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.
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. 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.
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!
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.”
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.” 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.
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.” 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.”
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 . . . .” 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.
 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.
 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.
 See Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.
 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.
 Ibid., 265.
 Ibid., 265.
 Ibid., 267.
 Ibid., 267.
 Ibid., 267.
 Ibid., 265.