Mormon Black History Month

How white and African-American Mormons are dealing with the Church's racially troubled past.

The Mormon Church hosted a Mormon Black History devotional evening in Chicago on Groundhog's Day. Nice timing. On a holiday of light and shadows, how did the speakers handle the topic of the Church's racially difficult past? Did they focus on the shadows: a Church culture which did not allow black men to hold the priesthood until 1978? Or did they celebrate the sunshine: all the progress that's been made in the past two decades? The answer: A little of both.

At the Hyde Park First Ward in Chicago's predominantly black South Side, the speakers--one white, one black--were from Utah. They were Margaret Blair Young and Darius Gray, co-authors of fictionalized accounts of the joys and difficulties of the earliest black Mormons. Volume one, "One More River to Cross," and volume two, "Bound for Canaan," will be joined in May by the final book of the trilogy, "The Last Mile of the Way," from Deseret Books.

After a moving version of the spiritual "I Couldn't Hear Nobody Cry" sung by an all-white choir, Young shared the stories of two real African-American Latter-day Saints. In Salt Lake City around 1900, eight-year-old Abner Howell was told by jeering Mormon boys, "Don't you know you can't get into heaven because you're black?" An apostle, John Henry Smith (father of future LDS Church president George Albert Smith), consoled Ab, telling him that those boys were wrong. He showed Ab a passage from the Book of Mormon: [The Lord] denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female...and all are alike unto God." (2 Nephi 26:33)

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Another black man, Len Hope, became a Mormon in Alabama in the 1919, right after World War I. When he and his family moved to Cincinnati, the "Saints" in the local congregation told their bishop that if a black family was going to come, they would all leave. The bishop told the Hopes not to attend, except for quarterly district meetings when they could pay their tithing. He sent missionaries to take them the sacrament of the Lord's supper once a month.

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