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Salt Lake City soil collection ceremony memorializes two lynchings from over a century ago

Salt Lake City Lynching Soil Collection Ceremony, Thomas Coleman's jar, June 11, 2022
Kristine Weller
A jar filled with soil from the site where Thomas Coleman was lynched near the present-day Utah State Capitol. People that attended the June 11, 2022, soil ceremony each took a dedicated wooden spoon and scooped some dirt into the jar.

Editor’s note: This story contains descriptions of historical racially motivated attacks in Utah.

Thomas Coleman arrived in Salt Lake City around 1848, possibly enslaved to John and Nancy Crosby Bankhead. He was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The exact circumstances of his murder are unknown. However, he was beaten in the head with a large stone. Coleman was also stabbed in the chest twice and his throat was cut, all with his own knife.

A sign was left on his body, it said “Notice to all N------. Take warning. Leave white women alone.”

The Salt Lake Telegraph at the time reported that Coleman had been in the company of a white woman and thought a “rival friend” of the woman might have taken vengeance on him.

His body was found on Dec. 11, 1866, by several boys playing on Arsenal Hill. Today that location is known as Capitol Hill, which is where two victims of lynchings were memorialized Saturday in a soil collection ceremony.

Thomas Coleman and William “Sam Joe” Harvey, were commemorated as soil was gathered from the sites of their lynchings. Their deaths were two of the three lynchings of black men in Utah.

The jars of soil will be sent to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Eight hundred such jars have already been collected from sites across the country as part of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project.

The memorial is a visual and physical representation of years of racial terror in America.

Robert Burch, the executive director of the Sema Hadithi African American Heritage and Culture Foundation, said the memorialization of these two lynching victims is an effort to begin a conversation.

We should “teach our children the truth so that at some point we can all heal,” Burch said.

He explained that commemorating these two men is a reminder to have community conversations about the racial issues that still exist today.

Salt Lake City Lynching Soil Collection Ceremony, marching downtown, June 11, 2022
Kristine Weller
People that attended the soil ceremony marched down Capitol Hill to commemorate the site of William “Sam Joe” Harvey’s lynching. The site is where the Old City Hall and the jailhouse in 1883 sat, what is now the northwest corner of 100 South and State Street in Salt Lake City.

Jim Tabery, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Utah, noted the importance of conversations about the past.

“It’s very easy, particularly for the white community to tell a narrative of progress,” Tabery said.

“And for many in our communities, that’s not the case.”

Reflecting on the two murders brings marginalized stories to the forefront, he said. It is an attempt to look at the story in a human way. Sadly, their stories are not unique.

The EJI has documented over 4,400 lynchings of Black people in the U.S. between 1877 and 1950.

Once Coleman’s jar had been filled with soil, the crowd then marched to the corner of 100 South and State Street and began the process again at the site of Harvey’s lynching. His story is even more horrific.

On Aug. 25, 1883, a mob of about 2,000 people gathered in front of Salt Lake City’s jail. William H. Harvey, also known as “Sam Joe” Harvey, had been arrested and jailed after being accused of shooting and killing the police chief.

Although Harvey had a right to due process, he didn’t get to stand trial. After being beaten by multiple officers with billy clubs, brass knuckles and shackles, a mob seized Harvey from the police.

Harvey was hung from a roof beam on a nearby shed. He struggled to hold the rope so he would not be strangled to death, but someone kicked his hands away. He was killed.

But that wasn’t enough. His corpse was then dragged through the streets of Salt Lake City.

Nearly a hundred and forty years later, Rev. Robert Merrill urged attendees to remember that Harvey was “a person, not just a thing that was lynched.”

Saturday’s soil ceremony and memorial ended with four songs. Folkloric music and dance group Bomba Marilé played traditional music from Puerto Rico. The tradition of bomba was started by African people brought to the Caribbean, mainly from the Congo, Angola and Gabon areas.

Salt Lake City Lynching Soil Collection Ceremony, Miriam Padilla Vargas, June 11, 2022
Kristine Weller
Miriam Padilla Vargas, a director of Bomba Marilé, dances and sings in the traditional bomba style. She said dancers shape bomba music, as the drummers match the accent of the dancer’s foot or skirt movements.

One of the group’s directors, Miriam Padilla Vargas, described bomba as a music of resistance. The music held hidden messages, often used to announce escapes. It was also used to celebrate birthdays and those that survived.

Bomba is not a performance, Vargas said, because everyone normally stands together in a circle, dancing and singing.

And, by the fourth song, people had gathered together to dance, sing and commemorate the lives of all Black people.

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