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South Valley Journal

Learn about notable Utah African Americans for Black History Month

Feb 03, 2022 02:56PM ● By Karmel Harper

Green Flake was one of three enslaved African American pioneers who entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. (Photo courtesy of Kristine Murdock.)

By Karmel Harper | [email protected]

Until the November 2020 elections, slavery in Utah was still legal as punishment for a convicted crime. According to Article 1, Section 21, in Utah's state Constitution, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within this State." However, on November 3, 2020, Amendment C, which bans slavery in all forms, passed with 81% of the vote. 

Utah House Rep. Sandra Collins, who sponsored Amendment C, said, "Our constitution serves as a basis for all of our laws and policies. We need to be clearer about what prison is for and what prison is not. The notion of 'slavery or involuntary servitude' should not be imposed on people merely because they are convicted of a crime. By passing this measure, we will assert that slavery is not a Utah value."

Although slavery in Utah was not widespread, some Utah pioneers held African-American slaves until 1862, when Congress abolished slavery in all of its territories. Brigham Young sent three African-American men as part of an advance party in 1847 to clear brush, trees, and rocks to make a road for pioneer wagons. These men were Green Flake, Hark Lay, and Oscar Crosby. Their names appear on a plaque on the Brigham Young Monument in downtown Salt Lake City with the inscription:  "Green Flake, Hark Lay, and Oscar Crosby, Colored Servants." 

Kristine Murdock, a historian, and administrator for Our Kaysville Story Facebook page, said, "After Green Flake and his wife Martha Crosby (also a slave) were freed, they settled in the Salt Lake Valley. They were members of the LDS Church and very loved in the community. They are buried in the Union Cemetery Cottonwood Heights, Utah." 

However, some Utah slaves' stories were tragic. 1n 1858, when he was only 3 years old, Gobo Fango of the Xhosa tribe in South Africa was given to white property owners Henry and Ruth Talbot after famine afflicted the Xhosa. As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Talbots set sail from South Africa to Boston in 1861, where they would join the gathering of saints in Salt Lake City. The Talbots smuggled Fango aboard in a wrapped carpet, but Fango was reported to have provided entertainment and helped take care of the sheep on-board once the ship set sail. 

After traveling west to Utah, the Talbots eventually settled in Kaysville. According to an article by the University of Utah's Marriott Library, Fango's feet froze one year when the Talbots allegedly forced him to herd animals in bare feet. When someone suggested that one of his feet required amputation, he said he 'would rather have part of a foot than none at all.' It seems that part of his heel was removed, but that doctors did not amputate his foot at the ankle. Years later, a woman reported that Fango would place wool in his boot so that his foot would fit into it and he could walk. 

He left the Talbots and worked as a laborer for the Mary Ann Whitesides Hunter family, who lived in Grantsville, Utah, roughly between 1870 and 1880. He was listed as a "servant" (likely employed as such) in the 1880 U.S. Census living in Grantsville. 

Fango settled in the Goose Creek valley of Idaho territory by the 1880s and worked as a sheepherder. However, tensions between sheepherders and cattlemen in the area led to Fango's murder by cattleman Frank Bedke, who was acquitted. 

Fango, who was described as generous with a cheerful disposition, dictated his final will and testament before succumbing to his gunshot wounds. He bequeathed half of his estate ($500) to the Salt Lake Temple Construction Fund. 

Nearly 45 years after his death, Talbot and Hunter's family members could not find evidence of Fango's membership in the church and thus performed his baptism by proxy in the Salt Lake Temple on Sept. 20, 1930. 

The U of U article said, "Because Fango was a Black African, he could not be ordained to the priesthood posthumously, which would have made it possible for him to receive other LDS liturgies by proxy. As Louisa Hale wrote to a historian seeking information on Fango in 1934, 'a Negro cannot hold the priesthood. So [performing his posthumous baptism] was all we could do for him. I, of course, feel that he is more worthy than many that do hold it.'"

As February is Black History Month, we honor the stories of African Americans who have shaped this country and state. Notable African American Utahns include Mignon Barker Richmond  (1897-1984), who was the first African American woman to graduate from a Utah college and was a human and civil rights activist, and Anna Belle Weakley-Mattson (1922-2008), an astute businesswoman who was a significant force to Ogden's growing Black community in the 1900s. 

Daybreak's Club for Diversity & Inclusion places staked signs around Oquirrh Lake in South Jordan to honor Black History Month, displaying photographs and the history of notable African Americans. Visitors can enjoy the sights and sounds of the lake while learning more about these exceptional individuals. 

South Jordan's Vanessa Janak said, "I think knowledge is power. And I think when we as a community can take even small opportunities to lean in and learn about people who aren't just like us, it helps us become closer, appreciate others and their differences, and foster a greater sense of purpose and belonging. For everyone."