain of our great republic, and singing with us our national jubilant song, on every Fourth of July. Hoping those who are already on our shores may see the folly of not joining with us in our band—the band of American citizens, the grandest title that can be conferred on man; higher and grander than the ancient title of Roman citizen.

This day swells our hearts with joy and gladness and magnanimity toward all our enemies, and to those who were more fortunate than we during the dark nights of our people’s oppression, wrong and injustice; and in our disfranchisement, haughtily laughed at us in derision of our misfortunes inflicted upon us by our ungrateful countrymen. Now to some extent the story is changed, vice versa; we need no retaliation, seeing that we are elevated to the highest principle of freedom and liberty, and look down upon them and pronounced the kindest words of forgiveness on their guilty heads, and bid them from their low level in due form ascend our platform and be worthy members of our band in peace and in union.

While we are rejoicing over our national anniversary, let us not forget the patriotic sons of Cuba in the struggles for their national existence, from the misruling of the government of Spain; whose troops, brute-like and fiendish in disguise have perpetrated acts of brutalities and cruelties on the Cuban patriots; not for the first time have they disgraced her banner and civilization. May the brave sons of Cuba, courageously continue the contest for freedom and right, for in far North we faintly perceive in the clouded canopy of heaven, the gleam of her star of destiny, which will ere long dispel the cloud which for years shadowed its appearance, and will display itself in the azure skies. Guard yourselves, sons of the Queen of the Antilles, our sympathy is with you in your struggle, and ere long you shall take your stand among the galaxy of nations of the earth; unlike the wretched mother country, without tarnish or blot of innocent blood on your proud banner.

Arm yourselves sons of liberty with the shield of liberty and the sword of justice; although your tears and groans are many, take courage, and they shall turn to joy and gladness; for the sweet zephyrs from our country, from Hayti, and from the Central and South American republics gently whisper to you that the day of your deliverance is near at hand, for they have passed the same ordeal before.

July 5th.

The city was alive with citizens from different parts of the State to participate in the celebration of our anniversary. At 8 o’clock A.M., the fire department turned out in a procession with all their appendages, and made a very creditable appearance on our streets. This was the only procession in this city since the 4th of July, 1871, when there were on that occasion two processions ; since that time it appears that the Mormons and Gentiles cannot agree.

Madame Anna Bishop gave a grand festival at the new Tabernacle, and a large number of our citizens left the city on an excursion on the great Salt Lake, on board the steamer City of Corinne. In my next I will give you the details of my traveling to Little Cottonwood and American Fork Mining Districts.

Yours, F. H. G.

At first glance, there is nothing self-evidently Mormon about the letter or its content. Mormons are only mentioned once in passing at the end. But the context is interesting to consider. The early 1870s witnessed renewed attempts by federal congressmen to stamp out polygamy among the Latter-day Saints in Utah, and Mormons’ feelings of attachment to the United States waned during this era. Grice’s letter is nevertheless openly celebratory of America and its potential for good. That potential, as his letter suggests, rests not only in the nation’s legacy of throwing off the fetters of monarchy in 1776, but also the much more recent Civil War and the early legislative successes of Reconstruction. A decade earlier, Grice would not have been able to celebrate the United States as “tending to the amelioration and the condition of mankind, and to their elevation, irrespective of color or nationality.” Indeed, that America’s original sin of slavery—that “long obscure night of oppression and wrong”—had now passed would have given Grice a reason to rejoice to a degree many white Latter-day Saints would have failed to fully comprehend or appreciate.

Also striking is the emphatically global worldview expressed by Grice. In this, his views mirrored the broader white American population, both Mormon and non. The late 19th century marked the beginnings of American imperialism overseas — by century’s end, the U.S. would be embroiled in wars of conquest in both the Caribbean and Asia — as well as the continued expansion of Mormonism’s missionary efforts abroad. But Grice’s views more accurately spoke to the international outlook of African Americans in this era. Grice thus singles out Hayti, the republics of Central and South America, and Cuba in his commentary, both championing their own democratic struggles for independence and inviting “all oppressed sons of earth” to seek and find refuge in America.

What Grice could not have known in 1873 is that the legislative achievements of Reconstruction would soon be undone by new black codes passed throughout the United States. What he likely did not foresee was that, while the United States did open in doors to immigrants and refugees in the years and decades to come, that the full benefits of citizenship would only be extended to those deemed “white” by government officials, and that quotas and exclusion policies would be established to ensure that aim.

__________________________

[1] Paul Ortiz, An African American and Latinx History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018), 76.

[2] The 1880 census lists both Francis and Martha Grice as “Mulatto,” and his place of birth as “Hayti.”

[3] “From our Salt Lake Correspondent,” The Elevator, July 19, 1873.

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