African Americans and Salt Lake City’s West Side: Part Two

Salt Lake West Side Stories: Post Twenty-five
By Brad Westwood and Cassandra Clark

The above photo was taken in 1944 by Chinese American newspaper photographer Ray King, from the Salt Lake Tribune in Salt Lake City’s segregated USO Club for Black or African Americans.

This post was updated and expanded in early September 2022 and in February 2023.

African Americans contributed to Utah’s religious, social, and cultural heritage. Despite the severe obstacles they faced, African Americans lived and thrived in the old west side, established churches, obtained employment, owned businesses, and served the citizens of their state and nation by also serving in the armed forces.

Many African American Utahns were congregants of a number of religious organizations. Utah’s African American churches had their beginnings in the Pioneer Park neighborhood. The Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church, located at 500 West and 600 South, opened its doors to followers in 1891. The Calvary Baptist Church also served African American followers. Congregates originally occupied a building located on 202 South and 300 West that was previously known as the First Baptist Church. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the community had two fairly well-circulated African American newspapers, the Utah Plain Dealer and The Broad Ax, along with three or four smaller papers, all produced between 1890 and 1920.

Salt Lake City photographer Charles E. Johnson captured in 1898 the U.S. Army Ninth Cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers) returning to Utah after serving in the Spanish American War. The photo was taken at the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad Depot. Courtesy of Ronald Fox.

Many African Americans migrated to Utah to work for the railroad industry or in Utah’s growing industrial sector. Between 1896 and 1899, the U.S. military also posted hundreds of African Americans in Salt Lake City (known as the “Buffalo Soldiers,” read this Natl. Museum of African American History & Culture article). The Army’s 24th Infantry Regiment transferred 699 men, women, and children to Fort Douglas, which is located roughly two and half miles southeast of Salt Lake City’s Temple Square. By the end of the nineteenth century combined, in Salt Lake City, Fort Douglas (24th Infantry), Ogden and Fort Duchesne (9th Cavalry), African Americans numbered over twenty-three hundred citizens.

The tax reappraisal card for this property reads: “colored tenants, condition poor, poor location, [thus a tax reduction of] 10%” 349 West North Temple Street, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1936; Tax Assessor Record #1-2930-2. Courtesy of the Salt Lake County Archives.

African American Utahns faced severe discrimination as they lived and worked in the state. One of the most prominent threats to African Americans was the presence of Ku Klux Klan (hereafter KKK) chapters. Formed a year after the end of the Civil War (1861–1865), the first national KKK movement terrorized freed slaves living in the South until the Federal Government worked to investigate and prosecute KKK members. The second KKK emerged in 1915, along with Utah’s two chapters, in response to increased levels of east European and Asian immigration; along with the diffusion of African Americans who found employment beyond the American South. These differing complexions (different from the largely white west European immigrants that came in early and mid-1800s), along with evolving urban and industrial economy, and the changes in cultural norms, threatened for many so-called “native” whites the “American way of life.” In short, Klan members organized in support of white supremacy. It is important to note that between 1892 and 1954 twelve million immigrants came to the United States through Ellis Island (New York) alone. Their arrival in America along with growing support for scientific race theories including social Darwinism and Eugenics contributed to the widespread support of the second KKK.

The twentieth century KKK was equally, if not more, violent and often operated under a cloak of secrecy. Like the first KKK, the second Klan targeted African Americans. Klan members also targeted Italians, Native Americans, Jews, Japanese, Chinese, Syrians, Greeks, and Mexicans. The KKK wanted to make immigrants of color, as well as Roman Catholics, Jews, homosexuals, feminists and communists, leave the state or at least be silenced and made powerless. All of the above communities were scattered across Utah, living and working in Utah. The general tolerance by the broader Utah public, and the open existence of these KKK groups, served as something of a social barometer, as to just how much Utah society would tolerate and quietly condone this kind of wrongful racial thinking.

The second KKK drew members, and promoted their ideas, by fixating on patriotism and stressing the importance of holding fast to what they considered were “American values.” The second KKK also pushed against organized labor union protests, which, as far as Utah was concerned, appealed to members of the state and government who held very strong anti-union positions. It was presumed that Utah’s strong anti-labor position would translate into equally strong anti-immigration sentiment. To a limited degree, this proved true. In 1915 Utah had also executed, with much national attention, the well-known immigrant, union organizer, and troubadour Joe Hill.

Utahn’s, like many other American citizens, struggled to adapt to the dramatic urban, industrial and corporate transformations that the United States underwent during the early twentieth century. The corporatization of agriculture and the reduction of family agricultural lands in Utah, along with the growth and influence of urban culture – the presumed lessening of sexual morals, ready access to alcohol via bars and speakeasies, pool and dance halls, and Utah’s youth deeply interested in Popular and Jazz music – challenged and terrified many Utahns, and threatened the predominantly white, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter the LDS Church), culture.

The second KKK promised to combat the changes that so many white Americans feared, and their promises appealed to many Utahns. These Utahns felt, wrongly, that the influx of immigrants was the main reason for their loss of economic and social power. The KKK’s support of white supremacy, their “one hundred percent Americanism” campaign, their anti-immigration and their anti-union stances made these Utahns believe this movement would reestablish economic and social power. 

Matchbook Cover, Coon Chicken Inn, 2950 Highland Drive, Salt Lake City, circa 1940s. Courtesy of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, Ferris State University.

Regarding the numerous KKK chapters that sprang up in Utah, as historian Larry Gerlach described it, the Klan was most active in Salt Lake County, Logan, Ogden, Provo, Helper, and Price, where anti-Mormon politics and nativism attracted members. Although many Americans continued to believe that members of the LDS Church were neither Protestant or Christian and questioned members’ loyalty to America, many members of the LDS Church were suspects to this clandestine national movement. Officially the LDS Church, repelled by the KKK’s violence and secretiveness, actively opposed the group in Utah. Notwithstanding this, many Mormons still joined. Gerlach estimated that Salt Lake City’s active supporters in the mid-1920s were 2,500 strong. 

During a George Washington birthday celebration held on President’s Day in 1925, Klansmen paraded, unmolested, through Salt Lake City’s central business district. They concluded their march by placing a large blazing cross on Ensign Peak which people in the city, and beyond, could easily see. It was a perverse use of this religious and cultural site, as the summit had, and continues to have, a symbolic biblical meaning. A flag had been flown on Ensign Peak not long after the Utah pioneers arrived in 1847, with the expressed purpose of fulfilling a biblical prophecy to call all the Mormon faithful to gather before the anticipated Second Coming of Jesus Christ. By placing the burning cross on the same peak, the KKK appropriated the spot for their white supremacist message.

Later that year, the KKK induction ceremony began with a guard line of hooded Klansman on horseback standing in a mile-wide circle below Ensign Peak. These hooded figures had lit several burning crosses and placed them along the mountainside. This public induction ceremony demonstrates the KKK’s ability to actively campaign in Salt Lake City as well as its influence on citizens who participated in the ceremony. However, the KKK did not survive for long in Salt Lake City. While some people continued to support KKK agendas, a combination of conditions prevented the organization’s growth in Utah. Opposition by LDS Church leadership, a large population of socially and economically engaged immigrants, and resistance from local government officials in Logan, Ogden, and Salt Lake City, prevented the KKK from establishing a stronghold in the state.

Nevertheless, the membership drive and the community tolerance of the hate group reveals something about the complex racial attitudes that existed in Salt Lake City and Utah more broadly. These historical events offer a lens into the social, cultural, and political obstacles that African Americans constantly faced living in Utah.

Jim Crow-like segregation did exist in Salt Lake City. African Americans could not, as was the case elsewhere across the United States, conduct themselves freely without some kind of racial, housing, and economic restrictions, as whites did – or those immigrants who could pass as white did – in Salt Lake City. In 1939, in the wake of an expanding African American population and economic influence, alarmed Salt Lakers, with a thousand signatures in-hand, petitioned the city government and the Utah legislature to study the possible creation of a “negro district” within downtown Salt Lake City. The general area proposed was somewhere between 500 South and 900 South and Main Street to 1500 East. The “negro district” proposal was led by longtime Mormon bishop Sheldon R. Brewster, who would in two years’ time, serve as a member, and later as Speaker of the House, in Utah’s House of Representatives (Salt Lake Telegram, November 17, 1939). Fortunately for Salt Lake City, the “negro district” proposal did not carry the day.

The Pioneer Park neighborhood was one of the few places in the twentieth century city where African Americans could rent or own property. This included other areas of the poor inner-city that were free from racially motivated mortgage covenants and “redlining.” “Redlining” did occur in different areas and this approach prevented African Americans, and often other minority groups, from purchasing real estate or seeking out banking services (read post 35 regarding Redlining in Salt Lake City). It was as if the greater society, and especially Utah’s banking and financial services, said, “We’ll allow you to go only this far in our city.” These federally condoned practices continued in Utah and across the United States until the Civil Rights Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1964. Utah was inescapably part of and expressed the same cultural bias and attitudes encountered elsewhere in the United States.   

A west-side hotel, the Bristol Hotel (approximately 134 West 300 South), catered, in the early twentieth century, to African American railroad workers and porters and to local restaurant waiters and their families. The hotel’s focus included those who worked at the LDS Church-owned Hotel Utah. Besides hotel rooms and rooms to let, the Bristol Hotel had an African American barbershop and housed Salt Lake City’s African American Elks Club.  Like Ogden’s 25th Street, Salt Lake City had a private Porters & Waiters Club that almost entirely catered to African American railroad workers, but unlike Ogden, Salt Lake City’s club did not offer lodging.

Long before the spring of 1956, African Americans benefited from Victor H. or Alma Green’s Negro Travelers’ Green Book to find safe places to stay, eat, and visit as they traveled. The 1956 Green Book listed four hotels in Salt Lake City, with three located on the West Side. Jenkins Hotel sat on 250 West South Temple, the Sam Sneed Hotel located next to the Jenkins, and the St. Lewis Hotel was located up the street on 242 West South Temple. The fourth place was the YMCA, located at 306 East 300 South. The Young Men’s Christian Association was, by this time (not so much before), sympathetic and generally non-discriminating regarding their lodger’s ethnicity, race, or religion. To show the insensitive attitude and deep bias that prevailed in Salt Lake City far into the twentieth century, a small restaurant chain, known as the Coon Chicken Inn – originated in Salt Lake City in 1925 and remained open until 1957 – its combination sign and doorway had customers enter through a grotesque caricature of an African American mouth.

African Americans participated in a number of community organizations, clubs, and events. During the 1930s and 40s, African Americans joined a young men’s boxing program held at the Rotary Club for Boys located on 100 South between 500 and 600 West. In 1985, William Price, a middle-aged African American man, shared his experience as a member of the boxing club.  He recalled that it was mainly a peer-directed program that consisted of African Americans, Greeks, Italians, Mexican Americans, and poor white teenage participants. Price said that the club was a safe and non-discriminatory setting where most, if not all, of the participants were challenged to be their very best both physically and otherwise. Price’s reflections indicate that under the noses of a largely xenophobic and racist Salt Lake City community (or at least one that did not counter this enduring bane of American society) boys from Salt Lake City’s ethnically diverse and low-income west side found acceptance in a club that, to Price, felt “like a large family.”

“Besides hotel rooms and rooms to let, the Bristol Hotel had an African American barbershop, and housed Salt Lake City’s African American Elks Club.” 

Despite discrimination and racist ideologies, African Americans worked and made vibrant the economic and cultural make-up of Salt Lake City. One example of Salt Lake City’s African American communities banding together for gathering, recreation, and entertainment purposes during Utah’s Jim Crow era is the Nettie Gregory Center, an unassuming two-story building located on the eastern edge of the Poplar Grove neighborhood at 742 West South Temple Street, just west of the Interstate-15. As Wes Long from the Salt Lake City Weekly described it, up to the 1980s the Nettie Gregory Center was a major “site of confluence for Salt Lake City’s African American community in their joys and celebrations as well as their sorrow and pain.” To read Wes Long’s history-rich article click here.

We hope you will continue to read, learn and consider the next post in Salt Lake West Side Stories which addresses Italian and Greek immigrants who settled first in the Pioneer Park neighborhood.

Would you like to read the next post (Post 26)? Immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe and Salt Lake City’s West Side

Click here to return to the complete list of posts.

Related Activities:

Watch the Smithsonian channel’s documentary The Green Book: Guide to Freedom (2020).

Read Christine Cooper-Rompato’s Utah Historical Quarterly article “Utah in the Green Book,”(Winter 2020 Vol. 86 No. 1).

Listen to the podcast interview with Reverend France A. Davis, pastor emeritus of Salt Lake City’s Calvary Baptist Church. See Speak Your Piece: A Podcast about Utah’s History. In this interview, Davis reflects on over a half-century of service to Utah, and to his African American congregants. A keen observer and a student of Utah’s history, Davis has many insights regarding race and race relations in 20th century Utah.

Contributors: Special thanks to Dr. Ronald Coleman, Will Bagley, and Dr. Cassandra Clark for contributing to this post.

This post was researched and written by Brad Westwood and Dr. Cassandra Clark, with a whole lot of help from friends. Thanks to our sound engineer and recording engineer Jason T. Powers, and to his supervisor Lisa Nelson, both at the Utah State Library’s Reading for the Blind program. Thanks also to yours truly, David Toranto, for narrating this post.

Selected Readings:

Ronald Coleman, “Utah African American Community and Politics, 1890-1910,” Beehive History 019, 1993, p.8-12.

Larry R. Gerlach, Blazing Crosses in Zion: The Ku Klux Klan in Utah, (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1982).

Victor H. Green, The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, (New York: Victor H. Green Company, New York, 1956).

The History of Coon Chicken Inn,” Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.

Leslie Kelen and Helen Stone, Missing Stories: An Oral History of Ethnic and Minority Groups, (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2000).

Jeffrey D. Nichols, “The 24th Infantry Brought African Americans to Fort Douglas,” History Blazer, February 1995, History to Go (Blog).

Do you have a question or comment? Write us at “ask a historian” – [email protected]