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| Jerri Harwell Genesis Group leaders at the anniversary gathering left to right: Darius A. Gray - Eugene Orr (counselors to Ruffin Bridgeforth in the original Genesis Branch presidency) Donald L. Harwell (current Genesis president and past first counselor to Darius Gray and past second counselor to Ruffin Bridgeforth), Orin Howell (current first counselor to Don Harwell) and Eddie Gist (current second counselor to Don Harwell).
Black Mormon pioneers — a rich but forgotten legacy of faith

New book brings to life their trailblazing triumphs and trials.

First Published Jul 21 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Jul 23 2014 06:41 pm

Green Flake was in the vanguard company of Mormon pioneers in 1847, driving a wagon into the Salt Lake Valley with LDS prophet Brigham Young, who famously declared Utah to be the right place to build Zion.

But you won’t likely see a figure of Flake atop any floats in Thursday’s Days of ’47 Parade as they glide down the streets of Utah’s capital.

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That could be because Flake’s story is unfamiliar to the vast majority of Mormons. Or because the South Carolina-born convert’s narrative is, well, a tad more difficult than the typical pioneer tale: He was black and a slave, who was once donated to the LDS Church as "tithing" after his owner couldn’t find a buyer.

Mention of these black members brings up a painful part of the Mormon past — for more than a century blacks were barred from being ordained to the faith’s all-male priesthood, and black women were denied access to temple rituals as well. That didn’t end until 1978.

Omitting Flake and more than 50 other black pioneers from the heroic recounting of the massive LDS trek across the Plains is not just an oversight, say Mormon historians and members, it is a travesty.

"If we don’t celebrate our full history, we are actually celebrating a lie," says Tamu Smith, co-author with Zandra Vranes of "Diary of Two Mad Black Mormons." "We know that we were there, so when people leave us out on purpose, they are not celebrating their own history."

Accounts of black pioneers, argue Smith and Vranes, should be as well-known inside the 15 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as yarns of Young, Mary Fielding Smith (a widow who reportedly healed her dying oxen) and the Willie and Martin handcart companies (many members of which lost their lives along the way).

"Our stories need to be told over and over and over just like the other ones," Vranes says. "When we tell people that Green Flake was right there when Brigham Young said, ‘This is the place,’ they don’t believe us."

Persecution within and without » Vranes and Smith hope a new book by Mormon scholar Russell Stevenson, "For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism, 1830-2013," scheduled to be released by Kofford Books in the fall, will spread awareness of black pioneers more widely and provide historical support for what they’ve been saying for years.

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Stevenson, who will begin a doctoral program at Michigan State University this fall, offers new details about the lives of black Mormons, some known, others new.

In addition to pioneers such as Flake, his book looks at later trailblazing black Latter-day Saints including the following:

» Len Hope, who joined the LDS Church in 1913 and found support from his fellow Alabama Mormons as they together suffered persecution at Southern hands.

» William P. Daniels, a black member in South Africa in the 1920s, who established his family as a "study group," and a few years later, that unit grew into "The Branch of Love," with Daniels as a branch president without the priesthood.

» Wynetta Martin, who joined in 1966 and by 1970 became the first black woman in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

» Three Ghanaians (Raphael Abraham F. Mensah, Joseph William Johnson and Rebecca Mould), who became acquainted with Mormon literature in the 1960s and drew up a constitution for their "official" Mormon church in 1969 (with Mould as one of their apostles) without approval from church headquarters.

» The Genesis Group — organized in 1971 with leaders Ruffin Bridgeforth, Darius Gray and Eugene Orr — which created a place for black Mormons to find support.

"I hope my book can prompt all of us — but especially white Latter-day Saints," Stevenson says, "to ask hard questions about our racial assumptions."

Black Mormon pioneers were "doubly Mormon — if 19th-century Mormon identity was defined in large measure through persecution," explains Max Mueller, who, using the LDS Church as a case study, just finished a dissertation at Harvard on the relationship between race and religion in that time period.

"Black Mormons were persecuted along with white saints," Mueller writes in an email from Boston, "but their fellow brethren also excluded them from full participation in the religious culture to which intrepid pioneers like Elijah Abel and Jane Manning James dedicated their lives."

Thus, accounts of the earliest black Mormons are among the most wrenching.

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