One of Utah's earliest black pioneers receives headstone

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COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Memorial Day brought the opportunity to remember one of the first men to enter the Salt Lake Valley with the Mormon Pioneers.

Hark Lay Wales, a former slave, was laid to rest in the Union Pioneer Cemetery, 1533 East Creek Road in 1887; and until Monday he was buried in an unmarked grave.

"He has gone unremembered for far too long and that’s not right," said Alice Burch, of the Utah chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.

Burch helped to organize the event to remember Wales, who born into slavery in Mississippi in 1824 and given as property to a couple who brought him along as they moved west.

"Here is somebody that came in the valley with Brigham Young that didn’t have a headstone. We can’t know all of his contributions or all of his sacrifices, but he certainly deserves to be remembered with a marker," said Sheri Orton, a professional genealogist who a decade ago discovered her husband’s great-great grandfather brought Wales with him to Utah.

She began working to find his grave and learn more about his life, joining with others to provide him with a headstone.

"And because these men were slaves, a lot of the work that is attributed to someone else has physically been done by them," said Robert Burch, the president of the Utah chapter of the Afro American Historical and Genealogical Society.

This monument represents a man whose contributions with the pioneers were nearly forgotten.

"It was really the community of Utah coming out to remember him," Alice Burch added.

Historical Perspective

It also represents an opportunity to preserve his history and that of other slaves who helped to establish Utah.

"We can't ignore our past, our history — it is our history and if we embrace it would healing power that is it’s so much better for all of us," Orton said.

Even though the headstone was unveiled, they are still accepting contributions through an online crowdfunding effort.*

* does not assure that the money deposited to the account will be applied for the benefit of the persons named as beneficiaries. If you are considering a deposit to the account, you should consult your own advisors and otherwise proceed at your own risk.


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