Skip to main content

Sandy Journal

Headstone in Sandy area cemetery honors African American pioneer buried in unmarked grave

Jul 01, 2019 05:06PM ● By Heather Lawrence

Alice Burch, Sheri Orton and Steve Orton stand in front of the newly laid headstone for Hark Lay Wales, African American pioneer in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Photo courtesy Sheri Orton)

By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]

Most Utahns know the story of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who arrived in 1847 and settled the Salt Lake Valley. What may surprise people is that three pioneer families from the South brought enslaved people with them. What may surprise them even more is that the remains of one of these black Utah pioneers lay in an unmarked grave for 130 years. 

“This is a part of the history that we’ve been trying to get out for a long time,” said Alice Burch of West Valley City. Burch is secretary of the Utah chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.  

The three enslaved men who came to Utah in 1847 with Brigham Young’s company were Green Flake, Hark Lay Wales and Oscar Crosby Smith.  

Flake and Wales eventually settled in the Union area. “There was a small black community there. Both died there, and both were buried at the Union Pioneer Memorial Cemetery,” Burch said. 

But while Flake had a marker in the little cemetery at 1533 East Creek Road, Wales, who died in 1887, did not. 

“I was contacted in January of this year by Sheri Orton. Her husband’s ancestors were the family that brought Hark to Utah as an enslaved person. In doing some research, she discovered that Hark was buried in Union Cemetery, but that he was laid in an unmarked grave. She wanted to change that,” Burch said. 

Orton reached out to Burch and historian Amy Tanner Thiriot to get a grave marker for Wales. They set a goal of setting the marker by May 27, Memorial Day. They set up a GoFundMe campaign and got the word out that they wanted this to be a community event. 

“The Union Cemetery is small and maintained by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers (DUP). It is not open to new burials, so we had to work with the DUP for a long time getting something that we could all agree on,” Orton said. 

Orton felt strongly that the grave marker should look “of the period,” but also speak to Wales’s black ancestry and the important role he played in the settlement of Utah. “These were the people who went ahead and did the hard work,” said Orton. 

“I did this from a family perspective. I was motivated by the fact that Hark came into the valley and made things easier for my husband Steve’s ancestors. He sacrificed so much, and the fact that he didn’t have a headstone weighed on us,” said Orton. 

Orton worked with Utah Headstone Design and found an African Adinkra symbol for the marker: the image of a morning star inside of a wheel. 

“It’s called Sesa Wo Suban, and it’s a combination of two symbols. It means to change or transform your character. I felt like that was symbolic of the life that Hark led, but also the role he played in the community,” said Orton. 

On Memorial Day, roughly 100 people gathered at the small pioneer cemetery to honor the life of Hark Lay Wales. Burch planned the program. 

“I wanted the community to turn out and be a part of the celebration. Not the white community, not the black community, but the Utah community because the work Hark did impacted everyone who lives here,” said Burch. 

The program included Rep. Sandra Hollins, who is the first African American female to serve in the Utah State House of Representatives; Pastor Marlin Lynch III of Kingdom Huddle in Salt Lake City; and other modern-day pioneers. 

Music was performed by BYU students who are also active in the Genesis group — the group created by the Church in 1977 to support the black community. 

“I turned to black college kids for the music. They included Andre Johnson, Nathaniel Bird, Byron Williams, Yahosh Bonner and James Sheppard. We ended the program singing ‘Amazing Grace,’ and then Pastor Lynch led us in prayer,” Burch said. 

Media coverage of the event brought new visitors to the little cemetery. “We’ve driven by here a million times and always meant to stop. I heard the story about the gravestone and decided to stop tonight,” said Michelle Syslo, who visited the cemetery with her friend on June 6. 

Syslo, a teacher at Butler Middle School, was interested in the history of the little cemetery and the new headstone. “I saw the pictures in the newspaper. It’s a beautiful way to honor that man’s legacy,” Syslo said.  

Burch said this project has spurred on more ideas. “We will continue to fundraise and look for stories of black pioneers, victims of lynching and others who were instrumental in Utah’s history who don’t have headstones. We need the community to contact Utah AAHGS on Facebook and tell us their stories, tell us where there is a need,” said Burch said. 

“Being a part of this was a beautiful experience. Knowing about Hark’s story is essential to the story of Utah’s pioneers. The fact is that black men were the backbone. They were the grit. And their story has been completely left out,” Burch said. 

Now that the stone is laid, another piece of Hark Lay Wales’s story is documented. “It makes me feel very happy. I personally feel very privileged to have been a part of it,” Burch said.