by Sarah Langsdon, Head of Special Collections
With everything happening in the world today surrounding the Black Lives Matter protests and the call for systemic change in policing and the way people of color are treated, I have been looking into the history of racism in Ogden. There is the impression that since Utah is not in the South that racism and segregation weren’t here. Looking into the history of this town, I can say that it is fundamentally untrue.
Through oral histories conducted in conjunction with New Zions Baptist Church, we heard stories of African Americans only allowed to view movies in the Egyptian and Orpheum theaters in the balconies. Bettye Gillespie fought for the desegregation of Lorin Farr pool, only to be repeatedly denied. She was finally welcomed to swim in the pools at Weber College. 25th Street was also segregated, a fact that most people today are unaware of. Blacks were only allowed to visit business on the south side of the street. This caused issues when travelers came and stopped in Ogden for food only to be told that “their kind wasn’t served here.”
In 1955, Mrs. B.B. Mike, Jr. wrote the Ogden Standard Examiner asking why her African American teenagers weren’t allowed in the roller skating rink until Friday night at 10 p.m., which was their curfew. A few people came forward in the letters to the editor, shocked to learn about this act of discrimination in Utah. One woman called for mothers of Ogden to not allow this to continue. “We can do much to help mold good characters,” she said, “and we can also be guilty of contributing to their delinquency, by the complacent acceptance of these injustices.” While this event happened 65 years ago, it still resonates today, as many of us examine what injustices we’ve complacently accepted.
In the late 1960s, Utah was the only state outside the deep south with no measure of Civil Rights legislation. Merchants and business owners were free to discriminate at will, and blacks had no way of knowing which businesses would serve them. Housing was the most critical issue as defacto segregation kept them in poorer, over-crowded areas. When they tried to move out of those areas, they faced higher prices and often hatred from their neighbors. The Gillespies bought a home in Riverdale in 1961. Before they moved in, the home was smeared inside and out with tar in an attempt to discourage them from moving in. The next day, neighbors stated “We’re hurt if negroes move in.”
Despite Civil Rights legislation, there has not been enough change. People across the country are now pulling together and protesting. This time it isn’t just African Americans calling for change, but people of all walks of life finally saying enough is enough. Now is the time to make a difference.