A BYU-Idaho Facebook page compared the trials of Latter-day Saints to slavery

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Artwork of Joseph Smith in the John Taylor Building at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, Wednesday January 17, 2018.

Black students say they are angry and frustrated after a Facebook page from Brigham Young University’s campus in Idaho compared the historic persecution of Latter-day Saints to centuries of slavery in America — suggesting Black people, too, can “RISE ABOVE.”

The lengthy post appeared earlier this month on the official account for Performing and Visual Arts for the school, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After several people pointed it out, both the post and the page were deleted. Screenshots of it, though, have been shared widely across social media.

Students of color there had hoped it might start a conversation at BYU-Idaho about their ongoing concerns with racism. But administrators, they say, have refused to sit down with them, acknowledge the post existed or apologize.

“How dare they?” said Richard Luyhengo, a Black international student at the school. “That post was written out of ignorance. And all we want is just to be listened to.”

The school’s spokesman, Brett Crandall, did not respond to several requests for comment from The Salt Lake Tribune.

The Facebook post comes as crowds nationwide, including in Utah, have protested for weeks against racism and discrimination against Black people, particularly by law enforcement. The surge in demonstrations followed the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Black students at BYU-Idaho say, particularly with recent events, that the statement was not only out of touch but also added to the pain they’re already feeling.

The post started by asking, “Do you know the story of my people?” It then chronicles the early history of the Latter-day Saints as they were persecuted and harassed, fleeing to Utah (what was then Mexican territory) to escape. Some of its statements are true, such as: “They were discriminated against.”

But others, such as one saying that the church was “against slavery even before the Civil War,” are not. Some members brought slaves with them into Utah. And the faith’s leader Brigham Young said in 1852, “We must believe in slavery.”

(Screenshot) A screenshot with numbers added of the post on BYU-I's Performing and Visual Arts page that compared the persecution of Latter-day Saints to slavery.

For several lines, it then discussed how many in the faith were beaten and killed for their beliefs. It said that once they resettled, though, they overcame those trials and “prospered because of hard work and dedication.” They fought for the United States in the Mexican-American War — even after, the post said, the country turned its back on them. And they opened colleges and became political leaders and created temples.

“Why am I telling you this?” the post asked. And that’s where it began to compare that Latter-day Saint history to the current Black Lives Matter movement.

It said: “Because I know however oppressed you feel, no matter if [sic] your skin color, religion, background or heritage, ……. YOU CAN RISE ABOVE.”

Latter-days Saints were “humbled” by their past experiences. And Black people, it suggested, should be, too. It advised them to forgive those who hurt and enslaved them.

Fredericka Thomas, a Black student at BYU-Idaho, said the suffering that Black people have experienced for generations is incomparable and continues to this day. She fears, though, that there’s a lack of understanding of that history.

If individuals really understood what has happened, she added, she believes no one would have created that Facebook post.

“I was just shocked,” she said. “It’s just an extension of what’s going on nationwide.”

Luyhengo said he was surprised, too, when he first saw the post. Quickly, though, that shifted to anger.

“Black people were taken from their families. Their names were changed. Their agency was 100% taken,” he said. “And those very Saints were persecuting blacks, as well.”

Latter-day Saints, he added, also were able to leave their circumstances and could chose to flee. Those enslaved and in bondage could not.

Luyhengo, who is a convert to the faith, came to BYU-Idaho from South Africa three years ago. Black people everywhere, he said, not just in the United States, have been subjugated.

But he said he has experienced more discrimination since coming to Idaho for school, and most often it’s been at the hands of other Latter-day Saints. Both the faith and the university have little diversity, he said.

One woman at church, Luyhengo said, was talking to him about another Black man she had met. And she described him as “looking like a monkey,” a racist stereotype about Black people.

Another member once told him she’d had a bad experience with a Black person before and now didn’t trust “your kind.”

In one of his classes at BYU-Idaho, a student defended the Founding Fathers for owning slaves because “maybe they treated them well.” Luyhengo was the only Black student in the class and didn’t feel like he could safely challenge her.

Thomas, too, said she’s had several students on campus tell her things — like they’re surprised that she speaks well or that she was accepted to the school — which she says are directed at the color of her skin.

BYU-Idaho is only slightly less majority-white, at 80%, than the school’s main campus in Provo, Utah, which is 81%. And the church’s membership, within the United States, is 86% white, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

As the nation reckons with the past, some in Utah and Idaho have specifically asked the faith to respond now to its own problematic history. It cannot, they say, only focus on white church members’ trials.

Luyhengo believes a large part of the continuing issues is that the church has never formally apologized for its past beliefs. It had previously preached the superiority of whites as a mandate from God. And it also withheld leadership positions from Black members. Both positions persisted into the 1970s.

“I love the church,” he said. “But it needs to make an effort to unteach those wrong ideas. Our past has had an impact on how we look at things today.”

The faith has recently partnered with the NAACP to address issues, and its leaders have called out racism. Church President Russell M. Nelson stated that the Almighty “calls on each of us to abandon attitudes of prejudice against any group of God’s children,” emphasizing that “any of us who has prejudice toward another race needs to repent.”

The Tribune talked to other students of color at the school who said they feared speaking out about the post, afraid that BYU-Idaho might take action against their education or their standing in the faith. Already, the university has banned cultural clubs on campus, so the Black Student Union meets informally out of the school.

Together, its members are asking that the university establish a Diversity and Inclusion Office, where students of color could report incidents of racism or microaggressions, such as what Luyhengo and Thomas have experienced. More than 3,000 have signed an online petition to support the office.

“We’ve reached a moment in time where lip service doesn’t work,” said one of the students who feared publishing her name. “We just want the school to realize we are here and we’re not having a good experience and we need structural change.”

She said she’s called home crying several times after other students have hurled racist comments at her on campus. But she feels the university does little to investigate or respond — like with the Facebook post.

She and others hope that having a diversity office would give students of color a place to go where they could file a complaint or talk about their concerns.

Students at the Provo campus, too, have likewise called for change. There, a group has called for a race and ethnicity class to be required to graduate. And some are calling for new names for buildings on campus that honor slaveholders. Last week, two people vandalized the iconic statute of Brigham Young, coating it in red paint and writing “racist” at the base.

The school there, though, responded by forming a committee to look at inequality. But at the institution in Idaho, there hasn’t been any promise of change, students say.

They said they’ve tried to talk to the administration only to have their scheduled meetings canceled every time at the last minute. Now, the school said Tuesday, they’ll be allowed to meet with the dean one on one. They can’t go in as a group.

Luyhengo said they just want to talk and have the school acknowledge the problems. He added: “We have a long way to go.”