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The City Journals

African-American History Month highlights 170 years of contributions to Murray

Jan 29, 2019 10:46AM ● By Shaun Delliskave

Daniel Bankhead Freeman, an early settler, resident of South Cottonwood, was born in the Murray area in 1854. (Photo courtesy University of Utah)

By Shaun Delliskave|[email protected]

As February marks African-American History Month, the African-Americans who have called Murray home have made a great impact not only in Murray and Utah but to the nation as a whole. African-Americans were among the first settlers of Murray and have richly contributed to its history.

Most Murray schoolchildren are taught that the first settlers to Murray belonged to a group called the Mississippi Saints. Converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this group of 43 people, including enslaved African-Americans, headed west from Missouri in 19 wagons to join the migration to Utah in 1847.

Leading this group of pioneers was William Crosby, a slave owner, who had two African-American servants, Oscar and Mark. According to historian Leonard Arrington, while Crosby was camped at Pueblo, Colorado, “Brigham Young sent word to… handpick a few able-bodied men to join the advance company.” Oscar joined Young’s company along with two other enslaved men, Green Flake and Hark Lay.

Flake had the honor of driving the first wagon into Emigration Canyon, and when Young arrived in the valley, Flake had already planted crops. Flake, Lay, and Oscar Crosby will be forever immortalized as being part of the first company of pioneers to settle the valley, and their names are included on the monument at This Is The Place State Park.

In 1848, Young began making his vision of colonizing Utah a reality, and he ordered the building of the first settlements outside of Salt Lake City. Ironically, the Salt Lake Valley resembled the nation as a whole, as abolitionist northerners mainly settled the north end of the valley, while the southern settlements of Holladay, South Cottonwood (Murray), and Union (Cottonwood Heights) were settled by the slave-holding Mississippi Saints. 

In fact, not only were the leaders (bishops) of these communities all slave owners, the entire bishopric (bishop and two counselors) of Murray’s South Cottonwood ward all owned enslaved African-Americans. Perhaps a third of all Murray residents at the time of its settlement were African-American—all enslaved.

Slavery was not new to Utah; the Spanish and Native Americans traded rival tribe members as slaves along the Old Spanish Trail. The 1850 census notes that Utah had 26 enslaved African-Americans residing in Utah, and by 1860 that number had risen to 29. As a territory, Utah wasn’t obligated to free any enslaved persons, and the territorial legislature passed a law allowing slave owners to keep them.

Green Flake's owner, James Flake, died in an accident in 1850, and his widow gave Green to the Church as a tithe. Green eventually was granted his freedom, married Oscar’s sister, and bought land in Union. 

As Brigham Young expanded settlements, he called upon the Mississippi Saints to settle San Bernardino, in free-state California, explicitly telling them that all slaves would have no choice but to be freed— including Oscar Crosby.

Perhaps not so well known in local history was an enslaved African-American woman known as Biddy, who had settled on the Holladay-Cottonwood border. Her story to freedom and subsequent success impacted all African-American Californians, even to this present day. 

Biddy expected to be freed when her owner, Robert Smith, settled in San Bernardino, but Smith balked at the idea. He even planned to take her to Texas, possibly to sell her. Biddy sued Smith, and the California courts granted her freedom in a case that happened years before the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision would have nullified it. 

Biddy, unwilling to adopt her former owner’s surname, adopted LDS Apostle Amasa Mason Lyman’s middle name (Lyman ex-communicated her former owner from the Church for his actions regarding Biddy) for her surname. She began practicing as a midwife in California. With the money she earned, Biddy Mason began to invest in land in Los Angeles. Her savvy investments paid off, as she was able to fund the construction of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and became a philanthropist, known for starting convalescent homes and visiting jails to offer medical care.

By 1862, all slaves were freed and some of them changed their last names to further separate themselves from the past, with the exception of the Bankheads. Many descendants from the Bankhead former slaves bought land in and around Murray and were present during the town’s incorporation. Their descendants included Nathan Bankhead who was a noted athlete while Mary Lucille Perkins Bankhead (and also a descendant of Green Flake) help found the Genesis Group, a support organization for African-American members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.