Kate Dalley is a news commentator and co-host of the Perspectives morning show on Fox News 1450 AM 96.7 FM. The opinions stated in this article are hers and not those of St. George News.
OPINION – February happens to be Black History Month and, while widely acknowledged throughout our nation, I realized that those of us living in Southern Utah don’t pay it much tribute or even talk about it much. So, I went on a little quest to find out about the history of African-Americans in our own corner of the world.
Today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent statistics, just over 1 percent of Utah’s population of 2.8 million is African-American. While the numbers of African-Americans seem relatively low within our State, we actually do have some history that dates back to the middle of the 19th century.
Census records from the 1850’s show fewer than 100 African-Americans actually lived within the entire state. I think even those numbers were hard to come by given the fact that they did not do a great job of recording black residents during that time.
The southern pioneers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who traveled with Brigham Young, brought three slaves with them on the 1847 journey: Green Flake, Hark Lay and Oscar Crosby. The three slaves’ names are among the other pioneer settlers listed on the monument at “This is the Place Heritage Park” in Salt Lake City. While we have these names recorded into the history of Utah, less is known about specific African-American settlers in Southern Utah. For instance, they have a record of a slave living up on the Dixie Hill. Yes, that’s pretty much the extent of it.
St. George historian Bart Anderson said many of the first black pioneers that came to live in St. George came as slaves of LDS converts from the South. At that time in history, Utah had both free blacks and slaves, so when the settlers arrived, they were allowed to keep the slaves that had traveled with them.
Anderson said that of the few accounts of blacks that helped settle Utah’s Dixie, most records simply document something like “a black man painted this” instead of giving the names of the individuals. To some today, the idea of being recorded only as a “black man” may seem surprising. But we have come a long way since then.
Hazel B. Bradshaw wrote about a young black girl who accompanied the Cunningham family who came from the South to settle in Utah’s Dixie. She returned home quickly though, on her own, when she realized that there was no one of her race to associate with in the area. Bradshaw didn’t note whether this young girl was a slave but wrote that she came with the family because of her attachment to them. I can’t say that I would not have done the same thing – who wants to be the only minority in the area?
The mining boom in Silver Reef brought a few more African-Americans to the area towards the turn of the 19th century but because of the geographical isolation of the Dixie Valley, few settled here.
In Iron County, there is a record of a man called Faithful John, whom Bart Anderson says was instrumental in building the old rock chapel in Parowan. He traveled with a group of settlers clear back in 1851.
By 1910, there were more than 1,000 blacks living in the state of Utah. As the military presence began to increase at Hill Air Force Base in the 1940s, we increased to just over 4,000 blacks by the time the 1960’s arrived. If you think about that small number spread out amongst the entire state, it’s not hard to imagine how isolated they must have felt.
Dr. Ronald G Coleman, associate vice president for diversity and faculty at the University of Utah, came to Utah to attend college on a scholarship. Of his first impression of Utah, Coleman said:
“I came to Salt Lake City with some apprehension. I didn’t know anything about the Mormon church in any detail … but … knew that African-Americans didn’t seem to fit in with church acceptance.”
Nonetheless, Coleman said, “I had a wonderful experience here … and played on a wonderful football team. I never at any time thought I would be here beyond the date of graduation.”
Since the 1960’s, collegiate and professional sports programs in Utah, bringing in more African-American athletes, have impacted these demographics. These have also affected Utahns generally increasing their familiarity and acceptance of more African-American residents living throughout the state. Athletes can receive instant notoriety and respect through their performance on these sports teams. What would our beloved Brigham Young University and University of Utah sports teams be without the talent of these gifted African-American athletes?
In 1978, the LDS church president, Spencer W. Kimball, announced the revelation that had significant impact on blacks in the dominant culture of Utah. Kimball announced that they would, for the first time, have full rights and privileges within the LDS church. Although they had these full privileges for a very brief period when the church was founded under Joseph Smith, they waited more than 100 years for these privileges to be restored. It did create a sense of prejudice and blacks seemed to have little interest in learning more about the LDS church until it announced this change.
Many think that without the church’s acceptance, with LDS church members making up over 60 percent of the population of Utah, we would not have the significant growth of black residents in Utah. Full acceptance has certainly led to a lowering of barriers in terms of interaction and hospitality toward people of black culture.
This acceptance within the church was thought to bring an impact in terms of future race relations within the state, as well. The number of black people residing in this state has certainly grown rapidly, since that church-wide revelation was made over 30 years ago.
Some notable African-American residents include Judge Tyrone Medley, who was an outstanding basketball player and now a member of the judiciary of Utah’s Third District Court. Joe Tawver, who also was a college athlete and played for the University of Utah football team, is now a police officer in Murray and a well-respected member of the LDS community. Thurl Bailey, Karl Malone and Adrienne Dantley, all Utah Jazz Basketball players, have had a significant African-American impact upon Utahns as well.
Now, with colleges, more available jobs and massive population growth, people of all races and religions are coming to Southern Utah and the entire State. Growing up in California, I was surrounded by diversity at all times and loved having friends of all races and backgrounds.
This city of ours is certainly growing and I hope, as time marches forward, we can break down even more stereotypes and be excited for what diversity can add to all of our lives.
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Copyright 2012 St. George News.