Tuesday a person stood outside the BYU Creamery protesting Abraham Smoot, early financial backer of the Brigham Young Academy (now BYU) and president of the BYA board of trustees.
My sister and some of her sons encountered this micro-protest while buying groceries. One son asked, “Isn’t it inappropriate to protest on private property without permission?” Another wanted to get into a debate with the protester. But my sister felt it better to not let her pre-teen sons question or debate someone who felt so passionately about their concern.
Some historians point out that Abraham O. Smoot apparently was considered the owner of three persons who came to Utah as slaves. Two of these persons were emancipated when the US Congress abolished slavery in 1863. The third, Tom, died a few weeks before Congress made ownership of slaves illegal in US territories. Thus, the protester wanted to argue that Abraham Smoot was a slave owner and presumably that Smoot’s name should be removed from the 1962-era administration building on BYU campus.
But what does it mean that Smoot was considered owner of these enslaved individuals?
Let me relate the tale of another enslaved individual, a Paiute boy named Omer Badigee. When the Utah legislature passed the Act In Relation to Servitude in 1852, local Indian tribes saw an opportunity. More aggressive Indians could attack less prepared Indians and sell captured women and children to the white folks, threatening that if the white folks did not purchase the newly-captured women and children, these captured individuals would be killed.
This is how Omer Badigee became an enslaved person as a young boy. The white emigrant who saved Omer’s life can be lauded for that action, but his subsequent treatment of Omer left much to be desired.
Enter Joseph Leland Heywood, at the time U.S. Marshall for Utah Territory as well as devoted member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When Heywood discovered young Omer clothed in rags and infested with lice and fleas, Heywood relieved the un-named savior of Omer’s care.
Heywood returned to Salt Lake City with Omer. Once home, Heywood charged his young ward, Mary Bell, to clean Omer up and get him properly clothed. Mary shaved off the hair that might harbor critters, washed Omer down with kerosene and soap, burned the rags, and clothed the young boy in proper clothing. When she was done, Omer was so transformed that Mary broke down crying and gathered the young boy in her arms. Ever after, the Heywood family considered Mary to be Omer’s effective mother, though she was only 13 when Omer came into the family.
Omer would die of consumption as a young adult, but before his death he was ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood. Family history records show that he was sealed to Joseph Leland Heywood and Mary Bell. I think it could have been the relationship between Mary Bell and Omer that prompted Heywood’s other wives to demand he wed Mary.
But getting back to Smoot, what does it means that Tom’s ownership was attributed to Smoot?
According to an article about the Smoot controversy written by Peggy Fletcher Stack for the Salt Lake Tribune in 2019, Tom had come to Utah in 1847 as the slave of Haden Wells Church, who was part of Abraham Smoot’s company. Later, Church would be a member of the congregation of which Abraham Smoot was bishop.
According to Michael Quinn, there were times when slave owners would donate their slaves to Church leaders as part of their assessed tithes. When slaves were given to Brigham Young, he would always free these individuals.
We have reviewed the history of Omer Badigee, an enslaved person whose “ownership” was taken over by Joseph Leland Heywood, who proceeded to treat Omer not merely as a free individual, but as a covenant son.
The records are relatively sparse for Tom, who at some point was transferred from being the slave of Haden Church to being in the care of Church’s bishop, Abraham Smoot.
Some have presumed that this makes Smoot a straight-up slave owner. They have not considered the milieu in which this transfer took place. Specifically, nowhere has it been admitted that Haden Church may have transferred Tom to his bishop as tithing, though this is a practice we know to have occurred with Brigham Young.
What we do know is that Tom was baptized, an ordinance that at the time would only be administered if the person who “owned” an enslaved person concurred with performance of the ordinance. Because of the lack of documentation, it is not clear when Church transferred his ownership of Tom to his bishop, though the record of Tom’s baptism identifies Tom as “Brother Churches black man”. Thus the transfer appears to have occurred after baptism, though it is possible the transfer happened around the time of the baptism.
I assert it is possible that Abraham Smoot, who had served missions in states where slave ownership was legal, was likely bishop to multiple families who had brought slaves to Utah. Further, I assert it is possible that Abraham Smoot didn’t purchase these individuals from his congregants, but that these enslaved individuals were tithed to Bishop Smoot.
Why would Smoot retain these individuals as slaves if they had been tithed? Heywood and Young emancipated enslaved persons given to them.
It may matter that Utah Territory, by the time of Tom’s death, had been occupied for an extended time by a plurality of the US Armed Forces, many members of which Initially were from Southern States. It may just be possible that, in this circumstance, it was safer for a Black individual to be considered property of a master who would defend the Black individual rather than to risk whatever treatment Southern-sympathizing Army soldiers might inflict on a free Black individual.
At any rate, I suggest that the data are insufficient to characterize Abraham Smoot as a traditional slave owner. I submit that Smoot was likely a Bishop in receipt of tithed enslaved persons who, for reasons currently unknown, did not make a show of emancipating these individuals before Congress freed them by legal fiat. At best, I submit Smoot had reasons for characterizing these individuals as under his banner, reasons that are lost to us but with which we might be sympathetic if we fully understood the historical milieu.
Now, I would be completely fine with renaming the 1962-era X-shaped administration building after some other individual, perhaps a prominent individual (ahem, Snow, Cannon, or Wells) who lacked a Y chromosome. There are many able female administrators associated in some sense with Brigham Young Academy that do not yet have a namesake building at the institution that arose from BYA.
But let us not presume that consequences arising from the US Congress establishing Utah Territory as a slave territory (as part of the Compromise of 1850) transforms Utah individuals into slave owners on par with those who built their institutions on the backs of enslaved individuals or who violently rebelled against the Union to perpetuate a supposed right to enslave individuals.