Utah’s Early African American Farmers

Miriam B. Murphy
History Blazer, May 1996

In the 19th century Utah’s small number of African Americans worked at whatever jobs they could find. Discrimination and a lack of educational opportunities generally meant low-income, often menial, work. Some remained slaves until Congress banned slavery in the territories on June 19, 1862. Still, according to historian Ronald G. Coleman, “a few were able to apply their skills…as dressmakers, carpenters, barbers and shoemakers. Some applied their agricultural abilities to farming.” Samuel Davidson Chambers was probably the most successful black farmer in Utah from about 1872 through the first decades of the 20th century.

Born on May 21, 1831, in Alabama, Chambers was separated from his mother as a boy and taken to Mississippi where he was kept as a slave until the end of the Civil War. He and his wife, Amanda Leggroan, came to Utah in 1870 as Mormon converts. For a time Chambers worked at a sawmill, but by 1872 he had established a home for his family in Salt Lake City’s Eighth Ward and was farming and growing fruit. After about six years in the city the family moved to a small farm in the Mill Creek area southeast of town. The small fruits—including currants, grapes, cherries, and gooseberries—that Chambers worked hard to cultivate won prizes at local fairs. The farm produced many necessities for the family’s survival as well: chickens, eggs, peas, wheat, corn, cabbage, pork, butter, and molasses.

Chambers had some 30 acres under cultivation by World War I. Two brick homes on the property housed Samuel and Amanda as well as Samuel’s son Peter and his family. The Chambers farm produced a surplus that was sold to regular customers in the Mill Creek area and as far south as Holladay. Samuel, or sometimes Amanda, delivered fruit and milk, butter, eggs, and chickens by wagon. People also came to the farm to buy currants and other specialties grown by Chambers. The farm sustained them for many years; Amanda died in 1925, Samuel in 1929 at age 98.

Other African Americans known to have engaged in farming in Utah were Edwin Woods, Sylvester James, Sylvester Perkins, and Green Flake. Only a few details are known about these early agriculturalists. Woods homesteaded 160 acres in the Holladay-Cottonwood area of Salt Lake County. He and his wife and six children were living on the property in 1880. Woods apparently ran into financial difficulties, for the land was eventually sold for back taxes. James apparently made a living farming. According to Coleman, “He purchased his land in Mill Creek from whites who originally homesteaded part of the area. He later sold or gave some of the land to his son, William, who in turn gave a four-acre plot to his uncle, Sylvester Perkins. Perkins farmed this land as well as some of the nearby property of his brother-in-law, Sylvester James.” Green Flake, who came to Utah with the pioneer company in July 1847, helped with the initial planting of crops that year. Later, he and his wife, Martha Crosby, raised livestock, garden vegetables, and fruit on their land at Union Fort in south Salt Lake Valley.

Census data provide only sketchy information about Utah blacks in agriculture. In the farmer category there were 2 in 1870, 5 in 1880, none in 1890, 10 in 1900, and 14 in 1910. (It must be remembered that many Utahns, regardless of occupation, raised fruits and vegetables for their own use.) The 1890 census does list 21 blacks as working in agriculture/fishing/mining in Utah. No black agricultural laborers were listed until the 1900 census with 10 and 1910 with 21. Some African Americans also worked as stockraisers and herders: 1 was listed in the 1900 census and 18 in 1910. Although these numbers are small, so was Utah’s black population—only 1,144 in 1910—yet the lives and livelihoods of these early agriculturalists affected the larger community.

See Ronald G. Coleman, “A History of Blacks in Utah, 1825-1910” (Ph.D. diss., University of Utah, 1980); William G. Hartley, “Samuel D. Chambers,” New Era, June 1974; Leonard J. Arrington, “Black Pioneer Was Union Fort Settler,” Pioneer, September-October 1981.