To many Americans in the civil rights era, it seemed an act of self-loathing for blacks to join any predominantly white church, especially one like Mormonism that barred those of their race from the faith’s offices and holiest rituals.
Indeed, not many African-Americans were drawn to the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, given its centurylong ban on black men and boys being ordained to the all-male priesthood and on black women and girls entering Mormon temples.
Despite that, some found their way there.
They chose to live within the restrictions — enduring slings from fellow African-Americans as well as occasional mistreatment from white Latter-day Saints — to embrace what they saw as the LDS Church’s other, more universal principles and practices.
Then came the June 8, 1978, announcement, dubbed a revelation, from then-church President Spencer W. Kimball, ending the ban and opening the priesthood to “all worthy” males and temple blessings to all faithful members.
As the news spread across the globe, Mormon lives changed, subtly or dramatically. One Sunday, a black father could be sitting in the pews with his wife and kids, for example, and a week later taking his place on the podium as a newly called “elder.”
It brought a string of post-revelation firsts — first black missionary, first black couple sealed in the iconic Salt Lake LDS Temple, first black temple worker, first black bishop, first black general authority, first black Relief Society president and a surge of conversions in sub-Saharan Africa.
Did the move wipe out racist rhetoric, attitudes and actions within the church? Of course not, say black members, who point to slights and slurs, shunning and hostility, rejection and invisibility that continue to this day.
As the 16 million-member faith celebrates that momentous shift 40 years ago this weekend, however, it is worth remembering those black Mormons for whom the LDS Church was and is their spiritual home — before and after the ban.
George Garwood: ‘You can’t be from that white church’
It was 15-year-old George Garwood’s white LDS neighbors in Tooele who first invited the teen to go to church with them. Before long, he felt moved to join.
Being underage, though, he had to get his Methodist parents’ permission, and they were none too pleased to hear their black son wanted to become a Mormon.
“I knew about the ban,” he recalls now. “But I believed the church was true and wanted to join.”
On April 7, 1972, the teen went down into the waters of baptism and came up a member of a mostly white church.
His first LDS bishop urged the young convert “to attend priesthood meeting,” Garwood says, “in case the day would come when I could hold the priesthood. I just couldn’t officiate in any ordinances.”
Six years later, the future South Ogden mayor had moved to Weber County and had just gotten off work at Harmons when he got a call from his mother.
“I guess they’re going to give you the priesthood today,” his mother told him. “Your prophet has received a revelation.”
That’s a “hoax,” Garwood says he replied. “It can’t be true.”
But that night, friends began appearing at his doorstep to congratulate him. It started to sink in.
That same weekend, he was ordained. On Sunday, he passed the sacrament, or communion, for the first time at a Genesis support group meeting for black members. He gave his tray of bread and then water first to apostle Thomas S. Monson, who would become LDS Church president in 2008.
With the priesthood, Garwood could “home teach, go to the temple and be a member with full understanding and blessings of the gospel.”
Soon, the young man was besieged with invitations to speak at church services — often two or three times a Sunday — and pressed to serve a full-time Mormon mission (even his parents were in favor).
A year after Kimball’s announcement, Garwood found himself proselytizing on the streets of Oakland, Calif., and finding many surprised people of color.
“Some would say, ‘You can’t be from that white church,’” he says. “It was a new experience to tell them blacks could now hold the priesthood.”
Garwood, who would become Utah’s first black mayor, held many church positions. After retiring from politics, he sang in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He’s been in the same South Ogden ward, or congregation, for more than 40 years — still the only black man in it.
“I’ve had a good life in the church.”
Jerri Harwell: Mission or bust
After joining the LDS Church in 1977 in Michigan, all Jerri Harwell wanted was to be a full-time missionary. She was an all-in believer and yearned to share the Mormon good news with others.
Her bishop kept telling her no. She could serve a ward or stake mission but not a full-time one.
That was because, of course, the priesthood ban on blacks also barred African-American women from entering LDS temples.
At the time, missionaries could not teach blacks unless they asked for the lessons, Harwell recalls. She offered to instruct anybody of any race who was interested.
Then came the 1978 breakthrough that rocked her world.
“All of a sudden, the eternities were opened up to me,” she says. “A mission, then temple marriage and sealing. Those were the goals I set for myself.”
She served a full-time mission in Houston, then came back and married Don Harwell, who later became the president of the Genesis Group.
Today, the couple serve together as missionaries at Murray’s Intermountain Medical Center, where they are, she says, “the only missionaries of color.”
Eugene Orr: ‘I knew President Kimball was the one’
Eugene Orr encountered Mormonism in 1968 while participating in Job Corps in Clearfield. There, he met Leitha Marintha Derricott, a white woman he later would marry, and she arranged to have him taught by missionaries.
When Orr asked about the the priesthood ban, he writes on his website, “one of these missionaries assured him that he need not worry about it as he would become white when he became more righteous.”
He joined anyway and tried to make it work.
Looking around his Mormon ward, he didn’t see many members who looked like him, so he and his wife began to host what they called “a Black Mormon Reunion” in their backyard. In 1969, about 30 people attended. The next year, there were 75 and the third year, 1971, it attracted some 150 people, including then-apostle Spencer W. Kimball and his wife, Camilla.
In October of that year, the church organized Genesis, with Ruffin Bridgeforth as the president, Darius Gray as first counselor and Orr as second counselor. Apostles Monson, Gordon B. Hinckley and Boyd K. Packer were appointed as advisers.
Still, Utah’s LDS community was not terribly friendly.
Orr was told he could not attend priesthood meeting in his ward, or the white men would stop going, he recalls. “It got to the point where if I stayed in Salt Lake City, I would lose my testimony.”
So, in 1977, Orr and his wife moved to Alberta, Canada, his wife’s hometown, where he was welcomed into his Mormon congregation, including its priesthood meeting.
He always thought an end to the priesthood/temple prohibition was coming.
“I knew President Kimball was the one who would make it happen after he came to my house,” Orr says. “I knew that by the time my boys turned 12, they would receive the priesthood.”
When the ban ended, Orr was ordained immediately and soon called as a counselor in his ward’s bishopric. Through the years, he has continued to serve in leadership positions there.
“One gentleman would go out of his way to avoid shaking my head,” Orr says. “One Sunday, I cornered him and stuck my hand out. He grabbed it but kept moving. If I let those kind of things bother me, then he succeeded. I’m not here to be liked by people.”
His Mormon faith has remained steady, he says, because it’s all about his “connection with God, not man.”
Karyn Dudley: Dad ‘hasn’t had a minute’s rest since’
Karyn Dudley’s parents learned about Mormonism in 1972 by going to an Amway sales dinner, attended mostly by Latter-day Saints. Karyn was 5 at the time, but her parents liked the missionaries and the religious teachings. Within months, the entire Battle Creek, Mich., black family — parents and four children — had joined.
“I didn’t understand or know about the ban at that age,” Dudley explains. “All I knew was that my dad wasn’t able to baptize us. I wonder how he felt about that.”
Thinking back, she says, it might have been painful for him having to rely on a white man to be the “spiritual head of the household and minister to your children because of your skin color.” Her father, Norman Dudley Jr., didn’t see it that way, she says. “He’s way too humble. He just saw it as white brothers willing to come in and bless his family the way the Lord would allow them to be blessed.”
He didn’t think blacks would get the priesthood in his lifetime and was resigned to it. Once it happened, the church put him to work, she says, “and he hasn’t had a minute’s rest since.”
When the announcement came that the priesthood would be extended to “all worthy males,” she cringed. “My father was absolutely worthy before that. He always was.”
After they got the priesthood, Dudley’s brothers “went inactive,” she says, when a ward member refused to take the sacrament from her older brother. “I can’t imagine having to face that person each week.”
One of the brothers returned to the faith and is now a bishop, Dudley says, while their father never wavered.
“He’s happy to be with the fold, regardless of the color of their skin.”
Alan Cherry: ‘Black speakers were much in demand’
Alan Cherry joined the LDS Church on an Air Force base in Texas in 1968, while on a search, he says, “for absolute truth.”
After a run-in with his sergeant, the 22-year-old Cherry ended up in military confinement, where he met a Mormon who was there for disorderly conduct. That man got his aunt to send missionaries to Cherry, who read LDS pamphlets, prayed and was converted.
“I had a phenomenal experience from the power of the Holy Ghost,” says the black Mormon who now lives in Provo. “Within two weeks, I had finished the Book of Mormon and was ready for baptism.”
Cherry already knew about the priesthood restriction, he says, after reading about it in a Reader’s Digest article.
He was discharged, baptized and returned to his home in New York, then made his way to LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University within a year, where he studied sociology and sang in a band known as the “Sons of Mosiah.”
When the priesthood change came, Cherry was living in California, trying to make it as an actor and a writer. He quickly returned to Provo, where he was ordained.
“It was an exciting time,” he remembers. “They wanted every black man to be ordained and black speakers were much in demand.”
Cherry eventually would serve a mission in Oakland and write about his experience with Mormonism. At 41, he married Janice Cherry, and they had three children.
Lifting the ban, he says, didn’t automatically change race relations in the church.
“Those whites who had problems with blacks, still did,” he says. “Those who loved and respected blacks, still did.”
Darius Gray: ‘You are to join’
It was Christmas 1964, the day before Darius Gray was scheduled to be baptized, when the missionaries first told him of the ban on blacks being ordained in the the church he was about to join.
He was stunned.
His mother, a devoutly religious but open-minded Christian, had warned him about Mormonism being racially insensitive, but he had ignored her advice. Now, he was shaken to his spiritual core.
“My thought was these have to be two of the biggest hypocrites on God’s green earth, as representatives of the savior, teaching me about restored gospel and now telling me I’m not equal,” Gray says now. “I, too, was a hypocrite. I didn’t tell them what I was thinking or feeling — that there was no way in hell I would be baptized in the church on the coming day.”
He didn’t know where to turn. Not to his mother. Not to the white family who had introduced him to Mormonism.
The young man looked up at the night sky in Colorado Springs and prayed in agony for most of the night. Finally, he heard these words: “This is the restored gospel, and you are to join.”
No mention of whether the priesthood ban was of God or man, was just or unjust.
So the next day, Gray made a leap of faith.
The day after, he attended his first Mormon service as a member, and a little girl, skipping along with a bouncing ponytail, squealed and pointed, “Mommy, look, a n-----.”
Gray believes God gave him “the clarity to hear the words from deity” that night in prayer, he says. “And I believe the words came to me as they did to prepare [me] for what occurred the next day — and for the next 54 years.”
When he was ordained after 1978, Gray says, it made him “whole.”
Not whole with God — “I had always been whole in my relationship with God, being raised in a God-fearing, loving home” — but with fellow Latter-day Saints.
It allowed him to “officiate in the name of the Father and the Son to bless the lives of others,” he says. “I try to do what the Father would do were he or the savior there. They would be doing it with compassion and joy.”
It has been “a growth experience” for Gray, too.
“I am no longer the one sitting in the chapel when a temple trip is discussed and not being able to attend,” he says. “There’s a wholeness that comes from that.”
Gray praises how far church has come on race since 1964, acknowledging various strides along the way — “some large, some small, but none more important than what … was announced June 8, which has cleared the way for the growth of the restored gospel and for the healing within the family of God.”
Gray sees “no conflict” between the color of his skin and his chosen religion.
“I was born black and, 54 years ago, I was privileged to become a Latter-day Saint,” he says. “When the time comes, I will die as a Latter-day Saint.”