“[T]he only thing that distinguishes Utah from Georgia is that it does not have jim-crow cars”: Wallace Thurman, Mormon Utah, and Blacks in the West

By September 5, 2008

Although it may be surprising to many today, during the nineteenth century anti-Mormons often denied that Latter-day Saints were white. Mormon authors fiercely contested this argument, using republican discourses to portray themselves not only as literal but also ideological descendants of the Revolution. As Patty Limerick has argued, anti-Mormons waived aside these objections and gave the Mormons the same choice given to Native Americans during the 1830s–either renounce your cultural distinctiveness, or move west of the Mississippi River, where no whites live.[1]

Once the Mormons resettled in the Great Basin, they discursively constructed their territory as a place of refuge in contrast to the tyranny of the East. Perhaps due to their insistence on claiming whiteness, their Great Basin refuge had borders that were not only geographically defined but also racially delimited. Although sporadic attempts were made during the first few decades of settlement to live peaceably with Native Americans, by 1850 Mormons in Utah Valley used the language of “extermination” to describe relations with the Natives and by 1868, just two decades from the arrival of the Mormon pioneers, the first reservations in Utah were formed. In addition, slavery was legalized in Utah territory in 1850, making Utah an unwelcome place for African Americans. Although Mormons saw themselves as a persecuted people, for many Latter-day Saints during the nineteenth century whiteness trumped a commitment to relieving the oppression of racial minorities, even within Mormon refuge in the West.

The Mormons were not the only Americans to describe the West as a place of refuge. Other Westerners boasted that theirs was a region marked by tolerance for racial diversity. Promotional tracks constructed the West in contradistinction to the North and the South, with the East being a place of oppression and the West being a refuge.[2] Although large numbers of Blacks did not migrate to the West until World War II (to fill jobs in the defense industry), African Americans responded to the calls of relatives living in the region to relocate. Many Blacks found that while the West was just as racist other regions of the country, Westerners were racist in a more polite way.[3]

Most of these migrants moved to the West coast, but a few located in Utah. Among those was the family of Wallace Thurman, who was born in Salt Lake City in 1902. Thurman later participated in the much-heralded Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, a virtual explosion of African American creative and intellectual energies that in many ways redefined the Black experience in America. In the 1920s magazine The Messenger published a series of essays describing Black experiences across the nation. Most of the articles on the West framed the region within the established narratives of opportunity and toleration. Thurman however wrote that his experience in the West was marked by anything but opportunity and toleration.

“Quoth Brigham Young: This Is the Place” was published in 1926, when Thurman was just 24 years old. Thurman narrated the founding and settling of Utah.

These Mormons had treked [sic] over half the continent in search of a spot where they could found a settlement, earn their livelihood from the soil, and indulge in their religious peculiarities unmolested by their pernicious brethren in God who insisted that they practise other religious peculiarities. They had been run out of Illinois, they had been run out of Missouri and Kansas and they had forged their way over miles of Nebraska prairie land, miles of Wyoming sage brush hills, and miles of mountain trails before they finally stood on a peak overlooking the beautiful Salt Lake valley, surrounded by the Wasatch range of the Rocky Mountains, and cheered when their intrepid leader, Brigham Young, shouted: This is the place![4]

Thurman continued with a description of the gradual infiltration of Gentiles into the state, concluding that after statehood, Utah lost “her individuality, for from that day on Utah was just another state, peopled by a horde of typical American booboisie with their bourgeoisie overloads, and today is a good example of what Americanization and its attendant spores can accomplish.”[5]

In his portrayal of the African American population in the Beehive State, Thurman had little good to say. “I am sorry that I have to write of the Utah Negro, for there has been certainly nothing about him to inspire anyone to do anything save perhaps drink gin with gusto, and develop new technique for the contravention of virginity.”[6] He was unable to point to any noteworthy African American institutions, unless one counted the

deluxe gambling clubs, and whore houses in Salt Lake and Ogden . . . There are no Negro professional men. There are no Negro publications, not even a church bulletin. There are no Negro business houses. There are no Negro stores. There are no Negro policemen, no Negro firemen, no Negro politicians, save some petty bondsmen. There are a few Negro mail carriers, and the only Negro mail clerk in the state passes for Spanish or something else that he isn’t in order to keep his position and not be forced to become a pack laden carrier. Most of the Negroes in the state are employed on the railroad as porters and dining car waiters, or else in the local railroad shops, or else earn their livelihood as janitors, hotel waiters, and red caps, thereby enabling themselves to buy property and become representative bourgeoisie.[7]

While it may be tempting to argue that members of the Utah Black community were victims of their own laziness and unwillingness to take advantage of the opportunities they had, his description of the mail clerk that was forced to pass as “Spanish or something else that he isn’t in order to keep his position” suggests otherwise. Racism played a major role in the world that Thurman was born into. “Negroes [in Utah] are rigorously segregated in theaters, public amusement parks, soda fountains, and eating places . . . the only thing that distinguishes Utah from Georgia is that it does not have jim-crow cars. Last year there was even a lynching-the second in the history of the state.”[8] Thurman realized though that “Utah is no worse than some if its nearby neighboring states, which being the case the fates were not so unkind after all-I might have been born in Texas, or Georgia, or Tennessee, or Nevada, or Idaho.”[9]

As I was reading his description of the Black experience in Utah, I wondered if converting to Mormonism granted African Americans privileges in Utah society (as say, converting to Christianity helped Native Americans obtain privileges in American society, such as education and employment). Thurman was however only able to point to two known Mormon African Americans (who he does not name), a husband and wife that were part of Brigham Young’s advanced company. Parenthetically, Thurman explained that the man “had only one [wife], for Mormons did not believe that a Negro could ever enter into Heaven as an angel, and that since because of Ham’s sin he was to be deprived of full privileges in Heaven, he was not entitled to enjoy the full privileges of a good Mormon on earth . . . .”[10] Apparently Thurman knew of no Black Mormons growing up, or if he did, he didn’t bother to mention them in his narrative.

I realize that many readers will be troubled by my post on Thurman’s Utah, especially since I’ve framed it within a larger discussion of Mormon perceptions of the state as a place of refuge. While I’m sure that there are counterexamples that could be adduced to show that in some cases the racial boundaries of the Mormon refuge were more porous than I’ve allowed for here, my interest is more in asking difficult questions and hopefully finding answers. Why have Latter-day Saints, a people with their own history of suffering, not been more willing to transcend their own racial boundaries and provide relief to the racially oppressed? In short, why was Utah at the beginning of the twentieth century not all that different from Georgia for Black Americans?

I hinted above that my guess is that Latter-day Saints have chosen historically to represent themselves using discourses that emphasize whiteness over racial compassion, which has resulted (likely unintentionally) in the erection of racial boundaries, boundaries that can and should be eliminated.


[1] Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (1987; reprint, New York: W. W. Norton, 2006), 291. See also James P. Ronda, “?We Have a Country’: Race, Geography, and the Invention of Indian Territory,” Journal of the Early Republic 19, no. 4 (Winter 1999): 739-55.

[2] William Deverell and Douglas Flamming, “Race, Rhetoric, and Regional Identity: Boosting Los Angeles, 1880-1930,” in Power and Place in the North American West, eds. Richard White and John M. Findlay, 117-143.

[3] See Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.

[4] Wallace Thurman, “Quoth Brigham Young: This Is the Place!” reprinted in These “Colored” United States: African American Essays from the 1920s, eds. Tom Lutz and Susanna Aston (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 263.

[5] Ibid., 265.

[6] Ibid., 265.

[7] Ibid., 267.

[8] Ibid., 267.

[9] Ibid., 267.

[10] Ibid., 265.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Accommodation From the Archives Race


  1. “cars” or “laws”?

    Comment by BrianJ — September 5, 2008 @ 3:19 pm

  2. 19th century Mormons were much like 19th century non-mormons. Baptism does not normally change how one thinks. It is hard to repent of a sin you don’t know you have.

    That said, we expect they should have known. And we expect that baptism should change a person. But like most expectations, they aren’t realistic.

    Instead early Mormons tried to make themsleves even more like those who pushed them out of the United States. By the 20th century Mormons were busily tring to emulate the Republicans who pressed hard to end Polygamy. What is next? Will we try to be even more like the Evangelicals who rejected Romney?

    Comment by BruceC — September 5, 2008 @ 3:34 pm

  3. BrianJ, “cars.” Jim Crow Cars refer to segregated railroad cars.

    Intriguing post, David. I was not familiar with Thurman, his writings, or his experience. In response to your question, “why was Utah at the beginning of the twentieth century not all that different from Georgia for Black Americans?” I tend to agree with your suggestion (I think Paul Reeve’s current research agrees as well) that Mormons, like the Irish and Jews of the era, were concerned with establishing their own whiteness, and unfortunately, that all too often involves finding someone else physically different than you to discriminate against.

    Comment by Christopher — September 5, 2008 @ 3:44 pm

  4. Brian: Thurman is referring to segregated train cars.

    Bruce: While it is tempting (and understandable) to think that all 19th century Americans were racists, and that therefore all Mormon converts were racists as well, the fact is that a large percentage of Mormon converts came from Quaker roots. Quakers were stridently opposed to slavery and racism, holding that all people, regardless of race, were equal. So the question remains, with such a strong appeal to individuals with Quaker values, why did Mormons choose to represent themselves in such a racialized (and racist) way?

    Comment by David G. — September 5, 2008 @ 3:49 pm

  5. Emphasizing whiteness over racial compassion? What about the trend that we continue to see today, which is that we really want to be seen as mainstream American, a theme that keeps cropping up in discussions about us as a culture.

    Once Utah became United States territory in 1846, even though Brigham Young and others took pains to delineate differences between Mormons and “gentiles”, we see repeated attempts to seek recognition of the rights of Utah Mormons as American citizens throughout the 19th century. After statehood, then it seems to have become more of an attempt to gain full acceptance socially and culturally, an effort that arguably continues in 2008.

    That seems to me a more likely reason that Utah Mormons of the early 20th century adopted racist attitudes of the American culture at large. The majority of the culture was white, but it was also Christian, patriotic, and ambitious. I suspect that other ethnic groups, such as Japanese-Americans, Italian Catholics or others also suffered mostly benign discrimination at the hands of their Mormon neighbors in Utah.

    I’m not familiar with Utah lynchings. Anybody have a reference to those?

    Comment by kevinf — September 5, 2008 @ 3:50 pm

  6. Kevin: I really don’t think we can make a neat distinction between whiteness and citizenship, at least prior to the 14th Amendment. The two were intricately intertwined. However, I don’t mean to submerge citizenship within my discussion of whiteness (which is a significant criticism of whiteness studies). You’re right that anti-Mormons also denied that Mormons were citizens and that Mormons responded by claiming their rights. And as I expect Paul Reeve to establish in his forthcoming book, Mormons often claimed their citizenship in racialized language.

    Comment by David G. — September 5, 2008 @ 4:03 pm

  7. In terms of the lynchings in Utah, I wasn’t able to find any descriptions, but I did find stats. Utahns apparently have lynched more whites (6) than blacks (2)in their history. Maybe Margaret Young can tell us more about the identities of the two Blacks.

    Comment by David G. — September 5, 2008 @ 4:13 pm

  8. Very interesting. It provides some context to various passages I’ve read over the years from the 19th century talking about “the Mormon race” which always seemed quite peculiar to me.

    Comment by Clark — September 5, 2008 @ 4:16 pm

  9. David,

    I reread your link to the Pratt writings, and the whiteness aspect certainly seems to be front and center.

    Perhaps another way of of looking at it is that we are always trying to get closer and never quite getting there, as in “we’re just as white as you” gives way to “We’re just as American as you” to “We’re just as Republican and Christian as you”. In fact, we really aren’t as mainstream as we like to think we are. Bruce C, I think it’s already happening.

    Very interesting post, by the way.

    Comment by kevinf — September 5, 2008 @ 4:19 pm

  10. Reeve co-wrote an article on the 1925 lynching of Robert Marshall.

    Comment by Justin — September 5, 2008 @ 4:20 pm

  11. “railroad cars”: Thanks for edumacatin’ me!

    Comment by BrianJ — September 5, 2008 @ 4:32 pm

  12. Kevin: I definitely agree with your assessment of our current fascination with the Republican party, in terms of trying to present ourselves as being just like them. You’re right that we’re really not just like them, but by representing ourselves using the same language they do, we end up with the same negative consequences they do. We’re perceived as a very white religion.

    Thanks, as always, for the link Justin. Fascinating stuff.

    Comment by David G. — September 5, 2008 @ 4:33 pm

  13. Another Utah lynching: Sam Joe Harvey

    Comment by Justin — September 5, 2008 @ 4:55 pm

  14. Thurman’s comments on African-Americans in Utah call to mind Booker T. Washington’s report from Salt Lake City in 1913.

    Comment by Justin — September 9, 2008 @ 11:30 am

  15. Nice finds, Justin. Washington’s report on SLC is especially interesting.

    Comment by Christopher — September 9, 2008 @ 11:40 am

  16. Wow, that’s fascinating. Thanks, Justin. Does anyone know any more about the “Mormon colored colony” that BTW mentions?

    Comment by David G. — September 9, 2008 @ 11:50 am

  17. David, that’s Fort Union, now part of Salt Lake sprawl and no longer a separate community (Murray-ish, up against the eastern bench). Samuel Chambers, and the Flakes and Bankheads and other significant early Utah black families owned land and farmed there.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — September 9, 2008 @ 12:03 pm

  18. Ardis, is there an article/essay/etc. on Fort Union anywhere that you can recommend?

    Comment by Christopher — September 9, 2008 @ 12:16 pm

  19. I should add that Washington naturally received some (p. 182) criticism (pp. 195-96) for his letter.

    Comment by Justin — September 9, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

  20. Thanks Ardis. Are descendants of those folks still living there and in the church?

    Comment by David G. — September 9, 2008 @ 12:21 pm

  21. Kevin Cromar is writing a community history, but I don’t know his expected completion date. Bill Hartley had a biographical article about Samuel D. Chambers in the New Era in June 1974, but I have bad luck trying to link to specific articles at lds.org. The DUP published a history of Utah blacks years ago that they still print as a separate booklet — it gives lots of names and starting points for research, even though the article itself is, um, “dated.” That’s all I can think of offhand.

    I did a column for the Tribune a couple of Februaries ago about Booker T. Washington’s visit to Salt Lake. I haven’t put that one up at Keepa yet — it draws heavily on the article Justin linked to. It may also still be available on the neo-Nazi hate site that objected to it … ah, here it is at the Genesis Group site. I don’t remember their asking permission to post my copyrighted stuff, but maybe they did.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — September 9, 2008 @ 12:30 pm

  22. Hmmm. Genesis Group also edited my column, definitely without permission. Although I used “black” in my narrative (which Genesis Group has capped), I preserved Booker T. Washington’s use of “Negro” in the direct quotations (after specific consultation with my editor). I support anybody’s right to choose his own name and other labels when he is speaking for himself, but their silent editing makes it look as though *I* violated professional and ethical standards by altering the historical record. Not cool, Genesis Group.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — September 9, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

  23. This is really bizarre. I wrote a letter to Genesis Group explaining the problem and asking them to please insert square brackets around the altered words. Then I called up the page again to show it to someone here in the library, and someone had already restored “Black” to “Negro.” Someone with ability to edit the Genesis Group website must be following this thread, David.

    Sorry for the continued threadjack, but since I brought it up here I thought I should acknowledge their rapid correction. Thank you, whoever has done that.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — September 9, 2008 @ 1:14 pm

  24. Ardis, can you tell me more about Kevin Cromar and his project? Sounds fascinating.

    Comment by David G. — September 9, 2008 @ 2:34 pm

  25. Kevin is the chair of the Historic Committee of, um, I want to say Cottonwood Heights, but I may not have that quite right. It’s a civic appointment for his town, which includes part of the area farmed in the 19th century by early black families. (When Booker T. Washington mentioned a “colored colony,” he wasn’t speaking of a place quite as discrete as, say, Iosepa’s Hawaiian colony. Fort Union was not a completely black town, and not all blacks in the area lived within Fort Union boundaries. Whatever the precise name of Kevin’s community, it includes at least Samuel Chambers’s land, which was at or near Fort Union.) Anyway, as part of his appointment to that committee, he is writing a history of his town, including the historic black quarter, as well as spearheading other kinds of historic awareness whenever the opportunity presents. He’s been interviewing old timers, and plundering their family photo albums, and engaging in what sounds like some first-rate primary research. But he also has a day job, so I don’t know when his writing will be complete. I don’t run into him very often and he doesn’t hang out online; I’ll ask him about this the next time I do see him.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — September 9, 2008 @ 3:13 pm

  26. #6
    In a nineteenth century context race and citizenship can be very convoluted as David suggests. The 14th amendment does not necessarily put an end to it, but it does give historians reason to be careful in their analysis. Clearly some people in the 19th century did not find any contradiction in passing the 14th amendment and championing civil rights for Blacks while simultaneously denying civil rights to Mormons. James Ashley, Congressman from Teledo, Ohio, is a man within whom these ideas coexisted without any apparent thought of contradiction. He was an important Radical Republican who helped pass the 13, 14, and 15th amendments while simultaneously holding Congressional hearings on conditions in Utah Territory. He contemplated revoking Utah?s territorial charter, establishing military rule, and attempted to eradicate Utah from the map. Some of the rhetoric used to justify such punitive actions was highly racialized. Mormons responded with racialzed rhetoric of their own, designed to assert whiteness for themselves to the disadvantage of other marginalized groups.

    I think in part we need to rethink Utah?s struggle for statehood into a struggle for whiteness, a struggle in which notions of citizenship and race become so conflated that it is difficult to disentangle them.

    Great post, David.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — September 9, 2008 @ 9:27 pm

  27. Thanks, Paul. Are you saying that you’ll replace Political Deliverance with your book? 😉

    Comment by David G. — September 10, 2008 @ 11:08 am

  28. David,
    No. I don’t think it should be replaced. I don’t see my research as THE story, so much as an important element of the story that has been overlooked and that I hope will bring long standing aspects of Mormonism’s relationship to its broader American and even international context into sharper focus.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — September 11, 2008 @ 10:26 am

  29. Ardis Parshall mentioned my writing about the history of Cottonwood Heights, Utah. I am the chairperson of the Cottonwood Heights Historical Committee. This is a nine-member committee. Two African-Americans serve on this committee–Jerri Harwell and Dr. Ronald G. Coleman,a member
    of the Department of History at the
    University of Utah and a member of
    the Utah State Board of History.
    In the 1870s Daniel Freeman, the first African- American born in the Utah Territory,was the original homestead owner of much of the land in the heart of Cottonwood Heights, including the land later owned by Melt Stelter?s family on Chris Lane, the Charles Frank Boyce property going from Highland Drive up Butler Hill, and the property owned by Councilman Don Antczak?s grandfather, John Antzak, on 2300 East. Daniel Freeman, along with other early Utah African-American
    pioneers, Green Flake, Martha Flake, and Hark L. Wales, also owned several mining claims in Big Cottonwood Canyon Mining District including the Abraham Lincoln Lode, Union Blue Lode, the Wales Lode,Poor Mans Lode and the
    O.K. Lode. It is told that Daniel sold 7 feet of the Stelter land for a pair of boots.
    The San Francisco Elevator, a weekly black newspaper established in 1865 reported the mining claims held by African-Americans in Utah. This is remarkable Utah history, considering the time period during Reconstruction — African Americans held significant private property in Utah – in the heart of Cottonwood Heights.

    Comment by Kevin Cromar — November 7, 2008 @ 5:42 pm

  30. Thanks for stopping by, Kevin. I agree that is remarkable. When do you expect to get some of your research into print?

    Comment by David G. — November 7, 2008 @ 6:59 pm

  31. Samuel Chambers is my Great-Great-Great grand father, I am trying to learn about him. If you could please contact me if you have any information I would be indebted.

    Comment by Laura Mayfield — January 20, 2009 @ 11:08 pm

  32. […] Wallace Thurman, Mormon Utah, and Blacks in the West […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Teaching About the Priesthood Ban and Official Declaration 2 in Sunday School — December 7, 2009 @ 8:42 pm


Recent Comments

Daniel Stone on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “Thanks much for posting this, Joey!”

Mel Johnson on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “This JWHA will be outstanding, maybe the best ever. I encourage all Restoration historians and cultural studies people to attend along with their friends. The setting at…”

Gary Bergera on George F. Richards' journals: “I remember reading through the microfilms of the Richards's journals in the mid- to late-1970s. Nothing was redacted. They were amazing.”

Jeff T on George F. Richards' journals: “Thanks, Stapley!”

Hannah Jung on George F. Richards' journals: “That is exciting! I had no idea this was in the works! Any idea when the plan is to release the next twenty years of…”

Ben S on CFP at BYU Studies:: “Some clarifying comments here. https://benspackman.com/2019/10/23/byu-studies-evolution-and-faith-some-clarification/”