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Utah City Puts Up New Public Symbols To Honor People Of Color

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Across the U.S., monuments that celebrate the nation's racist history continue to come down. And some places like Millcreek, Utah, just outside of Salt Lake City, are putting up new public symbols to honor people of color. Just this week, Millcreek renamed one of its streets after the Chambers, a family of formerly enslaved people. Samuel and Amanda Chambers, husband and wife, traveled from Mississippi to the Salt Lake Valley in 1870 after being emancipated. They settled there and joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - also known as LDS or the Mormon Church. Jeff Silvestrini, the mayor of Millcreek, joins us now to talk about them. Hello, mayor.

JEFF SILVESTRINI: Hi, Sarah. How are you?

MCCAMMON: I'm great. Good to have you with us.

SILVESTRINI: Thank you.

MCCAMMON: So can you tell us a little bit more about the Chambers and what brought them to Utah?

SILVESTRINI: Yes. So the Chambers were former enslaved people. They were enslaved in Mississippi and then emancipated at the end of the Civil War. They actually converted to the LDS faith while they were in Mississippi and then moved out here, being attracted by - this is the headquarters of the church. You know, unlike a lot of other immigrants to Utah, they weren't supported by those that were here trying to pay for them to come. They scraped together their own funds and then purchased land in my city - in Millcreek, which is a suburb immediately south of Salt Lake, in about 1875 and farmed here for 50 years, were pillars of the community. Their produce was purchased by everybody. And they even had the leadership of the LDS or Mormon church attend their wedding anniversary at one point.

MCCAMMON: You said they were pillars of the community. But, of course, at the time, Utah was not integrated. And there is a long history in the LDS Church of racism and discrimination against Black people, including, among other things, until 1978, barring Black men from the priesthood, which is still only open to men, barring both Black men and women from the church's temples. The Chambers were apparently quite devout, though. What was their experience as African Americans in that community at the time?

SILVESTRINI: Well, it's interesting. You know, as you point out, Mr. Chambers was not able to fully participate in the rites of the Mormon Church at that time, but he remained a devout Mormon. And the other thing that's interesting about this is from everything we've been able to learn, actually, our community was integrated - that the Chambers lived alongside white families in Millcreek at that - in that era, which I think was maybe unusual. But that was the case in Millcreek.

MCCAMMON: What does it mean, Mayor, for your community to honor this family now?

SILVESTRINI: This is an opportunity to honor people that made a contribution to our specific community and are worth honoring. They had a long history here. And their descendants continue to live here. So it's been a great, you know, continuing history. And that's one of the things that we wanted to show.

MCCAMMON: I do want to ask, though - some people might view naming a street after the Chambers as a purely symbolic measure. What is Millcreek doing to combat institutional racism there?

SILVESTRINI: So we have a number of things that we do. One of the things I'm most proud of is that we started a program called Millcreek Promise to improve educational outcomes for kids, to improve the health and safety of members of our community that are disadvantaged and to provide better economic opportunity. And we are revisiting how - I won't say fund police because I think we have to put more money into police to do the things that we'd like to see with mental health resources and social work resources, but we are attempting to address those issues, as well, in response to the national controversy. So, you know, we have to do a lot more to address social, economic, racial inequities in our country. And we intend to do that. But the symbolism, I think, is important, too.

MCCAMMON: That's Jeff Silvestrini, mayor of Millcreek in Utah. Thank you so much, Mayor.

SILVESTRINI: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOONORTH'S "SILENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.