Student petition calls for BYU to change name of building honoring Latter-day Saint pioneer and slave owner

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PROVO (ABC4 News) – A bad tribute to a slave master or a way to honor one of Utah’s pioneers? That’s the debate sparked by a new petition by a group of current and former Brigham Young University students, calling for a name change to the Abraham O. Smoot Administration Building on campus.

According to historians, Smoot was a prominent figure in the State of Utah, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Brigham Young University’s history.

Related: Brigham Young statue vandalized on BYU campus

“He was seen as a real leader within the community and brought of number of people west to Utah. Once they settled here, he was once again a leader. He was a mayor of Salt Lake City and he was a bishop,” said Patrick Mason, Professor of Mormon History at Utah State University.

But according to historical records, Mason said Smoot was also a slave master. When BYU alumni Coleman Packer and Tristan Quist found out, they partnered with current student Cole Stewart-Johnson to start a petition. The petition urges university officials to consider changing the name of the administrative building.

“I was deeply uncomfortable with that. I thought it was very, very disappointing that we would name a building after someone who had enslaved human beings,” said Packer.

“I spent four years at BYU and just recently graduated in December. But I never knew any of this information about the history of this man,” said Quist. “This is not about erasing history in any way. This is history people need to know about, but it needs to be put in its proper place.”

Mason pointed out that other prominent figures in U.S. history, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, also owned slaves. So ABC4 News asked, “Where do we draw the line on renaming monuments?”

“It’s definitely a tough and complicated question,” answered Mason. “One of the things we try to do as historians is not to impose our current standards on people in the past. But at the same time, there are certain things from the past that we don’t want to continue to honor or memorialize.”

He went on to say, “I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution. But we have to have the conversation and that’s one thing as a historian, as a scholar that I would encourage every community to have.”

Mason suggested that university officials should bring all stakeholders to the table to have a discussion on how to move forward.

“I don’t think it’s anybody’s place to just make a snap decision. In this instance, we’d bring together descendants of Abraham Smoot along with the descendants of the people he enslaved, if they can be identified.”

He added, “We’d also bring in university leaders, church leaders, students, faculty members and have a conversation about it. Don’t sweep it under the rug just because it’s hard or uncomfortable to talk about. Bring it into the light of day, wrestle with it, and decide as a community.”

Petition organizers said they hope BYU will end up having that tough conversation among their administration.

“We see it as a natural extension of President Kevin J. Worthen’s recent statements on the death of Breonna Taylor and others, correcting the racial injustices that are present on BYU’s campus,” said Quist. “We are encouraging the university to take ownership of those words by making this meaningful change.”

“It would be validation to make students of color, especially the Black students on campus feel like BYU cares, to feel like we are valued and our opinion matters,” said Stewart-Johnson. “We recognize this is something that may take time, but having that conversation is a way to show they are starting to make efforts and allow students to see their progress and hold them accountable.”

Packer said their objective in creating this petition is to let every student know they are welcome on campus, no matter their race.

“As a white male, I can never fully comprehend the pain, the difficulty, the oppression that comes to our students of color or people of color in this country every single day,” he said. “My hope is that this signals to them that you are welcome here, you have a place here just like anybody else. You are part of this campus.”

ABC4 News reached out to Brigham Young University for comment, but did not receive a response as of Wednesday evening.

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Rosie_Nguyen
Rosie Nguyen is an award-winning journalist who joined the ABC4 News team as a reporter in January 2018. In September 2020, she embarked on a new journey as the anchor for the CW30 News at 7 p.m. Although she’s not out in the field anymore, she is continuing her passion for social justice and community issues through the nightly “In Focus” discussions.

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