On Memorial Day in 2019, 50-60 people gathered to participate in a monument dedication for Hark Lay Wales, a formerly enslaved African American man buried in Utah’s Union Cemetery. Wales, pronounced either like “whales” or “Wallace,” depending upon the person you speak to, lived and died in Utah Territory. He was enslaved by the William Lay family who converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mississippi. Wales entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 with the first company of Latter-day Saints.
There is no definitive, published proof that he was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though sources have told Juvenile Instructor that information will be forthcoming on centuryofblackmormons.org which suggest Hark may have identified as a Latter-day Saint at some point in his life. For a full overview of Hark’s life, please consult this piece by Amy Tanner Thiriot on Keepapitchinin.
The program preceding the dedication was remarkable for several reasons. First, it was presided over, guided by, and featured nearly all Black speakers, both Latter-day Saint and non-Latter-day Saint. Many of Utah’s and the LDS Church’s best and brightest spoke or sang at the event, including Robert and Alice Faulkner Burch, Marlin Lynch III, Tekulve Jackson-Vann, Salt Lake City Fire Chief Jeff Thomas, Yahosh Bonner, Utah State Representative Sandra Hollins, David Hollins, Andra Johnson, Nate Byrd, & Byron Williams, and the lone white speaker, Sheri Orton. Robert Burch dedicated the grave through prayer and Melodie Jackson, Garrett Whiting, and Sierra Rose unveiled the headstone.
Another reason the scene was remarkable was the amount of excitement at the event. A definite buzz invigorated the crowd. The project was crowd-funded (but not all the way, you can still donate here) and crowd-supported. As a historian who has spent a long time with African and African American Mormon history, it was a thrill to see so many people as excited and pleased to see Hark remembered and praised for his life and labors. There is a hunger to remember the Latter-day Saint past, especially the Black Latter-day saint past. I’m on the younger side, but I can’t remember a time when popular and academic communities came together to celebrate a single Latter-day Saint on this level—except for the funeral of a Latter-day Saint leader. Remembering Lay’s life, for me, has been both personally and professionally meaningful.
The gravestone next to the Hark Lay Wales marker marks the resting place of Green and Martha Ann Morris Flake, enslaved African American Mormons who gained their freedom sometime after their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley. I bring flowers to their grave every year with my daughters, following the example of Bill Hartley, who brought flowers to Amanda and Samuel Chambers, Black Latter-day Saints whom he wrote about in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. When we brought our mums to Union Cemetery, I was thrilled to see flowers already at the grave. In a small planter, in addition to the flowers, was an American flag and a note from the “Flake Family,” that thanked Martha and Green for their service. This type of language is problematic. The Flakes did not “serve,” they were enslaved. Nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints (and others) used the term “service” and “servants” when they wanted to speak about slave labor and enslaved people in ways that obscured the violence of the slave system. Green and Martha Flake did not “serve” the ancestors of their enslavers out of any sense of love or loyalty. They did so under the threat of violence.
I am sure that the family who left the note meant to offer a conciliatory tribute, but did not know how to speak about their ancestors’ relationship to enslaved people. This feeling of not knowing what to do is understandable. Not knowing what to do often leads to making mistakes around language because we are too embarrassed to ask what to do. But, as Robert Burch told us before the grave dedication, there is a difference between “shame” and “embarrassment.” The first is productive; it leads us to consider the past and what can be done about it. Embarrassment is a form of discomfort that often prevents us from self-reflection or feeling right about asking others about how we can address injustices in the past.
Two days later, at the dedication of the Wales marker, Utahns and Latter-day Saints repeatedly spoke of how far we have come as communities to identify and commemorate our pioneer settler dead. The note-leaving Flakes, like many Latter-day Saints and westerners, are trying to grapple with the slavery of our past and the racial inequities of our present. So were those gathered at the Wales dedication. In fact, Representative Hollins reminded attendees that “some people feel shame in [Utah’s] past. The shame is in not remembering our past.” Speakers expressed gratitude for those excavating and sharing the past—I join with them, however self-serving that may be.
Viewing the Green and Wales markers next to one another, we see the past, but also how very far Utahns, Latter-day Saints, and historians have to go in commemorating Latter-day Saints and Utahns of Black African descent. Whether scholars and community members choose shame or embarrassment will set the course for how these communities remember Black Latter-day Saints.