Just before 9 a.m. Wednesday, the streets around Temple Square were a circus of high school marching bands, elderly war veterans, gospel singers and small town beauty queens—all getting ready to march in the Days of ’47 Parade.
On West Temple, descendants of one of the original 1847 pioneers got ready to load into their covered wagon to join the march from downtown SLC to Liberty Park. Dressed in matching green T-shirts, they were the distant great-grandkids of Green Flake—an African-American member of the Vanguard Party who joined Brigham Young to settle Salt Lake Valley.
As I write in this week’s issue, Green Flake was one of three enslaved black men who participated in the trailblazing trek westward from Winter Quarters in Nebraska. Though he’s never gotten his proper due in many mainstream histories of the pioneers, he’s now the subject of a forthcoming biopic directed by Mauli Bonner, a Grammy-winning songwriter and producer and member of the LDS church.
“Our heritage is in this parade,” 81-year-old Frank Darrell Bankhead told City Weekly. As horses sneezed and gospel singers belted tunes at the parade staging grounds, Bankhead was surrounded by 10 of his grandkids and other relatives. More Flake successors were sitting in the grandstand along the parade route. “It’s time for us to be at the parade.”
Flake—who was only a teen when he embarked on the cross-country trek—spoke at multiple pioneer day celebrations in the 1890s. He was also awarded a Pioneer medal for his efforts, according to Juanita Reynolds, seven generations removed from Flake. Relatives of Flake’s are gathering this week in Salt Lake City to spend quality time together and honor his legacy.
“We’ve had family reunions here before, but this is the first time that we’ve actually been involved in the Days of ’47, having a wagon,” Reynolds said.
Green Flake died in 1903, but the LDS church has stayed in the family. Bankhead, the patriarch of Flake’s descendants, was baptized as a Mormon when he was young and spent years performing and singing in church services. But due to the long-running restriction against black men holding the priesthood, he couldn’t partake in the sacrament, in which Latter-day Saints will eat bread and drink water to recognize the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
“They passed me right up—no water, no sacrament,” he recalled.
That came to an end with the “revelation” in 1978 under LDS president Spencer W. Kimball. Now, Reynolds and her fellow Flake descendants see themselves as “current-day pioneers,” raising awareness about how African-Americans helped build the Mormon church and lay the groundwork for life today in Salt Lake City.
“What’s important is Utah history and understanding how we integrate the story of Green Flake,” Nichol Bourdeaux, a great-granddaughter of Flake’s seven generations down the family line, said. “That’s really important, and we need to continue that for the next generation, so they can know that black people have contributed to this valley.”