President M. Russell Ballard dedicates new monument honoring Black pioneers

Green Flake, a Black enslaved pioneer, is displayed carrying an axe and looking stoically into the distance. Flake is one of four Black pioneers to be honored with the monument and is believed to have been in the first wagon to arrive in Salt Lake City on July 22 1847, two days before LDS prophet Brigham Young. (Mckell Park)

A new monument honoring and featuring four Black pioneers who crossed the plains in 1847 was unveiled on Friday morning at This is the Place Heritage Park. The reveal happened in conjunction with the 175th anniversary of the first pioneers’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley.

Betty Sawyer, President of the Ogden Utah National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, gave the invocation for the event before the statues were uncovered. Movie director Mauli Junior Bonner, the project coordinator and Gov. Spencer Cox spoke followed by a dedication of the monument from President M. Russell Ballard from the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The monument features three separate bronze statues of pioneers Green Flake, Hark Wales and Oscar Smith, who all crossed the plains as slaves. Jane Manning James, a well-documented Black pioneer woman from the 19th century, is also featured.

Jane Manning James is portrayed next to her two sons Silas and Sylvester. James lived with Jospeh Smith, first prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his wife Emma Smith, for a period of time. (Mckell Park)

According to research by the University of Utah’s Century of Black Mormons, Flake may have been in the first wagon that ever set foot in the valley, although this narrative is rarely acknowledged in the LDS community. He was part of the Mormon Vanguard Brigade and was only 19-years-old at the time he arrived to Salt Lake City.

Wales and Smith were brothers, also part of the Mormon Vanguard Brigade, and made the long trek across the country with Flake. Both were born into slavery and freed later in their lives.

Bonner’s project marks an important shift in representation for Black pioneers and their ancestors.

The statue portrays the two brothers, arms around each other, looking intently into the distance. Each statue is displayed in front of a plaque with information about each pioneer. (McKell Park)

The story behind the monument began in 2018 when Bonner’s family was asked to sing at the “Be One” celebration commemorating the 40th anniversary of Black members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints receiving the priesthood. It was backstage at this celebration where Bonner first learned about Flake and after that day, his life took a dramatic shift.

“I just dropped everything I was doing and focused fully on learning more,” Bonner said. “As I was learning and reading, I was writing. Writing was just part of the therapy for me, but I didn’t expect after that month of doing the work that I would have 200 pages and 10 songs.”

This fervor of curiosity sparked the inspiration for Bonner’s film Green Flake, which went on to win awards worldwide. After learning there were no monuments celebrating Black pioneers, Bonner knew what his next venture would be.

“That’s when I decided that every penny of profit was going to go towards building a monument,” Bonner said. “We reached out to the Church and the park and let them know what we were doing and what the story was about.”

Bonner reached out to Ellis Ivory, chairman of the board for This is the Place Heritage Park Foundation and worked directly with him to make plans for the monument. Ivory, Bonner and Tamu Smith, director of the film and descendent of Green Flake, walked the park with Kem Gardner who helped fund the project. Ground was officially broken for the project in December 2021.

“It’s been the easiest, hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Bonner said “It’s a big thing to do and it’s a lot of work, but there is so many people people that come on board to make it happen.”

The sculptures have been in the works for more than a year and were created by Stefanie and Roger Hunt and Metal Arts Foundry with architect Niels Valentine. The monument sits in directly across from the This is the Place Monument which was built in 1947 and depicts the moment Brigham Young declared “This is the place,” two days after Flake had arrived in the valley.

Bonner said his favorite part of the process is knowing the decedents of the Black pioneers will have a way to honor their ancestors —an experience he lives vicariously through.

“We don’t tell the stories of enslavement to cause shame or guilt or pain, we tell the stories because they’re true,” Bonner told the crowd. “Because they endured and because we all have the opportunity to draw strength from them.”

“I have looked into these faces. There is strength in these faces,” Cox said. “There is pride in these faces and yet there is humility and kindness in these faces. This is the beloved community that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about. This is it.”

Bonner said the monument is not only important for the decedents of the pioneers, but is a great step towards representation for Black members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in general.

“Representation is important and some people just don’t have to think about it,” Bonner said. “I don’t want to convince my son anymore that there were Black pioneers, I want to show him. I don’t want to convince my son that there is Black angels, I eventually want to be able to show him. It’s important because what we see is what we believe.”

The Bonner Family also performed a song titled “Child of God” which was written by Bonner and Jonathan Keith. Debra Bonner, the mother of the 10 person family invited the crowd to stand and sing along “If they are a child of God.” The entire crowd stood and sang with the group.

President Ballard addressed the crowd and dedicated the monument following The Bonner Family’s performance. Elder D. Todd Christofferson, another member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was also in attendance.

“I feel that the things we do here will be a way to tell our posterity for generations yet to come the importance and the blessing of our pioneer forefathers and all the wonderful things we have and enjoy because of all those who came before us,” Ballard told the crowd.

In honor of the monument unveiling and Pioneer Day this weekend, several Megaplex’s in the Salt Lake area will show Green Flake in theaters.

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