Juneteenth and Utah Territory

Tomorrow is Sunday, June 19, which is celebrated as Juneteenth National Independence Day in memory of the day that the Emancipation Proclamation began to be enforced in Galveston, Texas by the Union Army (19 June 1865).  In Utah, this also doubles as the anniversary of the day that Abraham Lincoln signed a bill into law that banned slavery in United States territories (19 June 1862), ending slavery in Utah Territory:

CHAP. CXI.–An Act to secure Freedom to all Persons within the Territories of the United States.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the passage of this act there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the Territories of the United States now existing, or which may at any time hereafter be formed or acquired by the United States, otherwise than in punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.
APPROVED, June 19, 1862.

Prior to this bill passing, Utah Territory was a slave territory.  While the practice of slavery was relatively small in Utah (from what Sally Gordon was saying at the Mormon History Association Conference, most Latter-day Saint enslavers moved to the California colony of San Bernardino), it was present in Utah and had been made legal by the territory legislature in 1852, with Brigham Young’s encouragement.  In fact, three slaves, named Green Flake, Hark Lay, and Oscar Crosby, were among the vanguard company of Latter-day Saint settlers that came to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 (the group that is celebrated in Utah on 24 July as Pioneer Day) and slaves continued to held in bondage in Utah Territory up until 1862, when the law took effect and set them free.
While slavery is officially over and the priesthood and temple ban on individuals of Black African descent is no longer in effect in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, racism is still very present, both within the United States and Church membership.  In a panel discussion at the Mormon History Association conference, Darius Gray noted that during the past five or so years, there has been “resurgence of insensitive comments and attitudes the likes of which I have never experienced before” and that he has heard many Black Latter-day Saints express that: “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t feel safe in my home ward.”  Larry Gerlach added that it seems like “racism … is endemic again” in the United States, which has influenced members of the Church.  A member of the audience named Grace Soelberg noted that she did not have a positive experience with members of the Church growing up as a Black woman in Davis County, Utah: “It was Mormon kids who bullied me the worst and the most.”  This is the experience on the ground and there is a ways for us to go as a cultural group before we truely “love one another as Jesus loves you.”
I want to be clear, these attitudes and actions run counter to the teachings of the Church.  President Gordon B. Hinckley stated that:
I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ. … There is no basis for racial hatred among the priesthood of this Church. If any within the sound of my voice is inclined to indulge in this, then let him go before the Lord and ask for forgiveness and be no more involved in such.
President Dallin H. Oaks taught that: “As we look to the future, one of the most important effects of the revelation on the priesthood is its divine call to abandon attitudes of prejudice against any group of God’s children. … As servants of God … we should hasten to prepare our attitudes and our actions—institutionally and personally—to abandon all personal prejudices.”
More recently, he added that:
In public actions and in our personal attitudes, we have had racism and related grievances. In a persuasive personal essay, the Reverend Theresa A. Dear of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has reminded us that ‘racism thrives on hatred, oppression, collusion, passivity, indifference and silence.’ As citizens and as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we must do better to help root out racism. … This country should be better in eliminating racism not only against Black Americans, who were most visible in the recent protests, but also against Latinos, Asians, and other groups. This nation’s history of racism is not a happy one, and we must do better.
And, of course, President Russell M. Nelson taught that: “I grieve that our Black brothers and sisters the world over are enduring the pains of racism and prejudice. Today I call upon our members everywhere to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice. I plead with you to promote respect for all of God’s children.”  This was later codified in the Church handbook of instructions, which states that:

Prejudice is not consistent with the revealed word of God. Favor or disfavor with God depends on devotion to Him and His commandments, not on the color of a person’s skin or other attributes.

The Church calls on all people to abandon attitudes and actions of prejudice toward any group or individual. Members of the Church should lead out in promoting respect for all of God’s children. Members follow the Savior’s commandment to love others (see Matthew 22:35–39). They strive to be persons of goodwill toward all, rejecting prejudice of any kind. This includes prejudice based on race, ethnicity, nationality, tribe, gender, age, disability, socioeconomic status, religious belief or nonbelief, and sexual orientation.

Again, to hold or to act on racist beliefs or attitudes runs counter to the Church.  Juneteenth is an opportunity to reflect on how to root out racism in our own selves as well as to celebrate progress that has happened up to this time (and I encourage studying this article as a part of the process of self-reflection).
For a few meaningful ways to celebrate, consider the following suggestions:
  • Find and join a local Juneteenth celebration in your community. Check here to see what is happening across the U.S. and around the world.
  • Consciously buy from Black-owned businesses and restaurants: Here’s how to find Black-owned restaurants where you live. We Buy Black and Official Black Wall Street are two platforms that aggregate businesses owned by members of the Black community.
  • Sign petitions online, send texts, make phone calls, and attend local events: The ACLU website offers a handful of quick ways to participate on its site as well as some more involved options, like phone calls or texts on behalf of the organization’s causes and information on local events like town hall meetings.
  • Do not place the burden solely on black communities to share their experiences or educate on Black history. Continue your self-education through book groups, TV shows, and more: CNET collected this list of books, movies, and TV shows to educate people of all ages about systematic racism.

5 comments for “Juneteenth and Utah Territory

  1. I don’t believe the liberal attack on the church at all. The Church is far more welcoming then this article expounds. Africa is the largest growing Church area in the world.
    But, the libs want to make us look bad as usual. Try fixing your own house first Ms Polosi.

  2. Just because the Church is growing in Africa doesn’t mean that members in the United States don’t harbor racism. And as the quotes indicate, the institution of the Church and its leadership are sending antiracist messages, but the membership in some areas need to listen and the follow the prophet better on this area. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God, which is why I invited each of us (myself included, and I suppose Ms. Pelosi if she ever reads this) to ponder on how we can improve in this area. It is not intended as an attack on the Church but instead as an invitation to repent based on the official teachings of the Church.
    Also, the Church is my house, Truth and Light, so I’m not sure your ending reads how you intended.

  3. Thanks for the reminder, Chad. Juneteenth is a good time to reflect on how we might learn to be more loving towards all of God’s children.

    I would add: racism in the church isn’t just a white North American problem. Members on all parts of the globe need the occasional reminder to embrace their brothers and sisters of other races, cultures, and nationalities.

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