Small but consistent: BYU student-led project uncovers forgotten history of students of color

A statue of Brigham Young watches over the campus of BYU on Sept. 3, 2003. The BYU Slavery Project is dedicated to understanding and documenting the university's history related to slavery and race relations during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras.

A statue of Brigham Young watches over the campus of BYU on Sept. 3, 2003. The BYU Slavery Project is dedicated to understanding and documenting the university's history related to slavery and race relations during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News)

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PROVO — It's not often that college students expand and change the historical record, but that's exactly what's happening at Brigham Young University.

Until recently, it was widely accepted that BYU's first African American student didn't attend the university until the 1960s. That changed when recent BYU graduate Grace Soelberg started to examine copies of the BYU yearbook from 1911 to 1985. Her research uncovered the identity of BYU's first Black student, Norman Wilson — a master's student studying agricultural economics who attended the university from 1937-1939. She also found evidence that BYU has had a small but consistent population of students of color.

"I think there's kind of this notion that BYU will only ever be for white students, but there is a history of people of color being there and that we belong there as well," Soelberg said. "We're not visitors there and we're not just welcomed here — we've been here the whole time and we deserve to be here."

That discovery was particularly meaningful for Soelberg, who is biracial. Although she said she had many positive experiences during her time at BYU, she also encountered racism at the school, such as peers calling her a racial slur on campus or telling her she only got accepted to BYU because she is Black. While BYU was never formally racially segregated, Soelberg's examination of old yearbooks found that students of color were often seen as "other," with the mainstream community treating them as "ornaments of fascination" or props in public relations efforts to defend the school and church from accusations of racism and bigotry.

"Particularly with studying racial minorities, it's like an extension of myself, almost, to look into the past," Soelberg said. "Not that I go into it with any agenda or anything, but I just want to understand the lives of people like me. So much of history is learning about white men, in particular, and I would like to know what it was like for Black people that were in my same shoes."

Soelberg is one of about three dozen students who have participated in the BYU Slavery Project, a BYU-funded initiative that is dedicated to understanding and documenting the university's history related to slavery and race relations during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras. Specific research topics have included the family history of BYU's first Black student and how religion professors approached race in their curriculum.

History professor Christopher Jones launched the initiative in fall 2020 and said the project is student focused and overseen by faculty mentors.

"Students have been involved in every step of the research since its inception. They've been really interested in uncovering this history," he said. "BYU has a much longer history of students of color than I think anybody previously realized. Grace talks about Norman Wilson coming in the 1930s. We have Native American students in the 1890s. We have, it looks like, Polynesian and Pacific Islander students as early as the first decade of the 20th century."

The project offers students a unique opportunity to study history that is localized to the places they live in and study at, Jones added. Although universities like Harvard and Georgetown have similar projects examining their institution's connections to slavery, the BYU project stands out given its distance from the geographical locations typically associated with slavery as well as the fact that the university was founded in 1875 (years after slavery was made illegal). Those distinctions do not mean BYU does not have ties to slavery, however, say researchers with the project.

"Other universities are built literally by slave labor, but (BYU's ties to slavery) are more indirect. The chronology seems like, 'Why is there even a BYU slavery project?' until our students got into it," BYU history professor Matthew Mason said at a recent public presentation of the project that drew over 80 individuals.

The project has highlighted that some individuals involved in the founding and early years of BYU had ties to both African-American chattel slavery and various forms of Native American slavery and servitude in the 1850s and 1860s. Brigham Young "spoke in favor of legalizing and regulating slavery, allowing enslaved men and women to be brought to the territory but prohibiting the enslavement of their descendants and requiring their consent before any move," according to a topic on Slavery and Abolition on the website of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Abraham Smoot, the school's board of trustees president for two decades, owned slaves.

Researchers stressed that there is no agenda behind the project nor does it aim to change the name of the university or buildings like Abraham O. Smoot Administration Building.

"The goal here, from our perspective, is understanding and making that understanding more accessible," Jones said. "We're in the understanding game as historians. Our goal is not activism; our goal is understanding."

Feedback for the project has largely been positive, but researchers have received some pushback from some BYU alumni and some Latter-day Saint church members who criticize the initiative for being unnecessary or politically charged. Mason said that criticism is reflective of the nature of public memory and how historical figures are often painted as heroes or villains rather than complex individuals.

"Memory is when history gets out into the public and gets politicized for reasons that people want to discuss at that time. Memory is almost always the function of finding heroes and villains," he said. "When these things get out into the public sphere, they do not go through necessarily complex so much as contested responses."

For Soelberg, the recent BYU grad, learning about some of this history hits close to home. While doing her family history, she discovered that her fourth great-grandmother was Brigham Young's sister.

"That was really complicated, especially knowing how Brigham Young felt about particularly mixed-race people since I'm biracial," she said. "I feel like if I'm able to come to terms historically, personally and spiritually with Brigham Young, I don't know why everybody else can't do it."

The project's next steps are to update its website with its research within the next few months. In the meantime, those interested in learning more can read about the project in the Utah Historical Quarterly.

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Sydnee Chapman Gonzalez is a reporter and recent Utah transplant. She works at the Utah Investigative Journalism Project and was previously at and the Wenatchee World in Washington. Her reporting has focused on marginalized communities, homelessness and local government. She grew up in Arizona and has lived in various parts of Mexico. During her free time, she enjoys hiking, traveling, rock climbing and embroidery.


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