The story of the Mormon pioneers who travelled West to settle in the territory that is now the state of Utah is well-known. What’s less well known is the stories of the African Americans who also made the journey.
One of those African-American pioneers was Hark Lay Wales. He came to Utah on July 22, 1847, as a slave on behalf of the Mississippi couple who owned him, according to research by author and historian Amy Tanner Thiriot.
Sytha Crosby and her husband William Lay sent Wales to prepare a home for them in Utah. Wales would eventually be freed and drop the Lay name. Wales later settled in a small African American community in the Salt Lake Valley.
He’s believed to have died in 1887, at the age of 63. He’s buried at the Union Fort Pioneer Cemetery in Cottonwood Heights, in a grave that was unmarked for about 130 years until Monday.
“Here’s somebody that came in the valley with Brigham Young that didn’t have a headstone,” said Sheri Orton, a St. George resident who has researched Wales’ life and death for 10 years. “It was just not right. It wasn’t acceptable.”
Orton’s husband is a descendant of the Crosby-Lay family, who previously owned Wales. She said it all started when she found a book detailing the family’s history, including Wales.
“Hark jumped off the pages at me,” Orton said. “He’s been with me ever since.”
Orton, a professional genealogist, was determined to uncover as much of Wales’ story as she could and enlisted the help of Thiriot and the Utah chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.
Their work culminated in a headstone for Wales’ grave that they unveiled during a Monday ceremony. They are raising money for the headstone and the upkeep of Wales’ grave.
“This is just the beginning of us marking the gravesites of slaves and their descendants,” said Robert Burch Jr., the organization’s president.
About 100 community members came to the cemetery for the ceremony, including state Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City.
She told the audience that she wondered what Hark would think if he knew that Utah’s first African American female lawmaker would one day honor him. She also wondered what Wales would think if he knew that that same woman would also pass a law that repealed slavery in Utah’s constitution.
“He represents the number of slaves who stories have gone untold, whose families don’t remember that they are a part of their history,” Hollins said.
Correction 9:09 a.m. 5/28/19: A previous version of this story misstated the name of the cemetary. It is Union Fort Pioneer Cemetery.