Green Flake was born a slave on the Jordan Flake Plantation in Wadesboro, Anson County, North Carolina, on 6 January 1828. At the young age of ten, he was given to Jordan Flake’s son James Madison Flake as a wedding present. A few years later, James, his wife Agnes Love Flake, their three-year-old son William, and Green (as well as other slaves) moved to Mississippi.
Introduction to the Restored Gospel
In the winter of 1843-1844, Elder Benjamin L. Clapp, a missionary from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints knocked on the door of the Flake home. Although uncertain at first, James and Agnes were baptized a few weeks later. Their baptism brought about immediate changes to the James Flake Plantation. James began sharing the Good News of the Restored Gospel with his friends, acquaintances, and his slaves. Green believed the testimony of his master, and on 7 April 1844, at the age of sixteen, he was baptized in the Mississippi River by Elder John Brown, a missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Life in Nauvoo, Illinois
Shortly after Green was baptized, James and Agnes Flake decided to leave their plantation and migrate North to Nauvoo, Illinois, to be closer to the main body of Latter-day Saints. Before leaving, James freed all his slaves. Green, however, refused to leave the family. James allowed him to stay but kept his status as a slave. The Flake family, Green, and two other slaves, Hark Lay (later Wales) and Oscar Crosby (later Smith) moved from Mississippi to Nauvoo in 1844.
Green became very active in the Church while in Nauvoo. William Jordan Flake, James’ oldest son, recalled, “being taken to the top of the Nauvoo Temple by our Negro servant, Green, and viewing the surrounding country for miles in every direction.” Green helped the Flakes build a new brick home, and he also worked on various church projects. At the time, Green’s labor was accepted as the Flake family’s tithing. Popular legend states that Green Flake lived with Joseph Smith and acted as his bodyguard for a time. However, scholars have since agreed that it is unlikely that he ever met Joseph Smith. Nevertheless, Green played a part in several key events in the Church’s history. He was a part of the first group of Latter-day Saints to leave Nauvoo for the West and participated in the initial establishment of Winter Quarters, Nebraska.
The Trek West
One Latter-day Saint remembered that Brigham Young “requested the very best teams and outfits the Latter-day Saints could provide. James M. Flake, who had put his all upon the altar, sent his best slave, Green, with a pair of white Mississippi mules and white-topped mountain carriage, to help the pioneer company to their destination.”
James Flake instructed Green to take the mules and carriage, cross the plains with the first company of Saints, send the carriage and mules back with some of those who would return to Nebraska, and remain out west himself to build a house for the Flake family in preparation for their arrival.
Brigham Young's advance company for the westward trek of the Saints began on 17 April 1847. Green Flake was assigned to the "fourteenth ten" of the pioneer company.
Accompanied by two other slaves, Lay and Crosby who were also baptized members of the Church and from Mississippi plantations, the three often worked together and were engaged in several projects. Those projects included establishing Winter Quarters, forging a trail along the Platte River to Ft. Laramie, Wyoming, and helping the company to pass through the Rockies. Green was also given the assignment of being Brigham Young’s personal driver on the trek to Utah.
On 13 July 1847, Green was chosen to accompany Orson Pratt on an assignment to find and follow a trail to Salt Lake. Shortly before the vanguard group crossed into Emigration Canyon, Brigham Young became ill. He sent Green, Lay, and Crosby with an advance party to pick the best route down the canyon and they helped to remove brush, trees, and rocks to make a "road" for the wagons.
Life in the West
The company reached the Salt Lake Valley on 22 July 1847, and Green Flake rode in the first wagon to move through Emigration Canyon. The Saints rejoiced upon arriving in the valley with many showing their devotion and gratitude to God. Green himself was re-baptized on 8 August 1847 to show his appreciation and renewed desire to follow God. He was re-baptized by Tarleton Lewis and confirmed the same day by Wilford Woodruff.
Green helped plant and irrigate fields. He also built a log cabin in Cottonwood, Utah, for the Flake family who would be coming to Utah later and planted crops. When the Flakes arrived in Utah in October 1848, their home and farm were waiting for them. Green was only 20 years old at the time.
In 1850, James Madison Flake was killed in a farming accident. Three years later, his widow, Agnes, and her three young boys went to settle in San Bernardino, California. She took her slave, Liz, with her, but left Green behind in the Salt Lake Valley as a tithing offering to the Church.
A Free Man – A Family, House, and Land
Green worked for Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball for two years and was eventually granted his freedom.
Between 1848 and 1850, he married Martha Crosby, the daughter of Vilate Crosby and half-sister of Hark (Lay) Wales and Oscar Crosby. While still a slave, Martha had been baptized along with members of the Crosby family in Mississippi about the same time Green was baptized. Martha was born in 1828 in Mississippi and came to Utah in 1848.
They had two children: Lucinda Vilate, born 2 December 1854 and who married George Stevensen in 1872, and Abraham (Abe), born in 1857 and later married Mary Steele. Martha (Crosby) Flake died on 20 January 1885.
Exactly how and when Green Flake was granted his freedom remains uncertain. Nevertheless, Green, Martha, and their children were listed as free residents of Union, Salt Lake County in the 1860 census. After he was granted his freedom, Green lived in Fort Union, Salt Lake County (which is around 7200 S. and 900 East now). Slavery was not officially banned in Utah until the spring of 1862.
Green remained in Fort Union for most of the rest of his life. He farmed his land and was involved in mining ventures with Martha’s family members, Hark Wales and Miles Litchford. He was also an active member of the Union Ward.
In 1896, Green moved to Gray’s Lake, Idaho, to be near his children and grandchildren, but returned to Salt Lake City in 1897 for the Jubilee Pioneer Day celebration. A newspaper account described the surviving pioneers and proclaimed that “one of the most interesting of these old-timers was Green Flake, the only colored survivor of the band of ’47. Green is a vigorous, broad-shouldered, good-natured, bright old gentleman, long a resident of Salt Lake County, but now living at John Gray’s Lake, Idaho. He wears glasses, but that is the only sign of old age about him. His voice might do for a trumpet, and he steps off like a West Pointer when he walks.”
Green Flake died in Idaho on 20 October 1903. He was buried in the Union Cemetery in Salt Lake City next to his wife. Above his name is etched in now weather-worn and barely legible text: “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” The Deseret Evening News said at the time of his death that “Bro. Flake had reached the honorable age of 76, which means, to all who knew him, 76 years of honest, hard work for the betterment of humanity, and for an exaltation in his Father’s kingdom.”
His Life in Film
In 2020, Mauli Junior Bonner produced an award-winning feature film about Green Flake's role in the pioneer trek to Utah Territory. "His Name Is Green Flake" starred Yahosh Bonner. Mauli Junior Bonner planned to use proceeds from the film to build a monument honoring black pioneers.
Honored in a Monument
On July 22, 2022, a new monument honoring Utah's black pioneers was unveiled and dedicated at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The idea for the new monument was kindled on May 7, 2021, when Ellis Ivory (chairman of the board for This is the Place Heritage Park Foundation) met Mauli Junior Bonner, and Tamu Smith, a descendant of Green Flake. Ivory showed them a picture on his wall of his ancestor, Matthew Ivory, who was in the same vanguard company.
The statues in the monument depict Flake, Jane Manning James with her two sons, Sylvester and Silas, as well as brothers Hark Lay, who chose the last name of Wales, and Oscar Crosby, who chose the last name of Smith when each was freed. Each played instrumental roles in the settlement of Utah. The statues were sculpted by Stefanie and Roger Hunt. Many of Green Flake's descendants attended the service.
The dedication marked the 175th anniversary of the first wagon company’s 1847 arrival in the Salt Lake Valley.
During the hour-long program, President M. Russell Ballard said, “We have the opportunity to dedicate a wonderful memorial of statues and features here at This is the Place Heritage Park where people will come for generations to come, we hope, and see the diversity and the reality that the state of Utah is a state where God’s children of all cultures, of all races, can come worship together and enjoy and love one another.” He then offered the dedicatory prayer.