No Johnny-Come-Lately: The 182-Year-Long BLACK Mormon Moment
by Darius Gray
With the rise of national political figures and a Broadway musical has come the Mormon Moment. I can’t tell you how many requests there have been for Black members to give interviews and to speak about the Mormon Church. And some of the questions are as you would expect. But first, the race for the presidency of the United States – we had Governor John Huntsman, Jr.; we have, not in the race for the presidency, but majority leader, Harry Reid as a Latter-day Saint; and, of course, Governor Mitt Romney. And the Book of Mormon, the musical, on the stage in New York City, winner of nine Tony awards. Who would’ve ever thought that the Book of Mormon would win awards in New York City? At any rate, “the Book of Mormon as you’ve never known it before” – frankly, my two missionaries from 47 years ago did not look like that, and we did not have background dancers either.
The Mormon Moment has raised questions. Are Mormons Christian? Are Mormons racist? Are Blacks allowed to join the LDS Church? Were there Black members in the past?
A little-known history.
Sadly, Latter-day Saints are uninformed about the rich Black Mormon heritage as much as those asking the questions.
Efforts to expand the knowledge
Margaret Young, Nathleen Albright, Marvin Perkins, the entire BlackLDS.org team, and many others have worked to bring forward the stories of our Black members. Now, associated with BlackLDS.org is our fearless leader, Scott Gordon. For Scott to shepherd this organization takes a lot of time and energy, and I’m sure that at times it wears on him, but he has done so much good, and is doing it in so many ways, through so many avenues. I am very grateful for him, and for his leadership – and may I ask for a hand of support (applause).
The better-known Black Saints
Elder Elijah Abel, sister Jane Elizabeth Manning James, and brother Green Flake – these are the ones people know something of. Elijah Abel was ordained to the LDS priesthood, was a missionary who served three full-time missions for the Church, and he was a carpenter and an undertaker. As a carpenter he worked on the Kirtland, Nauvoo and Salt Lake temples. As an undertaker – and many of the early undertakers were carpenters; they could makes the boxes – he attended to the mortal remains of Joseph Smith, Sr.
In the Salt Lake City cemetery, the marker of Elijah and Mary Ann Abel bears on the back the names of their children. Moroni, born about 1848 in Ohio. Enoch, born 1852 in Ohio, ordained an elder 10 November 1900. Enoch’s son, Elijah, Jr. – named for his grandfather – born December 1892, ordained a deacon before 1925, a priest on 5 July 1934, and an elder 29 September 1935. And then we have Anna Rebecca Burns, born about 1854 in Ohio. Delilah, born 1856, Salt Lake City. Elijah Jr., born about 1860, Salt Lake City. Mary L. Stewart Thomas, born about 1862. Maggie, 1865. Flora, 1869. And all of this was put together by the Genesis Group and the Missouri Mormon Frontier Foundation. Now, why did we go to that effort? Because, again, people have not known the history of Blacks in the LDS Church. It’s not been widely known that there were members, or that some of those gentlemen in the early years were ordained to the priesthood, or who the women were. So it is important for us, and was important for us to the extent of putting forth this monument and having it dedicated by a member of the Twelve, so we could indeed share our history with others.
We have a letter from a sister Eunice Kenny, Flintville, Wisconsin, September 1891.
“In the spring of 1838, I heard the first gospel sermon by a Latter-day Saint. His name was Elijah Abel. He was ordained by Joseph, the martyred prophet. We had never heard of a Latter-day Saint until Elder Abel came into the place.” She continues, “I with my husband went and heard him preach. Abel was a man without education. It was difficult for him to read his text, but when he commenced to preach the Spirit rested upon him and he preached a most powerful sermon. It was such a gospel sermon as I had never heard before, and I felt in my heart that he was one of God’s chosen ministers.”
December 1884, the Deseret News:
“Died: Elijah Abel, in the thirteenth ward on December 25, Christmas day, 1884 of old age and debility. Consequent upon exposure while laboring in the ministry in Ohio. Deceased was born in Washington County, Maryland, July 23, 1810. He joined the Church and was ordained an elder as appears by certificate dated March 3, 1836. He was subsequently ordained a Seventy, again, as appears by certificate, dated April 4, 1841. He labored successfully in Canada, and also performed a mission in the United States, from which he returned about two weeks ago. He died in full faith of the gospel.”
It’s significant that in this obituary in the Deseret News it speaks of his ordinations, and it gives the background where it can be found that there were certificates attesting to his ordination. But here we have one of the stalwarts, a story about which we have heard something.
Here’s another person about whom we have heard something: sister Jane Elizabeth Manning James. This good woman was introduced to the Church while living in Wilton, Connecticut. She was in her teens, and she was converted after hearing the message of the missionaries, and she managed to involve her entire family, and they too were converted. So when we talk about, “Have there been historically Black members of the Church?” Again, everyone I’ve listed has been involved in the Church, and she involved her family. They undertook to leave Connecticut to join the body of the Saints in Nauvoo. They had paid their fare to take the canal boat, and they had their luggage on board, and when it came time to board – with their fares taken and their luggage gone – they were denied passage. And so sister Jane Elizabeth Manning James, as a young teenager, with her family, walked 800 miles through harsh conditions to join the Saints. Her struggles and faith were great. Later, she wrote after making it to the Salt Lake valley, after of course having made it to Nauvoo, “O how I suffered of cold and hunger, and the keenest of all was to hear my little ones crying for bread, and I had none to give them. But in all the Lord was with us, and gave us grace and faith to stand at all.”
Death visits Jane, not personally, 1871, the year after Jane and her husband Isaac James divorced. Isaac leaves Utah. Their daughter Marry Ann James Robinson dies in childbirth. Mary Ann’s newborn son, Henry, also dies, and is buried with her. Mary Ann is one month shy of her 23rd birthday. Silas, the son Jane delivered on the pioneer trek, dies, same year, 1871 – he is 25 years old. 1874, Jane’s daughter, Mary Ann James Williams, dies in childbirth. Her infant daughter, Nettie, dies as well and is buried with her. Death offers no truce. Jane’s granddaughter, Nelly, dies at the age of 16 in 1874. An infant grandson, Sylvester, Jr., dies the same year. 1876, Jane’s infant grandson, Albert, dies. 1881, Jane’s infant granddaughter, Manissa, dies. 1885, Jane’s infant granddaughter, Mary, dies.
We all suffered death, black or white, brown or yellow, during those very tenuous times. But it was a question of faith that those ancestors of many of you made it through, persevered, hung close to the restored gospel. And so it was with sister Jane Elizabeth Manning James. Those are not just names, but some of those whom she lost. Nelly, Jesse, Nettie – I think it always helps to put a face to a name.
Sister James’s faith allowed her to show great generosity, as noted in the journal of sister Eliza Partridge Lyman: “Jane James, a colored woman, let me have about two pounds of flour, it being about half she had.” Imagine the faith that it took during those perilous times to share half of what you had with someone else.
Green Flake, westward pioneer. I think most of us have heard of brother Green. Just to recap, finally on the anniversary that we just celebrated, the 24 July, when the Saints reached the Salt Lake valley and brother Brigham was in a wagon being driven, and he looked out over the valley and he said, “This is the right place, drive on.” To whom did he say that? Green Flake.
The earliest Mormon expedition west, the failure earlier that same year, in the very early months of 1847, brother John Brown was with an advanced company, trying to get into the valley. And they met with bad weather and very poor circumstances. He writes, “We reached the bluff a few days before, at the pioneers started. And while lying here, Bankhead’s Negro died with the winter fever. It was the severest trip I had undertaken.” “Entering the fold,” again from the journal of John Brown, “and down in the body of it, we spent a number of days here preaching and bearing testimonies. On the 5th of April, Brother Clapp baptized three, and on the 7th two more were ordained. Two elders, the same day. Brother James M. Flake, and Washington Cook. And I also baptized two Black men, Allen and Green, belonging to brother Flake.” Here we have the notice of Green Flake being baptized en route.
Green Flake was a slave. On the Brigham Young Monument in downtown Salt Lake City, there is a notation that says “Three colored servants: Hark Lay, Oscar Crosby, and Green Flake.” All three of those young men weren’t just servants, but they were in bondage, they were in servitude, they were slaves. They had been chosen because they were young and strong, and they needed their strength to help clear the way so that the pioneers could come forward. But what was it like to be a slave?
“Being a slave is all right, if you just want to be a slave that is. But many of the colored folk wanted a better life, if they could find one. Most everyone don’t want to be a slave in be in bondage to another, because you cannot even have your own thoughts and dreams. You cannot plan for the future, when all decisions get made by someone else.”
Now, we’ve had Green, Jane, and Elijah. They are the big three about which some have heard. But there were many, many other Black Saints.
In the book, Southern Grace, a story of the Mississippi Saints, we have the names of some of those slaves mentioned with their owners. Sister Perkins Bankhead, for those who did not have the pleasure, was the very first Relief Society president for the Genesis Group of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We were established on October 19, 1971, under the direction of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. Gruffin Bridgeforth was installed as president of the branch, I was the first counselor, and a young man by the name of Eugene Ore was the second counselor. In her mind, sister Bankhead was the boss, and if you’ve never had to deal with a strong-willed, Black woman, at times I pitied President Bridgeforth, but we were grateful for her strength and for her heritage. But, for me, again, these are people I’ve known.
Another couple, Amanda and Samuel Chambers.
History of Samuel and Amanda Chambers. Samuel Davidson Chambers was born May 21, 1831, in Pickins County, Alabama. His parents were James Davidson, the slave owner, and Hester Galespie, a slave on the Davidson estate. His father, James Davidson, later married a woman named Mary probably between 1835 and 1845. James and Mary had seven children by 1850. These children would be Samuel’s half-brothers and -sisters. Samuel probably never met these half-brothers and –sisters because he was sold, or given, to the Maxfield Chambers familyl sometimes between 1831 and 1844. Though we cannot be certain, Samuel probably left the Davidson household in the mid-1830s, since he told the members of his quorum later on that he grew up without kind parents and was separated from his mother when he was young. He came to esteem the Maxfield Chambers family as his own, and knew the Chambers’s children as his half-brothers and –sisters. Because Samuel requested the temple work be done for James Davidson and for Maxfield Chambers, we know for sure these were his previous owners. He stayed close to the Maxfield Chambers family, he kept in touch with them after moving to Salt Lake City and always visited them when back home in Mississippi. Samuel Chambers’s wife, Amanda LaGrone, was born on January 1, 1840, and not to be counting Mississippi her parents were Green and Heddy LaGrone. Her mother Heddy was sold in 1844, and her father Green was valued at $500 on a probate document filed to the court on August 18, 1862. Green may have passed away during the two month period. Amanda married Samuel Davidson Chambers in 1864. Her brother Ned married Susan Reid in January of 1870. I’m unsure what happened to Green, Jr., but he may have married as well. And then it talks about the marriages being lost because of fires at the county seat. Samuel and Amanda left Mississippi for Utah sometime in 1870. One of Samuel’s sons, Peter, also came west. Samuel and Amanda never had any children together, but Samuel had three children from previous marriages. Peter, Martha and Samuel Davidson, Jr. Now here is how he is described in one report.
“Samuel Davidson Chambers, a tall, middle-aged Black, regularly attended the monthly meetings of the Salt Lake stake deacons quorum of the LDS Church during the 1880s. Although he held no priesthood, Samuel frequently bore his strong testimony about Mormonism to the deacons there assembled who then were adults as well as young men. His testimonies expressed at least 25 times between 1873 and 1877 were recorded nearly verbatim by the quorum’s excellent clerk. From these records, and minutes books, and from information provided by Salt Lakers who knew Samuel Chambers in his old age, his remarkable life story can be pieced together. He was converted as a slave in Mississippi. He retained his testimony for a quarter of a century, without any contact with the Church. Finally, as a freedman, after the Civil War, he migrated on his own to Utah, and for the next six decades functioned as a faithful Latter-day Saint.”
Is that a story? Were there early Black members? I love it. Salt Lake’s first Black policeman, Paul Cephas Howell, was born a slave in Louisiana in 1855. At the age of 33 he packed up his family and headed to Utah, looking for a new life. He settled in Salt Lake City, and there he became the city’s first Black policeman. He served on the police force for 20 years and stood guard at the front gate during the dedication at the Mormon temple. Paul Cephas Howell was loved and respected by his family and community. The badge remains in the family, and today his great-grandson, Jacob Green, whom I knew, is also a Salt Lake City police officer. A proud family helping Utah in the Utah spirit.
Margaret Young and I have been partners for 14 years, and I am so grateful for her expertise, for her knowledge, but even more so for her love and compassion, for the gospel and for truth. It’s been an honor for me to work with her, and it’s also a pleasure having someone whose memory still works.
[SPEAKER CHANGES TO MARGARET YOUNG]
Abner Howell’s second wife, Martha Ann Jane Stevens Perkins Howell, was the granddaughter of Green Flake. The two of them were called to go to the southern states. We don’t know for sure, but it appeared that there was a possibility that they were looking into establishing Black congregations. And they took with them a letter that we have in our possession, in special collections at BYU, signed by LeGrande Richards, letting the Bishop know that Abner Howell should be allowed to speak. You’ll come to know why that is an important thing, because of some of the attitudes there, where Black members were not only not permitted to speak but were not permitted to attend the services there. It was important that he carried that. We also have a wonderful little card that makes him an honorary high priest. That was given to him in Los Angeles.
I’m going to read a little bit from our book, the third of our trilogy. We are in the process of reprinting that and should have it available in September, and were trying to hit the Mormon Moment. One thing, we know so much more now than we did then. We didn’t even have a picture of Jane on the cover, now we’ve got scads of pictures of Jane. So they just put the picture of someone who looked like she maybe could be Jane.
Starting with John Henry Smith, who was a Patriarch for the Church in Salt Lake, and going back a little bit to Jane James, she had received a patriarchal blessing from Hiram Smith. I would urge you to listen to the podcast that Richard Bushman did with Dan Wotherspoon about being a Patriarch. Richard is such a remarkable historian, but he’s also a very faithful Latter-day Saint and has the office of a Patriarch right now, and talks about particularly when he’s going to be blessing his grandchildren. I know those who have given blessings have to try so hard to sift between their own desires and what the Lord really wants them to say. Jane had received a blessing from Hiram Smith, in which she was told she was from the tribe of “Cainin.” The blessing she received from John Henry Smith did not give a lineage.
Let me just do a quick little detour. I got involved with Black history through a dear sister at my ward, who has since passed away, and she received her patriarchal blessing, and I boldly said, “What was your lineage?” And he was quite an elderly man, and he said, “You know, it really was a surprise, because I thought Cain. But it wasn’t. It was Ephraim.” I consider lineages to be assignments more than actual declarations of where your blood came from. But he was personally surprised that the inspiration was not to pronounce what he thought would be, but to declare her of the tribe of Ephraim, meaning that she would have missionary obligations. And she fulfills them continuously, because everything we do started with Suzy.
The blessing that John Henry Smith gave to Jane James says,
“The Lord has heard thy petitions,” and she made many petitions for temple blessings and other things. He knowest the secrets of thy heart. He has witnessed thy trials, and although thy life has been somewhat checkered his hand has been over thee for good. And thou shalt verily receive they reward. Therefore, let thy heart be comforted. Look always upon the Brightside, for better days await thee. Many shall bless thee in thine old age, and as a mother in Israel thou shalt be known among the people. Therefore, again, I say unto thee, be comforted, for all shall be well with thee, both here and hereafter.”
Jane’s funeral was attended by so many who loved her. Joseph F. Smith spoke at the funeral, but if you go beyond that to how she is recognized now by her direct posterity, but also by those of us who have come to know her by presenting her story on stage, by doing films which include her story, she really has become a mother in Israel, even in these days, and continues to bless us.
Now, Abner Howell came to know John Henry Smith because he was best friends with Johnson Nick. Abner Howell was told by some well-meaning white children that he should know that no Blacks would be going to heaven. He went into a corner and wept, and that was Apostle Smith found him, weeping, and came to Abner and asked what was wrong. Abner told him, “I just found out I can’t go to heaven because my skin is black.” And Apostle Smith invited him over to the house where Abner had been many times, and opened the Book of Mormon, and read to him,
“…for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God…” (2 Nephi 26:33).
That changed Abner’s attitude, and when he and Martha, his second wife, made this remarkable journey, where they met Len and Mary Hope, that scripture was one that Abner Howell, after presenting this letter from LeGrande Richards that said he could speak, read to the congregation. And many said, “That’s in the Book of Mormon? Where’s that? Show that to me?”
[SPEAKER CHANGES BACK TO DARIUS GRAY]
Margaret just mentioned Len and Mary Hope, with their family. I’m going to give you a very quick bit of background on Brother Hope. Brother Hope was from Magnolia, Alabama. I don’t think you much more southern than Magnolia, Alabama. He was the son of a sharecropper, and somewhere along the line he felt he needed to have religion. And he had read or heard that the Holy Ghost could tell you the truth of all things, so he set about trying to find or receive the Holy Ghost. He went to various ministers, and they each had different answers about what you do. And we have all of this because Brother Hope dictated this story, and we have his actual voice. He tells him story, and long story short, he prayed and prayed, and he set himself out in an old shack and determined he was either going to get the Holy Ghost or die. And when he finally went home, his sister told him that there were a couple young men who had come to their father’s shack. This sharecropper’s cabin did not have a path to it, and it had been raining, and it was muddy, but they went in their fine clothes and they had left a track from their church: I think the title was “The Holy Ghost and How to Get It.” And these two men were missionaries from the LDS Church. So while he was praying over here, the Lord was responding over there. Brother Hope said he wondered why his sister didn’t think those pamphlets were for her. He was born in 1893, and before he could join the Church, World War I broke out, and he went and served in Europe, and he carried with him a copy of the Book of Mormon, which he received, and he felt that it preserved him and protected him through the war. Once home, he undertook to be baptized, and after being baptized shortly thereafter he was at his brother’s sharecropper’s cabin, and one night, the nightriders, the Klan, came on horseback with their rifles, shotguns and pistols, and they ordered him out. They said that they weren’t going to hurt him. Brother Hope’s words were, “If they weren’t going to hurt me, it seems to me they would’ve left the guns at home.” But he came out, and he addressed that group of men, clad in the robes of the KKK, and they wanted to know what it was he thought he was doing as a Black man, that he was now joining this white church. And when you hear his words, Brother Hope bore testimony, saying that he wasn’t trying to be white, he just knew that this was the gospel of Jesus Christ and he had joined it. I don’t know that I would’ve had that courage, on a darkened night, in that part of the country, faced with those men, those weapons, but that’s what he did.
[SPEAKER SWITCHES ONCE AGAIN TO MARGARET YOUNG]
My husband thought that looked like Ray Fines. Anyone know who that is? He was a missionary in Cincinnati. Len Hope had taken his family to the branch meeting, and actually Darius told a little of this. And after the congregation that a Black family was coming, they held a little meeting, and Darius met someone who had been in that meeting, and decided that they didn’t want a black family there and let Len know that they didn’t want them there. And Len’s response was, “Can we still pay our tithing?” So it was arranged that every three months, when district conference happened, they would go and pay their tithing. Meanwhile, every fast Sunday the missionaries would go and administer the sacrament to them, and one of those missionaries was Marion Duff Hanks. And one of the times he was there, having a sacrament meeting with them, he became ill and stayed for three days, and talked about Mary Hope wiping his forehead and Elder Hanks said, “I never knew the color of that hand.” And he and Len talked, including about the priesthood restriction, things that were difficult for elder Hanks to understand because he loved Len so dearly. It came time for elder Hanks to return to his mission, and the district leader came to pick him up and he went down, and there was a little bit of snow on the steps and he stepped down those steps and his footprints were there, and he got in the car with the missionaries. And Mary Hope went to go wipe the steps, and Len stopped her and said, “Mary, I’ve treated you like a lady all my life, but don’t you do that. Don’t you remember what it says in the Bible? How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace.” They remained friends until Len’s death in the 1950s, and elder Hanks knew exactly the moment when Len had died. And as soon as he could get out of a meeting, he called, and Len’s daughter, Rose, answered, and said, “Oh, Elder Hanks, I’m so glad you just called. Daddy has just died.”
[SPEAKER BACK TO DARIUS]
I’ve got far more material than we have time for. But I want to point out something, that these stories are there to be known, to be shared. And there are stories of so many other black Latter-day Saints. Walker Lews, Bilbo Fango, William McKerry, men and women who have served the faith well. And it begs the question, why don’t we know these stories? And I’m going to make a leap here, and I think I can justify it, and I have enough material to make a sane argument: I think it’s because we have been uncomfortable as a Church with our history. We too at times were the perpetrators, and not just the victims. We were, within the LDS Church, members slaveholders. We were those who oppressed others. We had the policy of priesthood restriction for so very long. And I think we have sort of a dual-attitude about that duel. We struggle with it, we don’t quite know what to do, we don’t speak about it comfortably, and we need to get past that. Race is a reality. I am black. I am proud of that heritage. I’m also Jewish – who knew, right? I had my DNA checked, and found out that I’m a Scottish Jew. Oy vey(?)! But race is a reality, and we need to have a comfort level with it. It’s not where one group is superior to another, one group is downtrodden and the other one is hovering over. We are the children of the same God. We are literally brothers and sisters. We need to be more free in searching out our history, sharing the stories, realizing that, yes, at times we have made mistakes as individuals and also as an institution. We need to do better than we’ve done.
I often receive inquiries or comments from members around the world, not just in the country, and recently there was one that came in from a sister in Switzerland. She is of African descent, black African, and she has married a white Swiss, and they have a beautiful young family, and they are in the Church and yet they are experiencing difficulties because of race. And while our exchanges go back many months, the most recent is dated July 10, and it says from her, “Since our last contact I have been reading a lot about the subject blacks in the Church. Here in Switzerland the members and leaders do not know of or have heard of Elijah Abel, and the Church history concerning the blacks. Often we feel left alone on this subject.” The part that follows next is the part that troubles me the most. She says, “Question: in my patriarchal blessing there is no definition of my lineage. The leaders say that for negroes there is no lineage definition possible. Why? Greetings,” and then she signs her name.
When I received my patriarchal blessing in 1966, it did not include lineage. When friends who knew that I was receiving that blessing inquired, “What’s your lineage?” I said, “Well I don’t think it states.” And they said, “Well, that’s the primary purpose of a patriarchal blessing, and you’re entitled to go back to get a second blessing or a PS.” So I called the Patriarch, who happened to be Albert J. Smith, Patriarch to the Church. I had chosen him, thinking that he might be the best source. And what I was told was, “It isn’t time yet.” I had no idea what that meant. I didn’t know if it was because of my race or what. It took 20 some years to approach him again at the urging of my then-Bishop, and I received a second patriarchal blessing, and my lineage declared.
Ruffin Bridgeforth, a man I wanted to introduce you to, but time is too short, was my predecessor – he again was the first president of the Genesis branch. He had joined the LDS Church in 1953, 11 years before I did. He was from Louisiana. President Bridgeforth had the same situation, where his lineage was not declared, as did Eugene Orr the other counselor in the Genesis presidency.
Brothers and sisters, here we are, in the year 2012, and we have Patriarchs who still aren’t aware that lineage can and should be declared, regardless of race or ethnicity. We have a long way to go. It is my hope, and my prayer, that we can do that, get there, get to be what Father would have us be. I think it’s going to be necessary to usher in the Second Coming. I think certain things have to be in place before the Savior returns. And one of those things is for us again to know as we knew before we came here to this earth that indeed we are brothers and sisters.