Some Mormons know the stories of Elijah Able, the faith’s first black elder, or Jane Manning James, an early black pioneer, but few, if any, have heard of hundreds of other African-American Latter-day Saints — members such as Freda Lucretia Magee Beaulieu, Elijah Banks or Julia Miller Lamb.
Their devotion and courage in the church’s founding and growth years have largely been lost to Mormonism’s collective memory, making them all but invisible in the mostly white church.
That, however, is about to change.
At a Saturday conference, “Black, White, and Mormon II: A Conference on Race in the LDS Church Since the 1978 Revelation,” University of Utah history professor W. Paul Reeve is unveiling a massive database, which is gathering information about every black member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints between 1830 and 1930.
The site, “A Century of Black Mormons,” has been a multiyear effort of painstaking, needle-in-a-haystack detective work, says Reeve, the first Simmons Mormon Studies Professor in the U.’s College of Humanities.
“A Pew Research Center survey found that between 1 and 3 percent of U.S. Mormons in 2009 were black (60,000 to 180,000 members),” Reeve writes in the site’s introduction, “but to date no scholar has attempted to name and number the black Latter-day Saints in the 19th and early 20th centuries.”
Reeve had numerous partners in the project including the J. Willard Marriott Library, the LDS Church History Library, the University of Utah history department and several scholars and community members.
“We are thrilled to have been a part of producing this important project,” Alberta Comer, dean of the Marriott Library and university librarian, says in a release. “It is absolutely essential that everyone have access to these stories as they help us understand and address complex issues.”
Finding the lost
While on a tour to publicize his book, “Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness,” Reeve says lots of Latter-day Saints would ask him if he knew of a black Mormon in their ancestry or ones they had discovered. It prompted him to wonder why there was no repository where information on these members could be assembled and available to scholars.
So he set about to rectify that.
Reeve began the database project in 2016, and since then has enlisted a couple of dozen researchers to pore over documents, letters, U.S. Census records, Mormon journals and even a census the church kept from 1941 to the 1960s.
Even though church records don’t include race, Reeve says, some LDS clerks couldn’t help but scrawl “colored” on some of the members’ documents.
One missionary records, for example, that he baptized 10 people, including four whites he lists by first and last name, and six nameless “Negroes.” In all, the database has collected information about more than 200 black Mormons during that time — some with names and personal details, some with only descriptions of the fact. It currently includes 40 fully fleshed out bios, with a timeline, sources and photographs.
It also lays out some statistics: how many men or women, what percent were slaves and which were free, and the diversity of locations where black Mormons converted.
But the most compelling aspect of the site is the rich stories of black Mormons’ commitment and conversion that fill in the gaps of LDS Church history.
Little known tales
The first documented black person to join this American-born faith was “’Black Pete,’ a former slave who was baptized in 1830, when the fledgling movement was less than a year old,” the historian writes on the site. “At least two black men were ordained to the faith’s highest priesthood in its first two decades.”
Consider the case of Elijah Banks, who could only describe his father simply as “a colored slave.”
Banks joined the LDS Church in Minneapolis in 1899 and taught Sunday School.
Julia Miller Lamb, a former slave who bore 14 children during her 60-plus-year marriage, was baptized in Union, North Carolina, in 1898 in her mid-70s.
Daniel Bankhead Freeman was baptized at around 11 years old in South Cottonwood, Utah, and identified on the records as “Daniel of the colored race.”
Then there’s Freda Lucretia Magee Beaulieu.
She declared that July 21, 1978, was the “happiest day of her life.” That was the day she traveled one thousand miles from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., to be “sealed” by proxy to her husband, Pierre Rudolph Beaulieu, who had died six years earlier.
It was 69 years and 23 days after her baptism before she was allowed to enter an LDS temple, and that came only after the June 8, 1978, announcement ending the church’s centurylong ban on blacks boys and men being ordained to the all-male priesthood and on girls and women entering its temples.
One LDS leader in New Orleans declared Beaulieu’s faith to be “such as I had not witnessed in all my experience.”
Reeve hopes that “A Century of Black Mormons” will help historians tell a more complete narrative during the faith’s first century — one that includes members of color.
It is crucial to counter the public perception that Mormonism has always been white, the historian says. “We need to name the black Mormons and make their stories known.”
This work will help scholars and lay members alike understand, he says, “what it means to be a member of a minority in a suspect minority religion.”
It also will give black Latter-day Saints themselves a pioneer past to celebrate, he says, and an identity in the fabric of Mormonism.
Indeed, Reeve says, they have always been there.