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,[ref]Keynote presentation by Michael Quinn at the DC Sunstone Symposium in 1995, where I was in attendance.[/ref] 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.[ref]For better or worse, this practice of refusing to baptize individuals culturally or legally considered dependents of a head of household who objects continues in some forms even today.[/ref] 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.
To me, a good historian is one who tries to understand the times as they were understood at the time, rather than imposing modern feelings into old times (presentism). Meg is a good historian.
Meg, thanks for this good research and perspective. So many are jumping to conclusions and generalizations while missing background information. You’re thoughts are well taken. A side question: Do you know how it worked to tithe a slave to a bishop? Wouldn’t that be considered more like a gift for the bishop’s personal gain and not for the Church, unless the bishop sold or traded the slave for goods or cash in behalf of the Church?
In the 1800s assets of the Church were considered personal property of the head ecclesiastical leader. For example, until the presidency of John Taylor, the assets of the Church were considered the personal property of the First Presidency. As an aside, I think this is why William Law became murderously angry with Joseph and Hyrum when Joseph released William Law from the First Presidency (and incidentally told the police force there was a Brutus in their midst, which William Law wrote he understood to be himself.
As to how bishop’s storehouse assets were used for the benefit of the congregation, they may have been accounted as the bishop’s property, but they were held in sacred trust to benefit the needy of the congregation. If I am right about Tom and others being tithed to The bishop’s warehouse, it seems these folks would have potentially have been employed managing the assets of the bishop’s storehouse and provided their needs from that same storehouse. As to the function of bishops’ storehouses generally, I’m sure there has been extensive research. As to how tithed persons would have been handled in the bishop’s storehouse over which Smoot presided as bishop, it appeared documentation is insufficient to be certain how this was managed.
If the persons were transferred to the local church representative, Smoot would not have considered them a personal gift to himself.
Thank you for your comments on this topic.
There are several interesting features of Indian slavery in Utah. The slave owner was required by law to feed, clothe, shelter, discipline, and educate the slave. They were to be treated approximately as one would treat their own children. Additionally, the term of enslavement was to last a maximum of 20 years, making it more similar to indentured servitude than to lifelong and generational slavery as we know if from the antebellum south.
My wife is a descendant of Isaiah and Daphne Hamblin who are also the parents of the well-respected Utah pioneer Jacob Hamblin.
Jacob Hamblin ended up “acquiring” 3 young Native American children. The first was a young boy about 9 years old that was abandoned by the tribe to starve to death with his dying mother. Jacob named him Albert and took him into his home, treating him like his own son. In those days, treating a child like your own looked very similar to what was required of an owner of a slave as noted above – feed, clothe, shelter, discipline, educate and, of course, perform labor within the family routines of home, livestock, and crop management.
A few years later (abt. 1855), Jacob was compelled to purchase a set of twin girls who were about 10 years old. It was either purchase them or allow the Paiute leaders to sell them into real slavery. Jacob named the girls Ellen and Eliza. They were put to work assisting Jacob’s 2 wives in home management, and in this respect as well as others, were treated like regular members of the family.
I suppose that these three children would be classified as slaves by today’s researchers, but we shouldn’t conjure up images of slave life as it was among southern plantations. These children were very much a part of the daily family life and management, with all of the associated responsibilities and benefits.
We need to be very careful how we approach historical topics such as slavery and indentured servitude. Not all forms were the same and each needs to be assessed within its own unique circumstances, which is apparent in how you have addressed this tropic.
What is the difference between tithing blacks to Smoot and an Alabama slave owner gifting a slave to his daughter or neighbor? Even if the slave was treated kindly, it is still slavery.
It really is too bad we don’t have more clarity on this.
We know when folks who were legally able to be considered property were included as part of the 10% of all assets transferred to the Church as a tithe that Brigham freed them.
It doesn’t seem to me that Tom and possibly two other individuals who may have been tithed in Smoot’s ward should be considered to have been Smoot’s property.
Everyone in Utah at the time lived a gritty existence. The traditional benefits of retaining someone as a slave were uniquely a propos in the South, where the plantation economy had been built on “affordable” labor, much as today’s agricultural harvest depends on ill-paid migrant labor.
But in Utah of the mid 19th century, there wasn’t a benefit to keeping slaves. It would be a useful research project for someone to look at how many servant owning families joined the Church and migrated to Utah, then trace the pattern And percentage of how ownership of these servants was transferred to the Church, as it would seem owning a servant would be unprofitable In the economy of Utah.
As to slavery, it might be worth remembering that the Greek term translates as servant in the KJV New Testament actually means slave. As we covenant to take upon ourselves the yoke of Christ, the original Greek termed us as Christ’s slaves.
Early Church members tended to be geeky about learning Hebrew and Greek. Certainly they lived in an era when it pleased some to justify ownership of persons by appealing to arcane readings of scripture.
Just to say that to persons in that milieu, it may not have felt terribly offensive to retain language casting a fellow Church member in a construct that effectively was true of all who had covenanted to uphold and sustain the Church.
Do I wish Smoot had taken the pains Young took to distance himself from being perceived as a slave owner, even if on behalf of the Bishop’s storehouse? Absolutely.
But we need to recall that Young and Heywood were from the North, where they valued emancipation. Smoot had deep ties to the South, and therefore had less inner drive to cast his actions as emancipation. But I still don’t think those transferred to the Bishop’s storehouse should properly be understood as slaves. Certainly not slaves in the sense of human ownership in the plantation-oriented South.
It is also interesting to consider the history of Carter, who owned over 500 slaves and was contemporary with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Carter treated those he “owned” as fellows, empowering them to act as they wished. Carter initially gave his children servants, but effectively disowned his children when he learned they had sold off some of these servants, severing families.
It was around this time that Carter came up with a schedule for emancipating his slaves, a schedule which gradually transferred ownership of these servants to themselves and which continued after Carter’s death until all had been freed.
Was Carter a slave owner? Yes. But his efforts transitioning his own estate from a slave economy to an emancipated economy should be lauded.
Again to Smoot, we don’t (yet) have enough data to be certain of any interpretation, but where you liken the tithe of Tom to the bishop’s storehouse to gifting a slave to a friend or adult child, I would liken Church’s donation of Tom to the Storehouse as more akin to Hannah’s donation of Samuel to temple service.
So long as it’s benevolent slavery, then it’s alright.
The interesting thing about someone owning a person is that they are forced into a species of long-term planning on behalf of that person.
Obviously our society considers it more appropriate for each person to plan for themselves. But if we look at the 1800s and the way business owners treated free individuals, exploiting them as a renewable and disposable resource, then one can sympathize with the prodigal son, who yearned to be a slave in his father’s household rather than keep his previously much-desired freedom.
The point is that one can’t just listen to a tweet claiming some Utah resident was a slave owner in the 1800s and be confident you actually know what that meant.
So shake your head all you want. That doesn’t change the fact that this is a complex matter that shouldn’t be simply distilled to Black v. White.
Thank you for your write-up on this issue! One thing that is vital to include in the piece was that the Compromise of 1850 specifically included the implementation of “popular sovereignty” in both New Mexico and Utah territories. The US Congress did not establish Utah as a slave territory – Utah did.
“In 1846, the Wilmot Proviso, which sought to forbid slavery in the territories acquired following the Mexican-American War, died on the floor of the Senate. In an effort to prevent future prohibitive measures against slavery in the West, Democratic Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan, offered up the idea of popular sovereignty. In theory, as Cass and his supporters reasoned, in a democratic society free citizens determined the future.
By allowing the people to decide, Cass hoped to ease the building tensions between the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic Party. Nonetheless, sectional debate and instability continued unabated.
In order to avoid further threats of disunion, Senator Henry Clay devised the Compromise of 1850 as a final panacea. A key component of the compromise was the implementation of popular sovereignty in the newly created Utah and New Mexico Territories. In this case, citizens in each territory were expected to vote on the slavery issue in the near future, and a climate unfavorable to plantation slavery made their votes non-controversial.”
-Garrison, Zach. “Popular Sovereignty” Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Thursday, August 27, 2020
This component led to the Act in Relation to Service, passed in Utah Territory on Feb 4 1852. Brigham Young actively supported this Act, and Elder Orson Pratt (apostle and territorial legislator) actively opposed it – calling the legalization of slavery in a place where it didn’t already exist “enough to cause the angels in heaven to blush.” E Pratt argued in favor of black male voting rights, which Pres Young strongly rejected ““[We] just [as well] make [a] bill here for
mules to vote as Negroes [or] Indians.” The Utah Act had specific clauses which improved the treatment of slaves, required some schooling, and prevented ownership of the children of the slave. (Read the Act itself for additional requirements and provisions. While the slavery portion was repealed, the anti-miscegenation parts remained until 1963.)
Brigham Young was full of contradictions in his public statements on slavery. He stated that “inasmuch as we believe in the ordinances of God, in the Priesthood and order and decrees of God, we must believe in slavery.” He felt that blacks were under a curse that made them servants of servants.
On the day after the bill passed, he stated “I am as much opposed to the principle of slavery as any man in the present acceptation or usage of the term. It is abused. I am opposed to abusing that which God decreed, to take a blessing and make a curse of it. It is a great blessing to the seed of Adam to have the seed of Cain as servants, but those they serve should use them with all the heart and feeling, as they would use their own children and their compassion should reach over them and round about them, and treat them as kindly, and with that human feeling necessary to be shown to mortal beings of the human species. Under these circumstances their blessings in life are greater in portion than those that have to provide the bread and dinner for them.”
-Young, Brigham (1987), Collier, Fred C. (ed.), The Teachings of President Brigham Young: Vol. 3 1852–1854
These are just a few of the statements from Brigham Young on both sides of slavery. He sometimes verbally against all slavery, other times relating slavery as divinely sanctioned and intertwined with the priesthood denial
The problem with a blanket charge of historians exhibiting “presentism” is that there were plenty of individuals in Brigham Young’s own time, including within the Q12 that strongly opposed slavery in any form, no matter how “benevolent”.
On 29th of April 1862, Tom died from an “inflammation of chest.” His death record described him as “Tom, a Negro, belong’ to Bhp Smoot.” Republicans in congress passed a law nearly two months later (on June 19th, 1862) outlawing slavery in the territories.
Thank you for expanding my understanding of the Compromise of 1850.
In your characterization of Brigham’s comments, are you using the new date from the shorthand transcripts? This puts important comments after passage of the act rather than before deliberations.
I will note that it is precisely because the climates in Utah and Arizona would not support the sort of plantation-based economy that, per your summary, the outcome of Popular Sovereignty was deemed relatively non-controversial in exchange for trading Utah and Arizona for a free California.
As to opposition to slavery at the time, that’s like saying any position on COVID that aligns with views decades from now should be presumed to be widely or universally held. I am delighted Orson Pratt and others were willing to speak up so passionately for freedom. But it doesn’t follow that everyone who didn’t feel so strongly was necessarily damnable at the time, no matter how much we might damn them now.
@Meg Stout, 11:20 and 11:51: But it does essentially eliminate their (oppositional) voices to make a blanket statement that Pres Brigham Young, (or any Apostles and Prophets during their recent history lifespans) was/were “a product of his/their time” – as if their time had more unified voices and positions than today.
It would be like today, if Pres Uchtdorf, E Cook, Pres Eyring, many of the Q70, advocated with many civic groups nationally and locally in Utah, publicly in televised talks, and publicly testified to the legislative session on a moral issue, and Pres. Nelson (after going back and forth publicly) ultimately advocated against them in Utah on that same issue, sometimes stating that he had “divine sanction” for his actions, and stating that “Prophets will always teach the truth.”
Pres. Young definitely made so many contradictory statements on slavery in his lifetime.
In June, 1851 he publicly stated in a sermon: “shall we lay a foundation for Negro slavery? No, God forbid!”
Six months later he had been appointed Utah Territorial Governor and stated: “my own feelings are that no property can or should exist in slaves” while encouraging the Utah Territorial legislature to adopt a “benevolent” indentured servitude to regulate Utah’s (small but visible) black population.
Just two weeks later, again addressing the legislature, he said he was “a firm believer in slavery” and urged legalization of the “Peculiar Institution.”
-Bringhurst, Newell Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People Within Mormonism, 2nd ed.
I include just a few statements because because Pres. Young made similar contradictory statements on slavery many times during his life, before and after passage of the Utah Act in Relation to Service, and not just in relation to the passage of this Utah Act.
Is Pres. Brigham Young damnable for his statements and actions?
Pres. Young is no more (or less) damnable than any of us when we are presented with options and choose wrong. I feel that whenever we say “they were a product of their time” what we are actually saying (or wanting to say, whether consciously or not) is that “everyone/nearly everyone felt as he/she did, and so they really didn’t have any other way to feel/believe/make statements/act.”
Again, Pres. Nelson would be no more or less damnable than any of us when presented with choices and advocating for the wrong one. The leaders of the Church have an added burden in that their words and actions often become the words and actions of many of the members of the Church as well. I’m sure that burden is a heavy one.
Many in Congress (Whigs and then Republicans) and E. Orson Pratt were also “products of their times.” They repeatedly defined slavery as evil and they fought for its rejection. They weren’t “trapped by historical circumstances.”
Pres. Brigham Young and the Utah Territorial Legislature had choices, and they ultimately decided to legalize slavery in Utah Territory. (Even though the clauses made it more in line with indentured servitude, it legally codified the ownership of another human being.)
History Aside: Utah was the ONLY western territory not to self-eliminate slavery.
The New Mexico Organic Act of Sep 9, 1850 established the Territory of New Mexico, ultimately stopping a bid earlier in the year for statehood with a constitution prohibiting slavery. (The territorial boundaries ultimately included nearly all of Arizona and southern Nevada.) During the New Mexico Territorial period, some (including Stephen A. Douglas) maintained that the territory could not restrict slavery, as under the earlier Missouri Compromise, while others (including Abraham Lincoln) insisted that older Mexican Republic legal traditions of the territory, which abolished black, but not Indian, slavery in 1834, took precedence and should be continued.
In 1859, An Act to Provide for the Protection of Property in Slaves in this Territory codified slavery in New Mexico Territory. In December of that year, the legislature’s attempt to repeal the act failed. In December of 1861, the legislature finally succeeded in ending the Slave Code.
In 1861, the southern portion of New Mexico Territory seceded and established the Confederate Territory of Arizona.
In 1863, Congress passed the Arizona Organic Act, which split off the western part of the territory, established Arizona Territory, and abolished slavery in the new territory.
Kansas Territory abolished slavery on Feb 23, 1860 (HB 6).
Nebraska Territory abolished slavery in 1861, overriding the veto by Governor Samuel Black.
Oddly, although Washington Territory forbade slavery, slaves were not forbidden, provided they had not been enslaved, bought, or sold within the boundaries.
Oregon enacted in 1844 a ban on all slavery in the territory, while also requiring all “black and mulatto settlers” to leave Oregon territory. After legal machinations back and forth, Oregon was admitted as a state with the exclusion law intact, which exclusion law was legally invalidated with the 14th Amendment in 1868.
@Meg Stout: I’m not implying that you specifically are espousing the view that they simply “were a product of their time” or that you feel that “everyone/nearly everyone felt as he/she did, and so they really didn’t have any other way to feel/believe/make statements/act.”
I just prefer to push back on the idea seemingly floating around that there was a unanimity of opinion on slavery, even within Utah Territory and the Church.
Elder Orson Pratt and Pres Brigham Young both had access to the inspiration and guidance of the Lord, and they chose to advocat against and for this slavery act respectively.
So is New Mexico better because it did embroil itself in the national conflict?
Is Oregon better because it refused to allow any entrance to blacks and mulattos?
Back to my OP, I assert the Bishop Smoot was likely not what most people think when they say “slave owner.” There are nuances. And the situation is sufficiently under documented that were we to learn a fuller truth at some later time, we could find we assumed very wrongly.
For what it’s worth, citing a second edition of Newell Bringhurst’s works makes it almost inevitable that information from the recent shorthand transcripts are not considered.
When reading history, I prefer to read and understand the facts insofar as they can be ascertained and as they were understood at the time, with as much charity as possible. I try not to use our modern sensibilities to judge people in history.
I’m sympathetic to the “be charitable towards” and “avoid judgement of” historical Church figures/leaders. I think it is wise to let God judge them as only He can.
I think the real problem is well expressed by a non-LDS author Kevin Sparks who, commenting on the existence of slavery in the Old and New Testaments, said, “Modern Christianity maintains that the owning and trading of human beings as chattel is immoral and unacceptable in the eyes of God. How is it possible that this modern theological judgment, now so putatively unassailable and certain, was not reached and preached explicitly by the biblical writers themselves, who wrote under the influence of the Holy Spirit and so presumably knew —or should have known, it seems— that slavery was an abominable practice that dishonored human bearers of the divine image?- (Kevin Sparks, “God’s Word in Human Words”)” The only difference I see for LDS is that the concern extends to 19th and 20th century Church leaders as well as the authors of ancient scripture. How do we deal with incorrect teachings by prophets and apostles (ancient or modern)? Surely we can deal with them in a way that doesn’t involve judging or condemning the individual, but we still find ourselves needing to condemn ideas and teachings. I think a lot of our discomfort with this is not that we are judging people, but that we are uncomfortable judging that prophetic teachings are wrong.
“How is it possible that this modern theological judgment, now so putatively unassailable and certain, was not reached and preached explicitly by the biblical writers themselves, who wrote under the influence of the Holy Spirit and so presumably knew —or should have known, it seems— that slavery was an abominable practice that dishonored human bearers of the divine image?”
I do not find it necessary to answer that question. They believed what they did, in their own political, social, and economic circumstances in their times. Their times, their choices. Pick any ancient Roman or Greek playwright still known today — that person was a great playwright regardless of whether he owned a slave. I don’t need to personally hate him (if he owned a slave or tolerated a slave-owning environment) to signal my virtue to others today. I can respect any good that came from him and ignore any bad.
Getting back to the reason for the OP, much in our current world is being strip-mined because we are attempting to eradicate the semblance of condoning or lauding hurtful things.
Has a previously honored individual been discovered to be abusive, such as any number of entertainment icons? Burn their legacy to the ground.
Are we continuing to have statuary and public place names that honor those who violently rebelled against the United States on the basis of maintaining slavery? Erase the names, remove the statuary.
Some who are disaffected from the Church, such as the white protester who shot at a white individual in Provo, or this white man demanding people entering the BYU Creamery revile Smoot, wish to paint themselves in the colors of righteous anger against supposed evils of recent individuals such as Brigham Young and Abraham Smoot.
This is not the plea of atheists to consider the Judeo-Christian god a fraud for allowing humans freedom to construct society in vile ways. It is a plea of non-believers to consider the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a fraud based on revisionist and uncharitable interpretations of certain lives. Of cherry-picked details from certain lives.
In general, freeing someone is better than keeping someone in slavery. Yes, Oregon and New Mexico legislatures were better than the Utah legislature for eventually eliminating legal black slavery within their territories by themselves. I would have loved for everyone in the territories and states voting and acting to free slaves to also be accordingly non-racist. Oregon’s racist banning of “blacks and mulattos” was wrong. The racist actions of legislatures allowing “Indian slavery” were wrong.
Binary thinking doesn’t paint a great picture of anyone, particularly Prophets and early leaders of the restoration. We haven’t really had a discussion in the Church around learning from unsavory bits of church history. Brigham Young was full of contradictions in his public statements on slavery throughout his life. Bishop Smoot made many contributions and also owned human beings according to the death notation of Tom. I think a very helpful discussion would be to not simply say “some of his beliefs and words (and actions) reflected the culture of his time,” but to lay out the historical details of the situation in Utah territory, mention that members of the Q12 (E Orson Pratt specifically) found slavery abhorrent, and directly argued against it. Notwithstanding that information, Pres. Young chose wrongly and advocated for the codification within the law of ownership of another human being, until the slavery portion was repealed by Congress.
This discussion is applicable to Bishop Smoot as well, regarding the OP. Now with that information, deciding whether or not to keep the name of the Admin Building is perfectly reasonable. Individuals have to decide whether Bishop Smoot actually owned the people that “belonged to him,” and consider whether ownership of another human being is enough to not have a building named after him. You submit that the slaves were likely “tithed” to him, and so he didn’t really own them. I do really like your idea of naming it after female administrators who do not have a namesake building.
To quote the petition: “[The intention] is not to negate any contributions Abraham O. Smoot made. We make no holistic judgement on the man, nor do we see it as our role to do so. Rather, we simply see his decision to enslave Black Americans as one that makes him an inappropriate choice for a campus which cherishes diversity among its students, faculty and staff.”
On a tangential note, have you actually studied what I have written about the early church leaders? As in, my book?