The BYU Slavery Project is putting a historian’s eye on a darker past

A group of Brigham Young University faculty, students and alumni are studying the school’s relationship with slavery and race. In uncovering that history, some members of the BYU community have been confronted with their own familial ties to slavery.

The BYU Slavery Project was founded in 2019 by history professor Christopher Jones after he was inspired by similar projects at other universities.

Jones, fellow history professor Matthew Mason and recent BYU graduate Grace Soelberg explained the reasoning behind the project and shared some of their findings with the Utah Valley Historical Society on Jan. 10 at the Provo City Library.

By looking at how the history of slavery intersected with BYU, Jones told the audience that meant also looking at how slavery intersected with Utah County and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Our net has always been cast fairly broadly,” he said.

The project has expanded, Jones said, to also include looking at the experience of students, faculty and staff of color at the university, including how the university taught about people of color.

Mason told the audience that some universities, particularly those on the East Coast, have a clearer relationship to slavery than BYU because they owned slaves. He cited Georgetown University, where in 1838, Jesuits sold 272 enslaved people in order to keep the school financially afloat.

While BYU, as an institution, did not own slaves, Soelberg said the legacy of slavery is still a part of its history. Soelberg pointed to the Abraham O. Smoot Administration Building on campus.

“Our administration building is named after a slaveholder. And so no matter what you think about that, slavery is directly tied to the university. Even if some people might think it’s a small way, it is directly involved,” she said. “And those legacies continue to affect student experiences today, like mine.”

BYU history professor Matthew Mason, recent BYU graduate Grace Soelberg and history professor Christopher Jones answer questions about the BYU Slavery Project during a Utah Valley Historical Society meeting at the Provo City Library on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

Soelberg also noted comments about race made by the school’s founder and namesake. Brigham Young instituted the policy that banned Black men from receiving the church’s priesthood and spoke in favor of legalizing slavery, according to the church’s website.

In an article published in the Utah Historical Quarterly, Soelberg wrote there has been pushback against the project by some members of the church and alumni. However, much of it “can be understood considering the nondoctrinal belief that many Latter-day Saints hold that prominent church leaders, especially from the pioneer era, were always led by God and therefore infallible in their actions.”

Soelberg, Jones and Mason all said that they have no agenda with the project and are focused on unearthing and understanding history.

For some in the BYU community, unearthing this history can be personal.

Jones learned that one of his pioneer ancestors, Haden Wells Church, was a slave owner. According to Soelberg’s article, Church transferred ownership of an enslaved African American man to Abraham Smoot.

Jones said he grew up idolizing his ancestors and this threw a wrench in his idealistic view of them.

“It collapses that historical distance and makes me feel responsible for coming to terms with that, whatever that might look like,” Jones said. “So the way I approached that as a historian is to try and understand these things historically. Uncover these stories, share these stories, disseminate these stories and collaborate with others.”

Soelberg is biracial and recently learned that she is related to Brigham Young.

“Honestly, I was pretty upset at first because I think I feel like I had finally come to terms with how I felt about him — spiritually, mentally emotionally — and then to find out there was that family connection to it just made it harder, ” Soelberg said. “Now I’m pretty much at peace.”

A group of Smoot’s descendants attended the presentation. Alan Smoot said a family who is a part of the historical society told him and other family members about the event. They were specifically interested in what the presenters would say about Smoot.

“I thought the presentation was done very well. I was expecting maybe there would be more offensive things that were talked about, about Abraham O. Smoot. But there weren’t,” he said.

Alan Smoot said his ancestor did have enslaved people in his home but disagrees with historians who say he owned slaves.

BYU Slavery Project, Abraham O. Smoot plaque, Provo City Library, Jan. 10, 2023

A plaque at the Provo City Library detailing the life of Abraham O. Smoot on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

The project is not intended to throw ancestors under the bus or paint people as villains, Mason said, but to document what happened and show people as complex individuals.

Another aspect of the BYU Slavery Project is Soelberg’s research on a Black student named Norman Wilson who attended BYU in the late 1930s. Like many, Soelberg thought that the first African American student to attend BYU was in the 1960s, but she found Wilson by looking through the school’s yearbook for her honors thesis.

Soelberg theorizes that Wilson was forgotten because he was not a member of the church and did not stay in Utah after attending BYU. She hopes to continue documenting the students of color who came to the school and may have been forgotten about.

The project is still a work in progress and the next step is to build a website in order to make the group’s research accessible.

“That’ll detail individuals like Abraham Smoot, the individuals he enslaved, the broader history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and slavery,” Jones said. “But also the experiences of individuals like Norman Wilson, those students of color at the university.”

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