SALT LAKE CITY — For one of the few times in the past 173 years, no formal celebrations are planned this year to commemorate the arrival of the first permanent settlers into the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847.
But if the coronavirus pandemic has killed the fanfare everywhere else, for one of those original pioneers of ’47, recognition is shaping into proportions he never could have dreamed of.
Green Flake was one of the first men to leave a bootprint in what we now call the Wasatch Front. He was with the advance party that broke the trail down Emigration Canyon ahead of the main body of pioneers. He had already planted crops and started building shelter when Brigham Young arrived in his wagon on the 24th and proclaimed, “This is the place.”
But his is hardly a household pioneer name like Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Pratt, Orrin Porter Rockwell, et al.
Because Green Flake was a Black man. And he was a slave.
His owner was a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with the presidential name of James Madison Flake. Flake and his wife, Agnes, joined the church at their plantation in Mississippi circa 1844, after which they packed up their slaves, who were baptized right along with them, and headed to live with the saints at church headquarters in Nauvoo, Illinois.
Two years later, the Flakes fled Nauvoo in the exodus of 1846 and made their way to Winter Quarters, Nebraska, where everyone in the family stayed for the next two years — except for Green.
Nineteen years old, broad-shouldered, over 200 pounds and strong as an ox, the slave Green Flake was chosen by Brigham Young to leave Winter Quarters in the spring of ’47 with his vanguard group of 147 pioneers and make sure they made it safe and sound to the middle of nowhere.
There’s plenty more to the story — how Green built a home for his masters prior to their arrival the following year; how Green married a fellow slave named Martha; how Brigham Young was believed to be instrumental in eventually setting Green free; how Green dealt with the ban barring people of color from receiving the priesthood within the faith.
All of which, and more, will be covered in a film and a book that are about to be released.
With exquisite — and quite unplanned — timing, the life and times of Green Flake are coming front and center just as the Black Lives Matter crusade is cresting in America.
The fact that Green Flake’s life matters is what inspired filmmaker Mauli Bonner and historian Amy Tanner Thiriot to want to tell his story.
The film, titled “Green Flake,” two years in the making, is wrapping up production this week and will soon be shopped to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other major streaming services for distribution.
The book, “Slavery in Zion,” eight years in the making, is in the final editing stage and will be published by University of Utah Press. Green’s story is one of dozens Thiriot, who is a Latter-day Saint, researched for her in-depth look into a part of Utah’s past long overlooked and misunderstood.
“It’s a great privilege to tell their stories,” said Thiriot from her home in Pennsylvania. “Many of them have been forgotten, or their stories have been told by the slave owners who had an incentive not to tell it right or to tell it wrong.”
“Green Flake,” she said, “was a kindly man who understood his place in history. He knew what he did was important, but while he could stand up and talk on Pioneer Day — often during his lifetime the wards would have him come and talk about his experience as part of the first company — his family was marginalized in society. So he kinda straddled both worlds: the pioneering hero of the marginalized minority.”
Utah’s slave history “is not a pleasant story,” Thiriot stressed. “These people were scarred, forcibly separated from their families. There wasn’t a single person enslaved in Utah territory that didn’t have that legacy.”
Mauli Bonner, a Grammy-award winning songwriter and musical producer who lives in the Los Angeles area, had no idea anyone like Green Flake existed until he performed with his family — all of whom are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — at the Be One celebration hosted by the church in June of 2018 commemorating 40 years since the church’s priesthood ban was lifted.
“I realized how little of the history I knew,” he said. “There were so many (of the slaves) I wanted to write about, but I was drawn to Green Flake.”
The more he learned, the more “I felt it was my duty, not just as a Black man, but a Black member of the church, to add it to the history of America and the history of the church. The fact that they are slaves — that might take a minute to let that sink in. But, yes, now let’s learn about it, and let’s tell the full history that built this church.”
Bonner’s film probes the complicated relationship between Green Flake and Brigham Young.
The two bonded as they crossed the 1,000 forlorn miles between Nebraska and the Salt Lake Valley on that momentous journey in the summer of 1847.
Once in Utah, “Brigham Young was going to do whatever he could for his friend Green Flake,” said Bonner, referring to circumstances, left murky by history, that led to Flake’s emancipation.
And yet, such treatment did not translate to others in captivity as Utah became a territory that condoned slavery.
“I can only imagine what Green Flake must have felt like in bringing the saints to safety, then to get there and it changed, and now it’s almost like they were back in the South,” said Bonner. “I can only imagine how difficult that must have been.”
Then, too, there’s the added wrinkle of “Brigham Young being a big part of his (Green’s) freedom, yet also a big part in the change in the rhetoric behind Blacks and the priesthood.”
“Truth is truth,” said Bonner. “The fear of telling all, does that tarnish everything? No, what tarnishes it is when you don’t tell all the truth. We have to be able to tell the story that is a hard one to tell. If anything, it can soften people’s hearts.
“I’ve been asked, as a Black man in the church, ‘Why do you stay, after these stories that you’re telling?’ And I say it’s because I believe it’s true, and this is my church. I’m not going to leave this country because of its history. I feel the same way about the church.”
The two years of filming “Green Flake” “was such an emotional journey,” Bonner said. “It became a labor of obsession. There was no question the film was going to get made, whether it was on my iPhone or with a 30-person crew. Now that it’s finished, I just hope people’s hearts will be open to receive it, and hopefully it takes them to a better them.”