In celebrating Black History Month, it is crucial to reflect on the work and progress made at the hand of Black leaders throughout our nation’s history. Trailblazers such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman are rightfully held at the front as a cause for celebration. However, it is important to acknowledge that progress in Utah could not be achieved without the work of members of our own Black community. From musicians to academic leaders, here are five past and present historical Utah leaders to celebrate this month.
Joe McQueen, Jazz Royalty
At the helm of Utah jazz music and music that made local and national history is baritone saxophonist Joe McQueen. Known for his tenure as a legendary local jazz musician with an incredible story, McQueen captivated audiences up until he passed away at 100 in 2019. All the while, he made history in Utah by taking the lead in abolishing segregation laws in spaces he occupied.
Originally from Ardmore, Oklahoma, McQueen made his way as a musician by way of the railroad. Landing in Ogden, Utah in 1945—where McQueen lived out the rest of his years—had been the product of his bandmate gambling away their earnings and stranding them in Ogden where they had just finished a two-week-long gig. With the rest of the group, McQueen rebuilt a new ensemble and quickly became a sought-after act in the Ogden music scene.
Selling out Black-only clubs became a trend for McQueen and his group. Soon after, white audience members would seek out McQueen in Black-only clubs. As a result, white-only club bookers wanted McQueen on their bills. While segregation was still in full effect, McQueen refused to take any gigs that enforced segregation. This was the pivotal chain of events that had clubs change their segregation policies, kickstarting civil rights movements in our state.
You can honor McQueen and his legacy at Garage on Beck at 1199 Beck Street in Salt Lake where he played every Sunday.
Mignon Barker Richmond, Excellence in Education
Mignon Baker is famously known to have always said that through faith, courage, determination, inspiration from her mother, and the help of god, she’d go on to do many great things. Today, we celebrate Mignon Barker Richmond as the first Black individual to graduate college in Utah (Utah State University).
A daughter of a runaway slave and an English woman, the importance of education was instilled in her at a young age and throughout her life. In college, she was a member of the Empyrean Club, a group of women who worked on opening a dialogue of current social issues, including discrimination. Having reached status as an exemplary student, Richmond earned her degree in 1921 from Utah State University.
Alongside this momentous accomplishment, Richmond served later in life as a Senior Director for the United Service Organizations and volunteered at the Red Cross, YWCA, LDS Hospital, and she worked for the NAACP. To honor Richmond as a true trailblazer in education, civil rights, and humanitarian efforts, SLC has dedicated Richmond Park in her memory.
Visit the monument and park dedicated to her in Salt Lake on 444 East 600 South.
Reverend France Davis, Advocate for Civil Rights and Faith
Reverend France Davis came to Utah from Georgia in 1972 with the intention to teach University of Utah students about Communication and Ethnic Studies. Having graduated from Berkeley and being a prominent civil rights activist who marched for voting rights with Martin Luther King Jr., Davis had much more to teach his students and beyond outside of the predetermined school curriculum.
In his time working as a civil rights leader in Utah, Davis has published multiple books on Black history in Utah, served on the Board of Corrections, given commencement addresses in several Utah universities, was the first Black member of the statewide Board of Regents, fought for fair housing laws, and much, much more. "The great accomplishment [was] to get a holiday and street named after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Salt Lake City,” Davis says. All the while, Davis served as Pastor of the Salt Lake City Calvary Baptist Church, spreading faith and faith in progress every week until 2019, for a total of 46 years.
In 2021, the city renamed a portion of Harvard Ave in Salt Lake City “Pastor France Davis Way” to honor the work he has done and continues to do to advocate for our Black community.
Celebrate Reverend France Davis by visiting Pastor France Davis Way on 1110 South from Main Street to State Street in Salt Lake.
Liz Lambson, Making Space for Black History in Utah
As a visual artist, musician, writer, and mother, Liz Lambson is the type of creative who seeks to learn and master anything that strikes her inspiration. Her achievements include performing as a string bassist with the Ballet West Orchestra, creator of the music-and-movement program Yoga Storytime & Songs, membership in the Utah Black Artists Collective, and being the Executive Director of the Utah Black History Museum.
“In 2020 after George Floyd was killed and the Black Lives Matter movement exploded, I felt a sense of responsibility as an African American woman to be a positive representative in our Utah community, where the Black population is less than 2% of the population,” Lambson says. Lambson’s mission to increase Black representation in Utah is materialized by her work spearheading the Utah Black History Museum, an effort to promote the advancement of our Black community through programming, exhibits, and activities teaching Black history in Utah.
Alongside the Black History Museum, Lambson’s mark can be seen throughout Salt Lake and beyond. Her artwork has been on the cover of SLUG Magazine for their Amplify Black Voices issue, the outside of the Black History Museum Bus and most notably at City Hall as part of the Black Lives Matter Mural.
A collection of work by Lambson and many Black artists in SLC, the Black Lives Matter Mural is easy to visit on 451 South State Street.
Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church, A Landmark in Faith
Since the 1890s the Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church has been providing a space for Black religious, cultural, and social expression in Salt Lake. Initiated by Reverend T. Sanders, the congregation acquired its longstanding and historical physical space in 1907. Built by the hands of its own congregation, the Trinity AME Church has been a symbol of unity and community support within Salt Lake’s Black community for decades.
The Trinity AME Church obtained its official place on the National Register of Historical Places after Reverend D.D. Wilson led the charge in restoring the church in 1976. Apart from its religious offerings, the church helped kickstart fraternal orders and civic and social clubs within the Black community.
Black History Month can be honored and celebrated in a myriad of ways thanks to our very own historical leaders within our Black community. Whether it is through musical appreciation honoring Joe McQueen at Garage on Beck or spending your Sunday in reverence at the historical Trinity AME Church, visitors can spend time reflecting on appreciating the work Utah’s local leaders have achieved!