What is Juneteenth and why does it matter in Utah today?

What is Juneteenth and why does it matter in Utah today?

(Utah State History)

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Estimated read time: 14-15 minutes

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Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section. This story also contains an image some may find graphic or disturbing.

SALT LAKE CITY — Friday marks 155 years since Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to deliver the message that Texas was once again under Union control and that all remaining slaves must be freed.

That moment on June 19, 1865, could be seen as the true end of the Civil War, even if the Confederate Army had surrendered two months prior. By the end of 1865, the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was ratified and the practice of involuntary slavery was forever banned.

"Juneteenth," also called Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, turned into the celebration of the day it ended and it has grown since then.

The holiday celebrates "African American freedom and achievement while encouraging continuous self-development and respect for all cultures," according to the National Juneteenth Register.

But the recent protests over the death of George Floyd last month are a reminder that systemic racism didn’t end when the last slaves were freed in 1865. That moment only closed a chapter in America’s history of race relations. And the roots of slavery and racial discrimination are intertwined in Utah history as well.

So as we recognize and celebrate the advancements made over 155 years, we should also look at what happened in the past so those mistakes aren’t made again.

A history of black discrimination in Utah

If you think Juneteenth shouldn’t be important in Utah, think again. In many ways, discrimination began about as early as possible in Utah’s community history. Green Flake, Hark Lay and Oscar Crosby were enslaved members of the first group of pioneers to reach the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Slavery was officially added to territory code less than five years later.

Green Flake was one of the first three black Latter-day Saint pioneers to reach the Salt Lake Valley. (Photo: Utah State History)
Green Flake was one of the first three black Latter-day Saint pioneers to reach the Salt Lake Valley. (Photo: Utah State History)

Black slaves were bought and sold in Utah, historian Ronald Coleman wrote in a piece about African American history in the state for Utah History Encyclopedia.

"The majority of slaves in Utah worked on the small farms that were scattered throughout the territory, although a few worked in businesses in Salt Lake City," Coleman wrote. "Although Brigham Young never intended that slavery flourish in Utah he did accept the biblical explanations utilized by proslavery apologists to justify the enslavement of blacks."

There were 30 freemen and 29 slaves in the Utah territory before the Civil War, according to 1860 Census records. The practice was officially outlawed in Utah when President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill in 1862 that banned involuntary slavery in all U.S. territories. The bill was ironically passed by Congress on June 19 that year — exactly three years before Granger’s ride into Galveston.

But much like in other places in the country, racial discrimination didn’t end in Utah once slaves were freed. In other parts of the U.S., states passed so-called "black codes" that targeted black workers and set the stage for Jim Crow laws beginning in 1877. Those laws would continue to push ideas of "separate but equal" until it was ruled unconstitutional in 1954. The Civil Rights Act wouldn’t be enacted until a decade later.

It’s known that some of that treatment existed in Utah. For instance, here are just a few examples of unfair treatment from Utah’s history:

  • Marian Anderson, a black singer, performed at concerts in Salt Lake City, but was denied a place to stay in 1937, according to state historians. In 1938, she was allowed to stay at Hotel Utah, only after she agreed to use a freight elevator.
  • In 1939, there was a failed ploy to move black residents from their homes to one central neighborhood in Salt Lake City. That was foiled by protesters and by a city commission ruling. That said, realtors did find a loophole by not selling certain homes to black individuals until that practice was banned by the state in 1948. That practice actually had been made illegal in 1866 but similar redlining practices weren’t really federally enforced until 1968.
  • The famed "Green Book" that guided black motorists to hotels and accommodations throughout the U.S. included places that were friendly in Utah to avoid the harassment or embarrassment of being turned away, which indicates there were places less welcoming to black motorists. The yearly guide was created in 1936 and remained in circulation until the Civil Rights Act essentially made it obsolete. "A traveler through Utah or Wyoming or California would also face discrimination in lodging and restaurants, so the book gave them a guide where they could go and they wouldn’t be turned away," Susan Rugh, professor of history at BYU and author of the book, "Are We There Yet?: The Golden Age of American Family Vacations" told KSL.com in 2018.
  • Interracial marriage was banned by Utah law from 1888 through 1963. In fact, in 1898, a black waiter in Ogden named William Howard was sentenced to 20 days in prison after he was convicted of marrying a white woman, according to a paper published in Utah Historical Quarterly. The Supreme Court ruled such bans were unconstitutional in 1967 — four years after the Utah Legislature repealed its law.

The list could go on and on. There was racially-motivated violence as well.

Historian Larry Gerlach wrote a piece for a 1998 edition of Utah Historical Quarterly that looked into the history of lynching in the state. In his research, he found there were at least 11 lynchings between 1869 and 1886; at least two of the 11 were black men and two were Asian men. The incidents occurred in Corinne, Eureka, Logan, Ogden, Park City, St. George and Salt Lake City — many of those being heavy mining or railroad towns at the time.

We cannot undo the past but we can recognize what has happened and why. To ignore past misdeeds is to condone them, if only by silence; to acknowledge past misdeeds is to educate and to educate is to prepare the way for a better tomorrow.

–Larry Gerlach, 1998 edition of Utah Historical Quarterly

In all, at least 4,700 lynchings were carried out in the U.S. between 1882 and 1964 and nearly three-fourth involved black individuals. But Gerlach's paper centered mostly on a disturbing incident in Utah history because it was presented at a ceremony providing the victim a headstone.

On June 15, 1925, a Carbon County marshal was brutally murdered while making runs as the night watchman for the Utah Fuel Company. There were no witnesses to the crime but a pair of young boys playing near the scene identified a black coal miner named Robert Marshall as the assailant, Gerlach wrote.

Marshall was apprehended at his cabin on the morning of June 18 and was to be taken to a Price jail after his roommate had alerted authorities. But the caravan taking him to jail stopped outside of the town’s courthouse and the deputy in charge left Marshall unattended while a lynch mob formed nearby.

"Members of the crowd, rope in hand, commandeered the vehicle and headed out of town followed by a parade of ‘at least 100 cars,’" Gerlach wrote, adding that Marshall was taken to a site near Price where some 1,000 men, women and children had gathered.

"The crowd, described by a reporter on the scene as consisting not of ‘disorderly, violent, undesirables’ but, instead of ‘your neighbors, your friends, the tradespeople with whom you are wont to barter … public employees (and) folks prominent in church and social circles,’" Gerlach continued.

The mob lynched Marshall on a tree at a farm in the area. He was cut down by deputies 10 minutes later but then hanged again after "lynchers detected evidence of life," Gerlach wrote.

Robert Marshall, lynched from the "hanging tree" south of Price on Jun 18, 1925. Eleven men were initially charged with the crime but charges were later dropped when witnesses were uncooperative. (Photo: Utah State History)
Robert Marshall, lynched from the "hanging tree" south of Price on Jun 18, 1925. Eleven men were initially charged with the crime but charges were later dropped when witnesses were uncooperative. (Photo: Utah State History)

A group of about 100-150 black workers in the county at the time pooled money together to pay for Marshall’s funeral expenses but didn’t have enough to afford a headstone at the time.

Eleven men were initially charged with murder for Marshall’s death but a grand jury eventually decided later that year there was not sufficient evidence to proceed with the case mainly because more than 100 witnesses refused to cooperate with prosecutors.

Gerlach, who first presented his paper at a memorial for Marshall, refuted anyone’s claims that what happened in the past doesn't matter in current times.

"The Marshall lynching was symptomatic of a societal ill — the racism that afflicted and still afflicts America," he said at the time. "The Marshall lynching, then, affords the occasion for us to meet in a ceremony of historical recognition and racial reconciliation. Reconciliation cannot truly occur unless past injustices are fully acknowledged. ... We cannot undo the past but we can recognize what has happened and why.

"To ignore past misdeeds is to condone them, if only by silence; to acknowledge past misdeeds is to educate and to educate is to prepare the way for a better tomorrow."

Growth of Juneteenth

Of course, this history isn’t new, especially to those who study it and those who have lived or are living through the outcomes created by systemically racist practices.

There are still many aftereffects from history. For example, even though redlining was banned in 1968, a 2018 study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found practices decades ago still had economic and racial segregation implications for many cities today.

On June 19, 1866, the first Juneteenth was held in Texas — the site where the last of the slaves were freed. It's a holiday mixed with celebration — barbecues and activities — but is "almost always focused on education and self-improvement," according to the National Juneteenth Register.

According to the organization, it began as a holiday mostly celebrated by those in the black community even if it was a struggle to celebrate at times.

"In some cases, there was outwardly exhibited resistance by barring the use of public property for the festivities. Most of the festivities found themselves out in rural areas around rivers and creeks that could provide for additional activities such as fishing, horseback riding and barbecues," it wrote.

Juneteenth grew in popularity through time but did fizzle in the early 1900s and during the Great Depression. The register pointed to school textbooks incorrectly saying the Emancipation Proclamation was the end of slavery as one factor for this. The holiday gained popularity again during the Civil Rights movement and continues to grow today.

Utah passed a bill in 2016 that makes the third Saturday in June as Juneteenth Freedom Day.

When Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, proposed the bill, she noted that the holiday had been celebrated in Utah’s community for more than 75 years.

“It celebrates the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which helped change the course of America,” she said, during that legislative session. “Although we continue to struggle with modern-day slavery, this celebration reminds us that we as a country do not support this concept, and it celebrates the freedom that we all enjoy as Americans as a result of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Juneteenth today

There have already been a few events the past few days that discussed everything from genealogy to stories of black American entrepreneurship. On Friday, there will be a Juneteenth Day flag raising at the Salt Lake County Government Center, as well as a State of Black Utah Town Hall later in the day that will be available virtually among other events.

Weber State University will host a virtual town hall Friday called "Mind, Body & Spirit: Black Mental Health in the Midst of Crisis." The conversation, which begins at 6 p.m. MT, will "give youth, young adults and emerging leaders a chance to share how they are coping with racism and injustices."

At 8 p.m., viewers can watch "Excellence in the Community Juneteenth Concert," streaming live from the Gallivan Center. A list of all events and performances are available at https://weber.edu/juneteenth.

The school will also host a "commemorative caravan" on Saturday beginning at 10 a.m. in front of the Marshall White Community Center (222 28th Street in Ogden). Facebook, Instagram and Zoom will have live dancing, drums and gospel, hip hop, jazz, R&B and spoken-word performances throughout the day.

More companies are celebrating the holiday, as well. The Utah Jazz announced that Juneteenth will be an official work holiday for all employees across Larry H. Miller Sports & Entertainment.

The organization says it is encouraging its employees to participate in local celebrations and will give employees free access to "John Lewis: Good Trouble," a documentary about the 60-plus career in social activism who championed civil rights, voting rights, gun control, health-care reform and immigration. The film, which is due to be released July 3, includes interviews with the now-80-year-old Lewis himself.

"In the midst of the national conversation and calls for racial justice, our franchise has made the decision to pause, work to further educate ourselves, and reflect on our country’s race relations both past and present by observing Juneteenth," Utah Jazz President Jim Olson said in a statement from the team. "This is an important milestone in our history and another step for us to learn more about freedom for all and the fight for equality, and ideally be part of helping to create meaningful change."

Other sports teams have offered similar measures, encouraging their employees — beyond just players — to celebrate Juneteenth. Major League Soccer club LAFC took it a step further, starting a petition to have every June 19 recognized as an official U.S. holiday, Freedom Day.

The petition currently has more than 8,000 signatures. The club’s stated goal is 100,000.

"This is one of many initiatives LAFC is pledging to take on in its commitment to change," the team announced. "We will continue to be a force for good. Shoulder to shoulder, we stand with the black community."

Utah Royals FC of the National Women’s Soccer League joined with the NWSL Players’ Association to provide a list of some local black-owned businesses in NWSL markets to support on June 19. Food is often viewed as a way of supporting and learning about other cultures, including black culture.

Among the Utah restaurants are:

  • 11 Hauz, 1241 Center Dr., Park City
  • Benji’s BBQ Shack, 3245 S. State Street, Salt Lake City
  • Taste of Louisiana, 60 N. 1750 West, West Point
  • Yoko Ramen, 473 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City

All are currently available for takeout during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well.

"We’ve always thought that food is a great way to connect and better understand someone else’s culture," said North Carolina forward Crystal Dunn.

Added Orlando forward Sydney Leroux: "On June 19, also known as Juneteenth, we ask you to help us celebrate the beauty in black culture by ordering food from your local black-owned restaurants."

Even though it’s not a sanctioned federal holiday, several large companies in the United States will make June 19 a paid company holiday in their organizations. Among the largest corporations are Adobe, Twitter, Nike and the National Football League.

Internet mega-retailers Amazon and Google haven’t made Juneteenth a company holiday but have told employees to cancel meetings and "use this day to create space for learning and reflection," according to Reuters.

Adobe, which employs more than 1,500 people at its campus in Lehi, says it is giving employees the day off to "focus on reflection and advocacy." The company also made a $1 million donation to the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that "provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons."

"At Adobe, we have a responsibility to address structural inequality in our communities and in society," Adobe said in a blog post signed by CEO Shantanu Narayen and executive vice president Gloria Chen. "Adobe’s mission has always been to create products that empower people to change the world. In order to be successful, we need to operate in a society where everyone is empowered. We are committed to harnessing the best of Adobe — our people, platform, creativity and innovation — to make lasting change inside and outside of our company."

Correction: This article has been corrected on the number of lynchings in Utah between 1869 and 1886.


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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.
A proud graduate of Syracuse University, Sean Walker has covered BYU for KSL.com since 2015, while also mixing in prep sports, education, and anything else his editors assign him to do.


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