Mormon and Black: Grappling with a racist past
The first time she was ever called the most offensive of racial slurs, Tamu Smith was in the Salt Lake LDS temple.
An elderly man spied Smith, a new bride, and asked aloud what a [racial epithet] was doing there. Instead of reprimanding him, temple workers defended him, saying he didn't know better.
Smith didn't leave the LDS Church over such hurtful language then, and she remains faithful, but frustrated, nearly 15 years later. She will join other Mormons this week to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the June 8, 1978, revelation that opened the church's priesthood to "all worthy men," including those of African descent, and marked a new era for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
President Spencer W. Kimball's revelation brought a string of firsts for the church: first black missionary; first black bishop; first black couple married in the temple; first black men ordained in Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Jamaica, Nigeria; first black general authority. It also brought relief to many white Mormons mortified by charges of racism leveled at them and their church.
Notably, it also opened Africa to Mormon missionaries, a great boon to the church. Today, 255,050 Latter-day Saints hail from Nigeria in the west to Kenya and Ethiopia in the east to Zimbabwe and South Africa in the south.
More than 2,000 African men now serve as mission presidents, regional, stake, district and congregational leaders, counselors, as patriarchs and in temple presidencies. In some countries, there are even second-generation African Latter-day Saints.
"I love being part of this church," says Noelle Nkoy, who lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo for most of her childhood.
For Africans, it's a new day in the church. Its racist past is not taught and, by those who know, it's viewed as irrelevant.
African-Americans are joining in record numbers, too, especially in places such as Harlem. But for some, the challenge of being the only black face in the congregation can be disconcerting. They sometimes feel slighted or, worse, patronized by white Mormons. And when they discover the historic mistreatment of LDS blacks, some feel a sense of betrayal and many slip from the fold.
"I don't mind defending my faith to my black friends and family," Smith says, "but I do mind having to defend my race to my fellow Mormons."
The never-ending story: Smith knew nothing about the priesthood ban when she joined at age 11 with her grandparents, but she did sense antagonism from Pentecostal relatives who saw the LDS Church as racist. Still, she felt a strong spiritual connection to Mormonism and maintained her faith even after her grandparents dropped out.
Smith met her white husband, Keith Smith, in a Fresno, Calif., ward. It wasn't until they moved to Rexburg, Idaho, that she confronted serious racism among Mormons.
"Everything was white there. The snow was white. The culture was white. The food was white," Smith says. "If this church is so true, where are all the black people? I needed to find out if I was having a unique experience."
So she read the journals of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, who publicly opposed slavery and ordained at least one black man, Elijah Abel.
"Joseph seemed impartial, even ahead of his time. He had a kind heart toward blacks," she says. "But there was a different spirit in Brigham [Young's] journals."
Young brought prejudices common in America at the time into the Mormon faith, sociologist Armand Mauss wrote. No longer were men with even a drop of African blood allowed to be ordained to the priesthood, which otherwise was available to virtually all males starting at 12. Blacks could still be members, but couldn't be leaders, serve missions or be married in one of the faith's temples.
Tamu Smith discovered all this in a pamphlet produced by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers.
"It was a sad story, but it made me feel somewhat better," she says. "I wasn't alone."
Shifting answers: Mormons explained the ban with the same scriptures other Christian groups used to defend practices such as slavery, Mauss wrote.
The notion that "blacks are cursed" began with the biblical story of Noah's three sons, Shem, Japheth and Ham. Descendants of Shem, the oldest, were believed to be the preferred race the Semites or Jews and Arabs. Japheth, the next son, was the father of "other white or yellow races."
In the ninth chapter of Genesis, the Bible says that because Ham saw his father's naked body, he and his descendants were cursed to be the "servant of servants."
To this justification, Mormons added a unique twist: that blacks were somehow "less valiant" than other races in the spirit world before this life, so-called fence-sitters in the War in Heaven.
Such theories continue to circulate among some Latter-day Saints and find support in quasi-official publications such as Mormon Doctrine and the Mortal Messiah series by Bruce R. McConkie, an influential LDS apostle who died in 1985. Attempts to get the church to repudiate these notions have been rebuffed.
"This folklore is not part of and never was taught as doctrine by the church," LDS spokesman Mark Tuttle said this week, adding that the church has no policy against interracial marriage, nor does it teach that everyone in heaven will be white.
The official LDS position is that only God knows why it took so long to eliminate the ban, but that's a cop-out, says Darron Smith, a University of Utah doctoral student who is serving in the Utah Army National Guard at Fort Sill, Okla. "We don't know why the Lord did this? Bulls---. It's called racism."
He believes all Latter-day Saints deserve an apology.
Such outspokenness two years ago led to Brigham Young University's decision not to renew his assistant-lecturer contract.
"Part of what hasn't happened in 30 years is open dialogue," Smith said. "People aren't as forthcoming because they're scared of repercussions, of being disciplined for speaking their experience. . . . Are you supposed to suppress your feelings for the good of the church or embrace controversy? Controversy presents opportunities for growth."
He's committed to his Mormon faith and simply wants "the church to be what it says it is" and to reach what he trusts is its full potential.
Signs of hope: Black Mormons hope the more people know about the church's racist past, the more progress toward healing they'll see. Better information is what Darius Gray and Margaret Blair Young hope they've provided in their groundbreaking documentary, "Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons."
Gray, the author and businessman who led Genesis, a support group for black Mormons, from 1997 to 2003, and Young, his co-author on a trilogy tracing the history of LDS blacks, have previewed the documentary at film festivals. It will be available for general release later this summer, and includes never-released footage of interviews shot in 1968 and rare archival photographs as well as interviews with members, social scientists, clergy and historians.
"This is not a sanitized nor a bitter piece. We are neither proselytizing nor bashing," Gray says. "It's a chance for black Mormons to share their joys, excitement, sadness and struggles."
Gray, Young and many others were pleased by Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland's recent statements about blacks in the church.
Racist folklore must "never be perpetuated," Holland told filmmaker Helen Whitney in her PBS documentary about the Mormons. "However well-intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong."
They were also gratified to hear the late President Gordon B. Hinckley condemn racism in strong language during the church's annual General Conference in 2006.
"I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us," Hinckley said during the all-male priesthood session. "I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ. How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible?"
Hinckley's words were welcome, but they weren't enough for many.
"For racism to stop, we need to hear it condemned at Conference as often as pornography or abuse are," Tamu Smith says. "The brethren don't want to open up old wounds, but those wounds have never healed."
JESSICA RAVITZ contributed to this story.
The LDS Church in Africa*
Total membership: 255,050
Temples: Three, in Accra, Ghana; Aba, Nigeria; and Johannesburg, South Africa
Source: LDS Church Almanac
* Based on 2006 numbers
A celebration of the 1978 revelation ending the ban on blacks in the LDS priesthood begins at 7 p.m. Sunday in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Sheldon F. Child of the LDS First Quorum of Seventy and several black Latter-day Saints will speak. Mack Wilberg, conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, will direct a multicultural choir. Tickets are required for this event but are free. They can be reserved by calling 801-570-0080 (in Salt Lake County) or toll-free, 1-866-537-8457.