The BYU Slavery Project began as an initiative of assistant professor of history Christopher Jones in 2019. Jones completed a PhD in early American history at the College of William & Mary, where he learned about the school’s Lemon Project. The project, named after an enslaved man once owned by the university, studies William & Mary’s extensive connections to slavery and history of racial discrimination. After becoming a professor at Brigham Young University, Jones discovered that Haden Wells Church, one of his own LDS pioneer ancestors, was a slaveowner with tangential ties to Brigham Young Academy (later Brigham Young University). Church had brought an enslaved African American man named Tom to Utah. At some point following Tom’s baptism in 1854, Church transferred ownership of Tom to his bishop, Abraham Smoot, who would later move to Provo, where he served as mayor and became the chief benefactor of Brigham Young Academy. 1 As a historian and Church descendent, this connection struck Jones deeply and sparked a desire to be personally involved in something at BYU similar to the Lemon Project. Together with other colleagues in BYU’s Department of History, Jones approached leaders in the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences to see what support there might be for such an initiative. With the support of Dean Ben Ogles, as well as the Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, and Department of History, plans were made to launch the BYU Slavery Project in the fall of 2020. The project was lent further weight (and attention) in the summer months leading up to its launch, amidst the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and renewed attention to questions of racism, slavery, and memory in American history. Four BYU history department faculty members formed the first Steering Committee, and professors from both BYU and other universities joined the Advisory Board. 2 Working together with students from BYU, project partners aimed to understand, document, and clarify the university’s meagerly researched past surrounding slavery, as well as race relations at the school during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras.
Unlike similar projects at other universities like William & Mary, Harvard, and Georgetown, the BYU Slavery Project is unique in several ways. BYU’s geographical location in the Intermountain West distinguishes the university and its history from schools in the eastern and southern United States. Brigham Young University was originally founded as Brigham Young Academy in 1875 when Utah was still a territory and when LDS president and former territorial governor Brigham Young still wielded considerable influence. Its founding in 1875 came ten years after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which made illegal “slavery [and] involuntary servitude” throughout the nation, and thirteen years after Congress made slavery illegal in US territories, including Utah. Nevertheless, some nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints involved in the founding and early years of the academy had ties to slavery and other forms of servitude in the 1850s and 1860s. Given its western location, individuals involved with Brigham Young Academy and its sponsoring institution, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also had connections to both African American chattel slavery and the various forms of Native American slavery and servitude in territorial Utah. Brigham Young infamously legalized African chattel slavery in Utah Territory and participated in the Native American slave trade, even encouraging church members to “buy up the Lamanite children as fast as they could” from slave traders in order to Christianize them. 3
Before students began doing their own personal research in a fall 2020 course co-taught by Jones and Matt Mason, the class read and discussed a variety of sources regarding slavery in the West and at other academic institutions. Class readings included Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, Andrés Reséndez’s The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, selections from W. Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, and Brian Q. Cannon’s “‘To Buy Up the Lamanite Children as Fast as They Could’: Indentured Servitude and Its Legacy in Mormon Society.” These, among other sources, gave students a foundation for understanding how many eastern universities owe their founding and financial survival to the labor of enslaved individuals, the ways in which slavery in the US West distinctly differed from the African chattel slavery of the South, and the intersections of slavery, indentured servitude, and Mormonism. Students also had the opportunity to meet and discuss course material with esteemed guests, including Reeve and Cannon, and current Georgetown Slavery Project members Adam Rothman and Leslie Harris (Northwestern University). Rothman in particular helped students and faculty members navigate the rocky terrain of studying and uncovering controversial historical truths, especially in a religious setting and community.
After several weeks of discussions and meetings, students began researching a variety of topics meant to foster a greater understanding of the school’s racial history. Research ranged from analyzing the extent of Brigham Young’s connection to the Native American slave trade and his theological and political thoughts regarding African American slavery and Black people, to the ways in which slavery was discussed and taught at the university and how religion teachers taught about race, to the family history of BYU’s first Black student who was only three generations removed from slavery. Each student produced original research papers using documents from the university’s and other local archives.
Overall the project has been well received. Many alumni and current students have praised the project for its research, and university administration has supported it by greenlighting the hiring of paid student researchers as well as
continuing to offer the class during the school year. However, there was a brief flurry of pushback by some members of the LDS church and BYU alumni when the project was first announced in the summer of 2020. The project’s social media profiles on both Twitter and Facebook received several negative comments that claimed the project was unnecessary, too controversial, and politically charged. These beliefs led critics to harass members of BYU’s Black Student Union who had urged university leaders to remove the names of people associated with slavery from all campus buildings. The Black Student Union pointed in particular to the school’s administration building named after Abraham Smoot, one of the university’s greatest benefactors who also owned at least two, likely three, enslaved African Americans. This reaction was in sharp contrast to the reaction of Georgetown students and alumni. Adam Rothman explained that given Georgetown’s Christian roots and values of love, repentance, and reconciliation, Georgetown’s slavery project and the resulting findings were well received and the university community was quick to find ways to offer reparations and improve the school. According to Rothman, Georgetown students eventually voted to pay an annual “activities fee” that would go into a Reconciliation Fund to be given to the descendants of those who were enslaved by the university in the form of financial aid and scholarships.
Given BYU’s shared Christian background and values with Georgetown, one may expect that the broader BYU community would have had a similar response. However, much of the pushback to BYU’s project can be understood considering the nondoctrinal belief 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. This belief leads many members to justify Young’s racist teachings regarding African Americans, the church’s past priesthood and temple ban for people of African descent, the church’s connection to slavery, and the exploitation of Native American minors that went through the faith’s Indian/Lamanite Placement Program.
While these critics and the persistence of commonly held nondoctrinal beliefs can be discouraging, I personally think BYU is in a position to make meaningful and lasting change. Unlike most other universities, BYU, like Georgetown’s student and alumni communities, is knit together by more than just school pride and the connection that comes from attending the same institution. Georgetown’s project was successful in achieving its goals because the university community was able to connect to the newly presented historical truths through the common lens of Christian ideals. BYU is also in a position to apply this approach, and by using both rigorous academic research as well as unifying religious beliefs, the broader BYU community has the opportunity to come to terms with the truth in a way that offers spiritual healing and renewal.
The university has an extensively researched list of potential changes to policy, curriculum, and student life that have been compiled by its own Committee on Race, Equity, and Belonging. The committee, at the request of university President Kevin Worthen, produced a sixty-four-page report on the current state of minority students at BYU that was released in February 2021. Some of the committee findings show that BYU has failed to recruit and maintain both students and faculty of color, that students of color graduate from BYU at significantly lower rates than their white peers, and that white students are disproportionately given full-ride and half-tuition scholarships when compared to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) students. The committee’s report also detailed dozens of solutions to these and other issues, including development of curriculum that educates students on race, unity, and diversity, implementation of a “race-conscious recruitment strategy” to diversify the student body, and consideration of renaming campus buildings named after past church leaders to names that reflect the building’s functional role (e.g., Engineering Building). 4
I believe that by utilizing the research from the BYU Slavery Project in conjunction with the findings and recommendations from the Committee on Race, Equity, and Belonging, BYU as an institution as well as its broader student and alumni communities can better understand and empathize with the lived experiences of BIPOC both past and present, and that this new understanding can lead to compassion, unity, and healing.
1. In August 2019, Paul Reeve, a professor of history at the University of Utah, announced that he had found Tom’s Latter-day Saint baptismal record.
2. Steering Committee members include Rebecca de Schweinitz, Matthew Mason, Brenden W. Rensink, and Christopher Jones. The advisory board is composed of Anthony Bates, Ryan Gabriel, Farina King, Louise Wheeler, Maurice Crandall, Janan Graham-Russell, and Cameron McCoy.
3. Brian W. Cannon, “‘To Buy Up the Lamanite Children as Fast as They Could’: Indentured Servitude and Its Legacy in Mormon Society,” Journal of Mormon History 44 (April 2018): 1–35.
4. Brigham Young University, Report and Recommendation of the BYU Committee on Race, Equity, and Belonging, February 2021, accessed September 29, 2021, https:// race.byu.edu/00000177-d543-dfa9-a7ff-d5cfc1dc0000 /race-equity-belonging-report-feb-25–2021.