Documentary chronicles history of black Mormons
MURRAY, Utah (AP) ” Elijah Abel, Jane Manning James and Green Flake hold a unique, but rather obscure place in Mormon history: all three joined the church in it’s infancy and all three were black.
They also remained faithful after policies were altered and blacks were denied full membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Abel was the first black man ordained to the priesthood in 1836. James worked in the home of church founder Joseph Smith and followed the faith’s next president, Brigham Young, across the Plains to Utah in 1848. Flake came to Utah as well, but as the slave of white members. He was freed by Young in 1854.
Such stories won’t remain unknown if Darius Gray and Margaret Young have anything to do with it ” they’ve chronicled the struggles of black Latter-day Saints in a new documentary “Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons.”
“To me it’s parallel with the story of African Americans, period,” said Gray, who is black and has been a member of the church since 1964. “We talk about the black history and contributions being either lost, stolen or strayed generally, and it’s the same within the LDS church.”
Nearly six years in the making, the film is an extension of a longtime partnership between Gray, a former broadcaster, and Young, a writing teacher at the church-owned Brigham Young University. Together the pair have written three books on black Mormons.
Wrapped in soulful black spirituals, the 72-minute film takes viewers on a journey from the days of Mormon pioneers to the 1960s Civil Rights era, when some university athletic teams refused to compete against BYU because the church openly discriminated against blacks. It ends with current black church members sharing their own stories ” good and bad.
“We’re not hiding anything, we’re not sugar-coating anything,” said Young, who is white. “We’re telling a very difficult history, but the people who are telling it have come through it.”
Tamu Smith of Provo is one of those storytellers.
“It is liberating,” Smith said of sharing her struggle to fit in and find other people of color in her faith. “We don’t talk about black Mormon history, and it’s sad. Every person in the church needs to see this.”
Church history shows that Smith granted blacks full membership in the faith not long after founding the church in 1830. Brigham Young later preached that blacks “bore the mark of Cain” and implied that they were inferior. For decades blacks were not allowed to served as missionaries, were denied access to church temples and to the sacred ceremonies that Mormons believed bound families for eternity. Black men were also denied the right to hold the priesthood, which gives men ecclesiastical authority.
Blacks remained marginalized until June 8, 1978, when a revelation by then-president Spencer W. Kimball, restored the priesthood for black men.
Some say Kimball was led by prayer and reflection to the announcement, while others believe the change was driven by more practical reasons. In the decades following the revelations, Mormon church membership in Africa grew by leaps and bounds. Today the church claims more than 250,000 members of the church in 27 African nations, statistics on the church Web site show.
Regardless of reason, Kimball’s announcement was a stunning change that Gray said he thought would “have to wait until the Second Coming for it to occur.”
A player in the film in addition to his behind-camera role, Gray said black Mormons needed to tell their own story instead of letting others continue to interpret their history.
“It’s important to be validated and it’s important to share it with our white brothers and sisters so that they can have an appreciation for who we are and from whence we’ve come,” he said. “Part of it is sweet, part of it is bitter, but it’s our story.”
Young said a goal of the film, is to build a bridge between blacks and whites both in and out of the church.
Gray and Young have been shopping their project to film festivals across the U.S. To date it’s been shown in Dallas, Detroit and San Diego, where so many people turned out that organizers had to move the showing to a larger theater. They hope to find a distributor that will allow the film to be widely. It was funded largely through a University of Utah grant and the church was not involved in its production.
On Saturday, the film drew a crowd of more than 100 at the Foursite Film Festival in Ogden.
“This was very impressive,” teacher Tamara Lei Peters said. “There have been so many questions about black people in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It made me weep in a few places.”
Peters said she knew nothing about black Mormon history before seeing the film.
David Rowe, who teaches at the Salt Lake Theological Seminary, knew the history, but said he was surprised by the film.
“I would say it was bracingly forthright about the black Mormons’ struggle,” said the self-described evangelical. “I didn’t expect them to allow quite as much criticism along with the commendation. I expected a bit more of PR gloss, but I didn’t find it overly romanticized.”
Mormon Jeanette Lambert of Salt Lake City said perhaps the film can begin to heal the divisiveness wrought by the past treatment of black church members. Sadly, some old doctrines that support the idea that blacks are less than full church members are still taught, said Lambert, a hospice nurse.
“I think there needs to be a concerted effort made to acknowledge that some things were wrong. It’s a part of the repentance process,” said the mother of two teenagers.
The dedication and faithfulness of pioneers and the decades of black members who came after them is something other church members should know about and celebrate, Lambert said.
Abel, James and Flake, “should be some of our heroes,” she said.
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