Thousands of Mormons were thrilled by Friday’s "Be One” extravaganza at the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City, celebrating in word and song the history of black Latter-day Saints.
However, a lot fewer likely were familiar with all the past and present Mormons whose pioneering efforts were recognized.
Now the Black LDS Legacy Committee wants to help dispel that ignorance, especially after the June 1 event noting the end 40 years ago of the faith’s ban on black boys and men being ordained to its all-male priesthood and on black girls and women entering its temples.
The committee of seven black Mormon women has created a commemorative T-shirt, which lists the first names of significant black Mormons, including Jane (Manning James), Elijah (Able), Green (Flake), Samuel (Chambers), Amanda (Chambers), Wynetta (Willis Martin), Joseph (Freeman Jr.), Helvecio (Martins), Anthony (Obinna), Mary (Frances Sturlaugson Eyer), Cathy (Stokes), Darius (Gray) and Dorah (Mkhabela).
The T-shirt’s saying ends with: “& me.”
The kicker is: “Black Legacy, June 8, 1978.”
(The date is when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced an end to the temple-priesthood prohibition.)
“This is a missionary effort by those of us on the Legacy Committee,” said LaShawn Williams, who teaches social work at Utah Valley University. “We chose people for the shirt who were notable black Mormons and were the first at something, like first black sister missionary. The challenge for us is to know who they are, to know their stories and to carry their stories with us.”
The wording ends with “& me,” she said, because every Mormon is a pioneer in some way. The T-shirts sell for $22.99 with proceeds going toward future conferences and to further black LDS research.
Not many who attended the celebration or watched it online know the original impetus for the event came from the women— including Williams, Zandra Vranes, Maybelline McCoy, Janan Graham-Russell, Tamu Smith, Niecie Jones and Phylicia Rae Jimenez — who formed the Black LDS Legacy Committee in fall 2017.
“We pitched the idea of a pageant commemorating the 40th anniversary of the lifting of the priesthood ban [to top Mormon authorities],” Jimenez wrote this week on Facebook. “When we presented the idea, we made it clear that the pageant was going to happen with or without them, even though we preferred with them because we knew that with them, we would reach our intended audience — the worldwide church with an emphasis and focus on black members.”
Their vision gave birth to the “Be One” event, she said.
Once the church decided to commemorate the 40th anniversary, Mormon officials formed a local committee that included black Latter-day Saints. Ahmad Corbitt led that group, which included Gray, Stokes, Williams, Smith, Thom Reed, Odeh Ondoma, Tracy Browning, Davis Stovall, Dave Biesinger. David Warner of the Seventy was the event producer. Then organizers enlisted an army of volunteer singers, dancers, costume designers, lighting experts and technical advisers.
“Both groups played separate yet invaluable roles in what we witnessed at Friday’s Be One event,” Vranes said.
“On Friday, we watched our vision, although altered greatly, come to pass. We watched and we stood in awe as we looked at each other, and we looked at the stage, and watched performers that looked like us,” Jimenez said. “They told the stories of our birth from Adam and Eve to the black pioneers of our church. We saw something we wanted and we went for it. We were tired of people telling us what has never happened and decided to make it happen. The event itself was beautiful.”
Jimenez would like the Legacy committee members’ names to be made public, she wrote, so that Mormons would know that “average, everyday people can make big changes.”
The LDS Church is “ready for change,” she believes, “and it’s waiting for average people to help be the vehicles to move that change forward.”