SALT LAKE CITY — In the movie "Lincoln," Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis offers a stunning portrayal of one of America’s most revered presidents as he works to garner support for what he believed to be a necessary, but extremely controversial executive order — the Emancipation Proclamation.
The release of the film came just months prior to the impending 150th anniversary for the landmark order, which was signed on Jan. 1, 1863, by President Abraham Lincoln.
The edict proclaimed that all those enslaved in Confederate territory would be permanently free, and ordered the Army — and all segments of the executive branch — to treat as free everyone enslaved in the 10 states that were still in rebellion. The proclamation could not be enforced in areas still under rebellion, but as the army took control of Confederate regions, the slaves in those regions were emancipated rather than returned to their masters.
The impact was felt nationwide as millions of African-Americans across the country gained their independence from indentured servitude and the indignity of slavery. In Utah, the effect was not as strong due to the fact that very few blacks lived in the territory at the time, said local historian Ron Fox.
“There were less than a handful,” he explained.
Black Mormons were among the first to travel to Utah with Brigham Young and the early Mormon pioneers, Fox said.
The man who helped lead the Mormons into the Salt Lake Valley was Green Flake, a slave who converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Brigham Young had Flake freed in 1854.
Upon his death, Flake was laid to rest in the Fort Union area — originally a black Mormon community.
According to University of Utah history professor Ronald Coleman, Oscar Crosby and Hark Lay also appear in various historical works on Utah pioneers. Their names are engraved along with those of other first pioneers on a tablet on the Brigham Young monument at the intersection of Main and South Temple streets in Salt Lake City.
The 1850 Census of Utah Territory indicated the presence of 50 blacks in Utah, Coleman wrote.
Fox said the impact of the proclamation was “minimal” in the Beehive State. He explained that on Sept. 9, 1850, California became a state and both Utah and New Mexico were designated U.S. territories as part of the Compromise of 1850. A key provision of the measure was that slavery would be either permitted or prohibited as a local option — popular sovereignty. California and Utah forbade the practice.
“Utah was considered a free state, not a slave state,” Fox said. “(Brigham Young) stood with Lincoln.”