Barbara Greenlee Toomer: A World Without Barriers

Did you know that September is Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month? Spinal cord injuries affect everyone differently, and though some SCI survivors are in wheelchairs, many others (such as myself) live with “invisible disabilities” that still impact their daily lives. Thanks to advances in medicine and awareness, though, people with disabilities have more opportunities now than at any other time in history. One of the people who helped make that possible was polio survivor Barbara Greenlee Toomer.

In 2017, there were only 22 reported cases of polio anywhere in the world, thanks to global efforts to eradicate the disease, but in the 1950s, tens of thousands of children contracted polio in the United States alone each year, killing thousands and leaving many more paralyzed. In 1955, when doctors announced that they had created a successful polio vaccine, church bells rang across America in celebration.

Though the vaccine quickly caused a drop in polio infections and deaths, the vaccine was in short supply at first and was only available to the most vulnerable populations: mainly children. That was why, when Barbara Greenlee Toomer’s first child was born in 1956, the infant received a polio vaccine and Barbara did not.

Not long after, polio swept through the military base where Barbara lived. Her child remained healthy, but Barbara came down with horrible back and head pain. She was able to walk into the hospital, but she would never walk back out. Polio left her paralyzed, and she saw family and friends turn away from her and her disability.

But Barbara did not let polio slow her down. She did not just want to live with her disability, she wanted to be a person with a disability who fully lived. And she wanted the same for other people with disabilities as well. In fact, she was arrested dozens of times while protesting for disability rights, wheelchair and all. She even chained herself to buses that did not accommodate wheelchairs. To find out more about how Barbara Greenlee Toomer championed fair treatment for everyone, regardless of their abilities, read Utah Women: Pioneers, Poets & Politicians, available for preorder now on Amazon.

Below: Children with polio-induced paralysis learning to walk with leg braces.


Emma Dean Powell: The Explorer’s Wife

2019 is a big year for Utah sesquicentennial celebrations (isn’t that a great word?). May 10, 2019, was the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad linking the East Coast and West Coast at Promontory Point, Utah.  This enormous accomplishment, achieved mainly by such downtrodden groups as the Chinese, Irish, former slaves, former Civil War soldiers, Native Americans, and Latter-day Saints (Mormons), is rightly regarded as a major technological and social achievement in Utah and US history.

On May 24, 1869, another scientific wonder began: an exploratory trip down the wild Colorado River by one-armed geologist and former Civil War soldier, Major John Wesley Powell. With a ten-man crew–none of whom had white-water rafting experience–he set out to map the unexplored regions of the Colorado River through Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. And I don’t just mean unexplored by white men–Native Americans familiar with the area told him his goal was impossible, deadly. Yet he took his scientific equipment in four boats and set off. The fourth boat–his own–was named the Emma Dean after his wife. On August 30, 1869, Major Powell arrived in St. Thomas, Nevada, having lost one boat, a great deal of the scientific information he gathered, and four of his men (all four deserted the expedition, and three of those were lost in the desert, never heard from again). Undeterred by the hardships, he would make the trip again in 1871-1872 to improve his scientific data.

Powell is justly famous for his daring and for his contributions to the understanding of the geology and ethnology of the West, but Emma Dean Powell rarely gets any mention. True, she did not raft down the Colorado (during one of her husband’s Colorado expeditions, she was busy giving birth to their daughter Mary Dean Powell), but the petite Emma had been her husband’s nurse, champion, and scientific partner starting in the Civil War and through his many previous expeditions. She became an ornithology expert in her own right, as well as one of the first women to climb Pike’s Peak in Colorado. Along with her sister-in-law, Nellie Thompson, Emma made important contributions to the work that her husband and the other men of his expedition became famous for, at a time when female scientists were rarely recognized for their work. You can read more about Emma Dean Powell’s quiet but remarkable career in Utah Women: Pioneers, Poets & Politicians.

Photo of Emma Dean Powell courtesy of the USGS.


Biddy Mason: Utah Pioneer

I’m excited to share the stories I learned while writing Utah Women: Pioneers, Poets, and Politicians, so I’m going to post some “teasers” here on my blog over the next few months leading up to release day.

Today is Pioneer Day in Utah, celebrating the arrival of the Latter-day Saint (Mormon) pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. An often overlooked part of that early pioneer migration are the free and enslaved black people who came to Utah in the westward trek – including Green Flake, one of several slaves in the vanguard company of pioneers and the man who drove Brigham Young’s wagon when the LDS leader uttered his famous (if possibly misquoted) proclamation over the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847: “This is the right place. Drive on.”

Biddy Mason was another early black Utah pioneer. Born a slave in the South, she would end her life as one of the richest women in California: just one of the many remarkable women from Utah’s history!

Below: Biddy Mason, image courtesy of the National Park Sevice.


For more on the ongoing efforts to document the lives of black Utah pioneers, check out historian Paul Reeves’ online database, “A Century of Black Mormons.”