A diverse crowd numbering in the hundreds gathered Friday morning under the roasting July sun for the unveiling and dedicatory prayer of a new monument honoring Utah’s Black pioneers at This is the Place Heritage Park.
The hourlong program featured moments of cheering, pioneer stories, music, laughter and tears, especially when descendants of pioneer Green Flake came forward to unveil the monument with statues of Flake, Jane Manning James with her two sons, Sylvester and Silas, as well as Hark Wales and Oscar Smith.
Monument coordinator Mauli Junior Bonner found it difficult to speak after the unveiling.
“How am I supposed to talk through these tears?” he said. “It’s more beautiful than I could have imagined. Not only these beautiful sculptures, but you all being here today. It’s beautiful. ... It’s so beautiful and I’m so grateful.”
Ellis Ivory, chairman of the board for This is the Place Heritage Park Foundation, conducted the event, which featured a stirring invocation from Betty Sawyer, president of the Ogden Utah NCAAP; remarks by Bonner and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox; a rousing musical number from members of the Bonner family; and the dedicatory prayer by President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Elder D. Todd Christofferson, also of the Quorum of the Twelve, was also in attendance.
“We have the opportunity to dedicate a wonderful memorial of statues and features here at This is the Place Heritage Park where people will come for generations to come, we hope, and see the diversity and the reality that the state of Utah is a state where God’s children of all cultures, of all races, can come worship together and enjoy and love one another,” President Ballard said before offering the dedicatory prayer.
The idea for the new monument was kindled on May 7, 2021, when Ivory met Bonner and Tamu Smith, a descendant of Green Flake. Ivory showed them a picture on his wall of his ancestor, Matthew Ivory, who was in the same vanguard company.
“That’s how this whole journey began,” Ivory said.
The statues of Flake, Wales, Smith and James with her sons were sculpted by Stephanie and Roger Hunt.
Bonner’s remarks, often interrupted with applause and cheers, centered on drawing strength from pioneer stories and ancestors.
“We tell the stories to celebrate those who endured something that we will never fully understand. ... We tell the stories because they are true, because they endured it, because we all have the opportunity to draw strength from them. Can we not draw strength from them?” he said, referring to the statues.
Cox recently learned that one of his ancestors was a slaveholder in North Carolina. The man sold his slaves after joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but one orphan named Sammy Lamb remained with the family and journeyed to Utah where he lost his life in an accident.
Cox expressed gratitude for the church working with the community to honor these pioneers in a “unifying way.”
“This shows that there is a different path,” he said. “We don’t have to choose one or the other. It can be about bringing people together.”
In her invocation, Sawyer praised the courage and faith of the Black pioneers and prayed that all who visit the monument would follow the example of the Rev. Amos C. Brown from San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church, who believes in a “ritual of remembrance” — daily, weekly and monthly reflection instead of just once a year or on special occasions.
“Let us be empowered and emboldened to act with compassion toward others as we reflect on their stories and the importance of their lives and their work in the history of this great state and this great nation,” Sawyer said.
The dedicatory prayer
In his dedicatory prayer, President Ballard expressed gratitude and requested blessings for the Black pioneers and friends in the Black community. He prayed for heaven to watch over the new monument and many others in the park that “remind us of who we are and what blessings we enjoy because of those pioneers.”
“May this wonderful presentation live here at the park as a reminder and a remembrance for all of us how precious every living soul, every one of God’s children are unto him and to each one of us,” the apostle said.
The unveiling was an emotional and spiritual experience for several Green Flake descendants.
“I don’t even have the words to describe it,” said Tamu Smith, who was involved in the monument planning from the beginning. “It was like being rediscovered by your family, like being adopted and then finding your real family. It was very similar to that because these are stories that we’ve known for a long time. ... To be able to have your story validated by leaders, by the governor, by all of these people and also to have it be put in a place to where not only do you not have to fight to tell it anymore, but now people can come in and start to get the remnants of it themselves. So the unveiling for me was speaking a truth and having that truth honored.”
Elden Udell, a descendant from Clovis, California, described the moment as “overwhelming.”
“I couldn’t ask for a more wonderful experience,” he said. “I never thought anything like this (the creation of a monument) was even possible, much less come to fruition.”
It was the first time Cox had seen the statues. He had seen some original drawings, but purposely wanted to experience the unveiling with the crowd. He appreciated the music performed by the Bonner family and the diversity of those in attendance.
“It was breathtaking,” he said. “Just to see those statues together, the kind of the fierce determination and power in those in those faces. It was a beautiful moment.”
‘Missing piece of history’
The monument appropriately honors the memory of great pioneers, Elder Christofferson said, and the meaning was enhanced because Friday’s event took place on July 22, the exact day of the 175th anniversary of the first pioneers to enter the Salt Lake Valley.
“This new monument supplies a missing piece to the history of what has been the whole story of the immigration, the Days of ’47, the arrival of pioneers,” he said. “I think that memory is something we need to cultivate. It empowers and I think encourages every one of us, whatever our background.”
There has long been a need for a monument of his kind, and it’s a joy to see it finally realized, said Richard E. Turley Jr., a former assistant church historian and recorder.
“The dedication of this monument to these pioneers provides a way in which members of the church and others can see a tangible manifestation of a faith that provides an example to people throughout the world of individuals who have struggled through very difficult circumstances, enslaved by others of their own faith, and yet provide an example to all of us about how this in spite of all those difficulties that they faced, including some that could have perhaps quenched their faith, they instead remained true to it over a long period of time,” Turley said.
Bonner hopes the new monument will serve to educate and inspire park visitors for generations to come.
“I hope this moment and this place can be an anchor that we can come back to. For me I know it is,” Bonner said. “And it’s just the beginning of telling these stories.”
The spirit of the event matched the purpose of the new monument, President Ballard said.
“We’ve got to recognize that all of God’s children, regardless of their race, or their culture, or their circumstances, are precious to him. They are all his children, and we need to teach one another and love one another as brothers and sisters,” he said. “I was so pleased to see that kind of a spirit radiating through not only everything that was said, but just looking at the congregation. It’s a wonderful thing.”