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Race, Religion & Social Justice

How The Aftermath Of Robert Marshall’s 1925 Lynching Made Price A ‘Sundown Town’

A photo of downtown Price, Utah.
Brian Albers
/
KUER
Price continues to grapple with its long history of racial discrimination.

Utah doesn’t appear to have had any laws on the books that said people of color couldn’t live in town, but it’s clear African Americans weren’t welcomed in many places.

Price, Utah was one of them.

It was labeled a “sundown town” by the late sociologist and historian James Loewen in his book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. These were communities where people of color were either prohibited by law or by custom from living within the city limits.

Price held special interest to Loewen because of Robert Marshall’s lynching in 1925, which may have been the last lynching in the West.

Robert Marshall was an itinerant miner who allegedly shot the Castle Gate deputy sheriff J. Milton Burns. Before Marshall could stand trial, he was taken by townspeople and hanged twice.

Census data from 1920 shows there were almost 200 Black people living in Carbon County at the time. Ten years after Marshall’s lynching, there were only 39 people.

Kimberley Mangun is an associate professor of communication at the University of Utah. She contributed to, Lynching Beyond Dixie: American Mob Violence Outside the South and studied Marshall’s death.

Mangun said it is hard to historically correlate the two events, but the census data tells a story.

“Certainly the numbers are really evident with that drastic decline, people at the time said they did not feel safe,” she said. “Black Utahns did not feel safe after the lynching.”

She said that has to do with the rise of the Klu Klux Klan in Utah. According to Mangun, they first came to the state in June 1921 and went on to form an official chapter. She said they were at their peak right before Marshall’s murder.

Price was a difficult place because there were known Klansmen in [town] and in Carbon County,” Mangun said. “So again, it was that sort of underlying current of threat and intimidation that African Americans who lived in the area were well aware of.”

Years later, racial discrimination is still present.

In 1998, Utah-based activist and civil rights leader Rev. France Davis needed an escort when he went to commemorate Marshall’s grave in Price.

“When we got there they attached the policemen to me because they had so many threats against my life,” Davis said.

Mangun said the mining town wasn’t the only place where discrimination existed — it was felt all over the state.

“It may have not been outright racism, but it was exclusion through other means,” she said. “Economic disenfranchisement … housing and residential discrimination. [Places] where people were effectively excluded from buying and selling homes or mandated to live in certain areas of cities, including Salt Lake City.

Davis experienced the effects of racial discrimination and spent a good portion of his life fighting these kinds of policies.

When he was a teaching fellow and graduate student at the University of Utah in the 1970s, he faced housing discrimination.

Davis said when he went to pick up the keys to his new apartment, the landlord told him he couldn’t live there. He said that kind of treatment was common.

Even now, many things remain the same for Black people.

The average African American family spends a great deal of time teaching their children about how to deal with authority figures and how to behave if pulled over by the policemen,” Davis said. “It's common practice. It's a given, there's some things that are given and we accept it and then we train to avoid any kind of conflict.

In light of last year’s protest against racial injustice, Mangun said much of this history is still present today.

“If we can learn lessons from the past, then maybe things won't happen again,” she said. “If they happen again, we have to understand why they're still happening.”

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