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Latwanna Flake
The Flake family, from left, Colten, Ethan, Martin, Nadia and Latwanna, enjoy Ethan's ironic place in Mormon pioneer history.

When Brigham Young first entered the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, he did so in the back of a fine, white carriage donated to the Mormon pioneer leader by a faithful follower, James Madison Flake.

Young was ill and couldn't drive the rig himself, so Green Flake drove the carriage and was among those who actually heard Young say, "This is the right place."

And then, speaking to Green Flake, Young added, "Drive on!" Green Flake, at that time a black slave, was later given his freedom by Young.

It's been 165 years, and much has changed, but that story has new meaning for a modern Mormon family. Riding in his car seat in the back of the family's champagne-colored Chrysler, 5-month-old Ethan Alexander Green Flake entered the Salt Lake Valley for the first time last month. Ethan is the great-great-great-grandson of James Madison Flake, and the family says Ethan's father, Martin, who is white, bears a striking resemblance to his ancestor, the plantation-owning Madison. Ethan's mother, Latwanna, is black, and among her ancestors are slaves in Alabama and Mississippi. Ethan, therefore, is descended from both slave owners and slaves. Martin and Latwanna believe Ethan's personal story is represented in Mormon pioneer history by both the plantation owner who donated the carriage in which Brigham Young entered the Salt Lake Valley and the slave who actually drove it.

Which is why his parents chose to include "Green" as part of his name.

"Of course he bears the last name of Madison Flake, who was, by all accounts, a good man," Martin Flake said during the family's recent trip from their home in South Carolina to Utah. "But even though Ethan is actually genealogically descended from Madison, we want him to know and appreciate this great man Green Flake, and to feel a closeness to him by sharing his name."

"We're going to teach him about Green Flake right from the start," Latwanna added. "He's going to know more about him than his father did."

Martin winced but acknowledged that his wife was correct.

"I knew quite a bit about my family history — how James Madison Flake and his family joined (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and went to Nauvoo to join the Saints there," Martin said. "I was aware that Green Flake was his slave and that he joined the church with the family and was sent to help Brigham Young with the original pioneer company. But other than that, I knew nothing."

He glanced at his wife, seated across the room from him. "Latwanna is the one who really taught me about Green Flake," he said. "And now I'm excited for our son to know all about him."

Not to mention his place in LDS pioneer history.

According to Latwanna and various historical accounts, Green Flake was an eyewitness to many of the early events in LDS Church and Utah pioneer history. Before the trek west, he worked for LDS Church founder Joseph Smith. Although the Flake family was not part of the vanguard company, James Madison sent Green with Brigham Young to help along the way, with instructions that Green was to build the family a cabin once he got to the final destination. As the vanguard company approached the Great Salt Lake Valley, Green and two other slaves traveling with the company — Hark Lay and Oscar Crosby — were sent with the advance scouting party to help clear trees and build roads for the wagon train to follow.

Once in the valley, Green helped plant crops and establish irrigation canals and ditches, and he built a cabin for the Flake family to occupy when they arrived in 1848. Sometime after 1850, Green was given his freedom and a plot of ground, where he and his wife, Martha, raised their family and made meaningful contributions as good neighbors and the acknowledged leader of Utah's small black community until his death in 1903.

"I learned about Green Flake when I joined the church in 2007," Latwanna said. "I had great respect for him right off. You don't hear about the black pioneers — there's no real dedication to let black Americans see that history. I think now is the time for us in the church to bring up the black Latter-day Saint pioneers and all that they did."

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And for the Flake family, that educational process begins at home. Martin has a 14-year-old son, Colten, from a previous marriage, and Latwanna has a 6-year-old daughter named Nadia. Colten thinks it's "kind of funny" that his little brother, Ethan, can trace his heritage back to both slaves and slave-owners. Nadia doesn't have much to say on the subject except that she thinks they have "a good family."

"What I see here," Latwanna said as she cuddled Ethan on her lap, "is love. That's the message of the gospel — it's a message of love. Through the years our people — black and white, inside the church and outside — have been able to get over the hurdles, get over the hate and the hurt and the fear and just embrace the love."

She gave her son a quick hug. "So that's what I'm doing here," she said, smiling. "I'm just embracing the love."

email: jwalker@desnews.com