In May 2021, Mauli Junior Bonner and Tamu Smith were pitching a proposed monument honoring Black pioneers to Ellis Ivory, the chairman of the board for This Is the Place Heritage Park.
Both were coming off involvement in films on Black pioneers — Bonner producing and directing “His Name Is Green Flake” and Smith the film “Jane and Emma” on Jane Manning James. They thought a monument would be fitting, especially with Flake and brothers Hark Wales and Oscar Smith among the vanguard company to first enter the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.
As they spoke, Ivory stood up and walked over to the office wall and pulled off a picture of his great-grandfather, Matthew Ivory, who participated in the same company of first-arriving men who charted the course and blazed the trail for other pioneers to follow in coming weeks, months and years.
A connection was made, and Bonner and Smith not only had Ivory’s blessing but his involvement and leadership to fast-track the project.
175th anniversary of arrival
Fast forward to Friday morning, July 22, 2022. On the 175th anniversary of the day when Flake drove the first wagon into Emigration Canyon with brothers Wales and Smith in the same group, a monument to those three — and James, who arrived later in 1847 — was unveiled. President M. Russell Ballard, the Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a direct descendant of and proponent for early pioneers, dedicated the monument before a crowd of several hundred.
“When you’re on the stand and you’re looking at the audience of different races and cultures, it says, ‘This is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ — internationally and multiculturally,” President Ballard said afterward of the diverse gathering of attendees. “It was just a wonderful thing to be a part of and to be able to honor the early pioneers, particularly early Black pioneers.”
The three bronze statues — one of James and her sons Silas and Sylvester, another of Flake, and the third, of the brothers Wales and Smith — and accompanying stone pillars inscribed with highlights of their personal histories comprise the newest historical monument simply named Pioneers of 1847.
Four years in the stages of ideas, planning and production of how to honor the free and enslaved Blacks who were part of the westward migration, the new monument joins similar edifices of tribute on the east side of Salt Lake City, at the foot of the Wasatch Range and near the mouth of Emigration Canyon.
Bonner, the monument’s coordinator, said it serves as “a missing piece” in starting to draw in the Blacks in the history of the early pioneer movement and arrival. By 1850, the growing settlement of Salt Lake City included a recorded 59 Blacks — 29 enslaved and 30 free.
‘In my mind’s eye’
Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — who with his wife, Sister Kathy Christofferson, accompanied President Ballard to the dedicatory ceremony — said he envisioned the 19-year-old Flake driving the lead wagon in 1847 and being followed by Wales and Smith as they came with the advance party down the same canyon where the state park is located.
“Can you imagine that? I can see it in my mind’s eye — them coming down this canyon, no one living here at that moment, beginning to plant crops and start the whole settlement,” Elder Christofferson said. “What a moment — July 22, 175 years ago today.”
With President Ballard offering the dedicatory prayer, Ivory conducted the brief program held in near-triple-digit temperatures. Bonner and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox offered remarks, and Ogden Utah NAACP Branch President Betty Sawyer the invocation. The Bonner Family sang a musical number, “Child of God,” with the eight siblings debuting the song of worship penned by Mauli Bonner and Jonathan Keith.
Stephanie and Roger Hunt designed and created the three statues. They were involved in a similar project three years earlier with the more than 25 statues for the park’s Pioneer Children’s Memorial.
The simple title — Pioneers of 1847 — is purposefully inclusionary, Bonner said. “What I did not want is to have ‘the Black pioneers,’ ‘the African-American pioneers’ — when we say ‘pioneers,’ we shouldn’t just think of white men and some white women, but we should think of all of us.”
One of a handful of descendants of Flake who participated in the unveiling, Tamu Smith admitted to feeling a wave of many different emotions, “thinking about what they felt and the jubilation on the other side. But not only our predecessors who must be so overjoyed, but also our Father in Heaven, seeing these children being reclaimed into this family and how we’re in the process now of righting wrongs.”
‘Just be family’
The monument and the day’s celebration provided “a moment to just be family,” Bonner said.
“At the end of it all, we’re talking about difficult things — enslavement with other pioneers‚ that’s hard and it’s heavy. But at the end of the day, we’re all family … we’re still family and children of God,” he said.
“So I hope that even though we’re talking about some difficult parts of our history, sensitive parts, that we can still look to one another and lift each other up. I hope that this monument will be a place of peace for so many generations to come.”
President Ballard reflected on his widowed great-great-grandmother Mary Fielding Smith among the early pioneers and his great-grandfather President Joseph F. Smith driving a wagon team from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Winter Quarters, Nebraska, and on to the Salt Lake Valley before reaching age of baptism and tied it to the day’s honoring of Black pioneers.
“When you start thinking about pioneers and start connecting it to who they really were, this is a very important thing we’re doing, in my judgment. … I don’t think we’ll ever stop talking about those who blazed the trail and made it easier for us.”
The day of commemoration at This Is the Place Heritage Park was to end with a Pioneer Day concert, “Celebrating Our Collective History.”
The individuals and inscriptions
Following are the monument inscriptions, with slight editing for brevity and style.
Jane Elizabeth Manning
Jane Elizabeth Manning was born in Wilton, Connecticut, around 1821. Jane and her siblings were unusual in never knowing the bonds of slavery. After embracing the gospel, her family joined a caravan of Saints traveling to Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1843, but were forced off a boat in Buffalo, New York, because of their race.
Determined to gather with others of their faith, Jane said: “We started on foot to travel a distance of over 800 miles. We walked until our shoes were worn out, and our feet became sore and cracked open and bled until you could see the whole print of our feet with blood on the ground. We asked God the Eternal Father to heal our feet, and our prayers were answered forthwith.”
After Jane’s arrival in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith’s immediate response was [directed to his wife], “Sister Emma, here is a girl that says she has no home. Haven’t you a home for her?” Jane lived with the Smiths and became close, like family.
After Joseph Smith was martyred, Jane and her husband, Isaac James, with their sons Sylvester and Silas, joined others and would soon embark on yet another treacherous journey to escape religious persecution. Jane was expecting her third child, Mary Ann, when she and her family entered the Salt Lake Valley in September 1847. Jane remained a faithful and respected Latter-day Saint until her death in 1908.
Green Flake was born into slavery on Jan. 6, 1828, on the Jordan Flake plantation in Anson County, North Carolina. At the age of 10, Green was separated from his mother and given to James and Agnes Flake. The Flakes moved to Mississippi, where at age 16, Green heard the testimony of a Latter-day Saint missionary promising the reunification of families for eternity.
As a new convert to the Church, Green was assigned by Brigham Young to the vanguard company that led the trek west. Green was joined by his future brothers-in-law Hark Wales and Oscar Smith. The group of 42 men and 23 wagons blazed the trail for tens of thousands to follow. Green is known to have driven the first wagon into Emigration Canyon under the direction of Orson Pratt. They arrived at Parleys Creek on July 22. The first pioneers of 1847 plowed the land and planted crops for those who came in the following days and months.
Green remained a well-respected Latter-day Saint throughout his life. He spoke at multiple Pioneer Day celebrations alongside Church leaders. Brother Flake and many others like him trusted in God’s promise of a reunited family after this life. Many of the enslaved were buried in unmarked graves. Knowing that, Green carved his own headstone, which reads: “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” He was laid to rest next to his wife, Martha, in the Union Pioneer Cemetery in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, in 1903.
Hark Wales and Oscar Smith
Brothers Hark and Oscar were born into bondage and lived on the John Crosby plantation in Mississippi. While still an adolescent, Hark was separated from his family and gifted to newly married Sytha Crosby and her husband, William Lay. Oscar was inherited by William Crosby. The enslaved brothers then became known as Hark Lay and Oscar Crosby. Once freed, Hark chose Wales as his surname and Oscar chose Smith.
Pioneer John Brown was later assigned to be in charge of a few workers, taking Hark and Oscar to Council Bluffs, Iowa, where they were all selected to be part of the advance team in Brigham Young’s vanguard company. They were tasked with charting a course and improving the trail into the Salt Lake Valley.
As enslaved men, Hark and Oscar were keenly aware of what it felt like to desire freedom, even if the freedom the Saints sought was that of religious worship. They reached the Salt Lake Valley on July 22, 1847, two days ahead of Brigham Young.