Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section.
SALT LAKE CITY — This month marks 400 years since the beginning of the slave trade in the United States, and while the trade was established well before Utah ever even mapped, its shadow is just as intertwined in Utah as elsewhere in the country.
“There is no institution in this nation that has not been stained by slavery. It is one of our greatest tragedies and this nation’s original sin,” said Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski. “The truth is, like most American cities the brutal practice of slavery was used to help build Salt Lake City.”
As the country reflects on the somber quadricentennial, a few dozen people ranging from Utah representatives and Salt Lake City officials to religious figures in the state gathered Thursday during a grave dedication of an enslaved black pioneer who died in 1862 and remained buried in an unmarked grave at the Salt Lake City Cemetery for more than a century.
The ceremony honored a man who so little was kept of, including his last name, and reflected on the history of slavery in America.
Tom’s story was uncovered by Mark Smith, who worked at the Salt Lake City Cemetery Sexton’s House for nearly 20 years, until his death last month. Smith was researching for a book when he discovered a burial record that identified a man named Tom being buried in the southwest corner of the cemetery, Biskupski said.
In a way, Tom’s story started centuries before his birth, as slaves were brought from Africa to the U.S. According to PBS, more than 12 million Africans were shipped to the Americas from 1525 until 1866. That included what is now U.S. soil beginning in August 1619.
“These individuals did not arrive in America by choice or by way of Ellis Island or Plymouth Rock, seeking a better life for themselves or their family, but instead as captured human cargo,” said Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City. “But their arrival is still a significant part of our nation and the building of this nation.”
What’s known about Tom is that records suggest he was born in Tennessee in either 1820 or close to that, according to Smith’s research. He remained there until Haden Wells Church took him to Utah territory with Abraham Smoot’s overland migrant company.
Tom wasn’t the only enslaved pioneer. During a 2018 presentation in Salt Lake City, author and historian Amy Thiriot noted the first group of Mormon pioneers to reach the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847 included three enslaved men: Green Flake, Hark Lay and Oscar Crosby. Two others died during the journey.
Utah was also a slave territory from 1852 until Congress outlawed slavery in all U.S. territories on June 19, 1862. Thiriot said the exact number of slaves in Utah is unclear. She said 1850 U.S. Census records showed 26 slaves were in Utah in 1850 and 29 were listed in 1860. However, she said there were likely many more slaves whose records weren’t kept.
Smoot, who later became mayor of Salt Lake City in 1857, began owning Tom at some point, as it was listed in 1850 census records, Smith’s research found. Tom was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on June 24, 1854, and was a member of the Sugarhouse Ward, Smith's research also found. Tom remained in Utah until his death in 1862 at the age of 42. His cause of death was listed as “inflammation of the chest.”
While Tom was buried at the cemetery in 1862, there was no headstone for him. Smith informed Salt Lake City officials about the oversight and work was completed to put a headstone where Tom was listed as being buried. It was one of Smith’s last projects before his death on July 30.
“As someone who believed this cemetery is a repository for this city’s history, Mark felt strongly that Tom should be honored and a marker should be laid so visitors would know about his life and contributions as an early pioneer,” Biskupski said.
She, Hollins, NAACP Salt Lake City branch president Jeanetta Williams and Ephraim Kum, an intern at Salt Lake City mayor’s office, all spoke at the event. It was capped by a dedication of Tom's grave by Ahmad Corbitt, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Let us remember those individuals such as Mr. Tom, whose life is worthy to be celebrated. As I read his history, it is a reflection of many of our African ancestors whose labor built our nation and this state but never enjoyed the benefits of freedom on which our society was built.
–Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City
“Let us remember those individuals such as Mr. Tom, whose life is worthy to be celebrated. As I read his history, it is a reflection of many of our African ancestors whose labor built our nation and this state but never enjoyed the benefits of freedom on which our society was built,” Hollins said. “He represented the many broken families whose identity remains lost in history."
Earlier this year, Hollins also worked to remove a slavery-as-punishment provision that remained in Utah’s constitution.
Kum also reflected on the families who were torn apart during the slave trade. As a Ghana native, he pondered aloud the difference between those taken from Africa in the 1600s and his family’s decision to immigrate two decades ago.
“My parents and I came from Ghana to the United States but by much, much more humane means,” he said. “I think about how fortunate I was to be born 20 years and not 420 years ago, or how fortunate my ancestors were to not be on those same ships as Tom’s predecessors.”
Remembering the others
While much of the ceremony centered around the slave trade history and Tom’s life, Thursday’s ceremony came with a sobering caveat.
Biskupski noted Tom’s not alone. There are many more individuals buried in Salt Lake City Cemetery who died enslaved and without a gravestone. She said the city is working to gather information about others buried in the cemetery, and perhaps they, too, will receive a headstone in the future.
“This legacy requires that we stand together as a community to take ownership of our past, to right what we can, and to learn from history so we can build a better future,” she said.