Historian reflects on Utah’s history with lynching and prejudice

Apr 1, 2022, 10:58 AM | Updated: 10:58 am
Emmett Louis Till, 14, with his mother, Mamie Bradley, at home in Chicago. Photo: CNN / TNS/ABACA v...
Emmett Louis Till, 14, with his mother, Mamie Bradley, at home in Chicago. Photo: CNN / TNS/ABACA via Reuters

SALT LAKE CITY — The history of lynching in Utah came into focus after President Biden signed the Emmet Till Anti-Lynching Act into law this week. 

Till was a 14-year-old Black teenager who was beaten and lynched by two white men in 1955, allegedly for flirting with a white woman days before he was killed.

A University of Utah historian says there are stories similar to Emmit Till’s that took place when Utah was a territory. He said these are examples of violence against those who did not conform to the social standard.

The violence included forms of intimidation, including death by lynching.

“I think we have three [examples of race-related violent deaths] in Utah that we can pinpoint,” said Paul Reeve, a Simmons Chair of Mormon Studies at the University of Utah. Robert Marshall, Sam Joe Harvey and Thomas Coleman were all African-American men.

Coleman, Harvey, and Marshall included in Utah’s history of lynching

According to Reeve, Coleman was a former slave who was a member of The Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter-day Saints. An 1886 newspaper clipping from The Daily Union Vedette said Coleman was killed for courting a white woman. Somebody slit his throat.

“His body was dumped on the ground of (the) current state capitol,” Reeve said. A placard was placed on Coleman that read, “NOTICE TO ALL N******! TAKE WARNING! LEAVE WHITE WOMEN ALONE!!!”

Sam Joe Harvey was accused of killing Salt Lake City Marshal Andrew H. Burt. Officials arrested and then released Harvey. Later, a mob lynched him  according to an article on the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts website. His skeletal remains were found outside a cemetery in Salt Lake City.

Officials accused coal worker Robert Marshall of killing a guard in Carbon County, Utah. A mob later hanged him, and eleven men were arrested. However, they were released after the grand jury said they found no evidence to convict them.

These were not the only acts of violence toward people who did not fit the “white Anglo-Saxon Protestant” ideal in Utah, according to Reeve. 

“The KKK burns a cross on the lawn of a Greek man who married a white woman,” he said. “They’re enforcing white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, right? Those from southern and eastern Europe are Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Jewish, and they don’t fit the KKK’s understanding of what it means to be an American.”

Reflecting on Utah’s history can lead to greater understanding

Despite their violent nature, Reeve said reflecting on these instances can bring about a change of perspective for people today.

“If we understand history, it can help us to stand in places of empathy, to perhaps take a step back [and] recognize the lessons that history has for us to learn that can inform the present,” he said.

Reeve is part of a group that is commemorating the lynching of Sam Joe Harvey and Thomas Coleman through the Equal Justice Initiative’s Soil Collection Project.  The idea is to gather the soil from places where racial lynchings took place.

“There is an ongoing effort at trying to make sure that Utah lynching victims are remembered in the National Lynching Memorial,” Reeve said.


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Historian reflects on Utah’s history with lynching and prejudice