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Wallace Thurman, Rising Writing Star from Utah

Wallace Thurman (1902-1934) grew up in Calvary Baptist Missionary Church (Salt Lake City, Utah), which was co-founded by his grandmother and remains an active congregation today. Eventually, he enrolled at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles as a journalism student. There in Los Angeles, he had a chance meeting with author Arna Bontemps who took the young Wallace Thurman under his wing as a prodigy. (Read about Arna Bontemps’ hometown here: Arna Bontemps in Louisiana.)

According to blackpast.org: “While in Los Angeles he worked at the post office where he met aspiring novelist Arna Bontemps. Thurman and Bontemps worked together on The Pacific Defender, a black newspaper, and they started an artistic journal, Outlet. Relocating to Harlem in 1925, in part as a result of his friendship with Bontemps, Thurman founded a second magazine, The Looking Glass, and became managing editor of The Messenger.”

Wallace Thurman’s works include three novels: The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life (1929), Infants of the Spring (1932), and The Interne (1932), and a Broadway play entitled Harlem: A Melodrama of Negro Life in Harlem (1929).

He passed away at age 32 in New York City after battling tuberculosis.

Calvary Baptist Missionary Church

The newest home of Calvary Baptist Missionary Church is located at 1090 South State Street in Salt Lake City. It was founded by a prayer group of Black women in 1892 who began the worship community in private homes and then moved into a series of different facilities as the congregation continued to grow. According to its calvaryslc.com/our-history: “The people worshipped God with great excitement, high energy, moving vigor, spiritual fervor, and call-response participation.”

The church became known for powerful sermons and connections to literature. The pastor of the church when Wallace Thurman was born was Reverend James Washington who led the Alexander Dumas Literary Society and published a newspaper. In Thurman’s youth, Booker T. Washington was also a guest speaker at the church. (Read more about Booker T. Washington through any of these web pages: Booker T. Washington in VirginiaBooker T. Washington in West Virginia, and W.E.B. DuBois in Massachusetts.)

Throughout its history, Calvary Baptist is an example of a thriving Black church that provides a vast number of community services. According to its website: “The mission of the Calvary Missionary Baptist Church of Salt Lake City, Utah is to share the gospel with non-believers, to make disciples of the un-churched, and to empower believers to faithful Christian ministry. The congregation is determined to help meet the needs, first and foremost, spiritually, but educationally, politically, economically, and socially as well.”

The growth of Calvary mirrored Black migration to Utah at the turn of the 20th century. During Thurman’s years in Utah, Salt Lake City’s Black population tripled to more than 800 (the total population was approximately 50,000). Today Salt Lake City has grown to approximately 200,000, including around 4,400 Black residents.

Calvary Baptist Church is the third stop on the Utah Author Adventures Trail.