Black Saints in a White Church
Jessie L. Embry
[p.119]Whenever two individuals interact, personality differences, undefined expectations, and unexpressed motives can hinder good relationships. These obstacles are magnified when people from separate cultures meet. Human nature simplifies and generalizes experience. Stereotypes develop when attributes of one member of a cultural group are bestowed on others of that group. When generalizations are pejorative, discrimination results. When views are positive, integration is more likely.
Sociologists chart several ways cultures deal with other groups. At the extreme of nonassimilation and conflict are extermination, expulsion, and secession.1 Less drastic responses include segregation, assimilation, and cultural pluralism. To use food as a metaphor, segregation is meat and potatoes in separate spots on a plate, cultural pluralism is stew, and assimilation is potatoes without meat. Another solution is fusion—a puree, where meat and potatoes are indistinguishable from each other.
Assimilation has nearly always been the expressed choice of dominant cultures because it requires the minority culture to adapt. The controlling group makes few adjustments.2 Although the “melting pot” metaphor has been used to characterize the expressed intent in the United States, this goal is seldom realized for peoples of color, and[p.120] the United States remains a racially conscious society where fusion is rarely realized. This chapter examines whether the LDS church has been more successful in integrating black Americans.
ASSIMILATION IN THE LDS CHURCH
Assimilation describes Utah Mormon immigrants during the nineteenth century. Up to World War II, immigrants considered it a virtue to accept the dominant culture. In a 1903 open letter “to the Swedish Saints: Instructions in Regard to the Holding of Meetings, Amusements, Social Gatherings, etc.,” the First Presidency emphasized, “The council of the Church to all Saints of foreign birth who come here is that they should learn to speak English as soon as possible, adopt the manners and customs of the American people, fit themselves to become good and loyal citizens of this country, and by their good works show that they are true and faithful Latter-day Saints.”3
In this emphasis the LDS church did not differ greatly from the larger pattern of European immigration in the United States, although Andrew Rolle argued in his study of Italian Americans that the necessary interdependence among colonists in the sparsely settled West made it easier for immigrants to be absorbed there than in the urban East.4
Additional factors worked for assimilation in LDS society. Those already in Utah understood the desire of newcomers to be in Zion and felt a religious obligation to accept and love them as brothers and sisters in the gospel. Historians Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton state, “If the reality fell short of the ideal, it seems fair to say the usual harsh lines between different nationalities and between old and new arrivals were softened by Mormon values and programs.”5 Newcomers to Logan, Utah, assigned to work on the Logan temple expressed the same idea when they inscribed in the wet plaster of an interior wall:[p.121] “We ar hear seavral nachanaletey and the beast of feleing with all men” (“We are here several nationalities and the best of feelings with all men”). Estimates of Salt Lake City’s foreign born population during the 1880s ran as high as 80 percent, but there were few conflicts.6
LDS immigrants worked actively to adopt the English language and American lifestyle. In marked contrast to Scandinavian and German Lutherans in other parts of the country, where the native-language newspapers and denominational schools conducted in the mother tongue held communities together for generations, LDS converts accepted American culture as a part of becoming Mormon. Although non-English congregations and newspapers existed in Salt Lake City,7 immigrants tried to learn English rapidly so their associations could be expanded to include Mormon neighbors and ward members from all countries. As a result LDS Euro-Americans were largely assimilated in one generation, whether immigrants came to Utah during the 1850s or the 1950s.
For converts Mormonism was more than religion; it was a new cultural tradition. According to historian Klaus J. Hansen, “Those who became Mormons did not merely exchange one religion for another such as exchanging Baptism for Presbyterianism, but entered into a new and all-encompassing world that, like Islam, regulated the lives of its members both spiritual and temporal.”8 Indians who join the church in Bolivia wear white shirts and ties to church, the encouraged dress of Mormon men everywhere. The church builds standard plan chapels recognizable whether they are in Orem, Utah; Independence,[p.122] Missouri; Frankfurt, Germany; or Tokyo, Japan. In these small examples of outward appearance lies the assumption that being Mormon means leaving one cultural tradition and entering a new one.
The process has not been complete. According to historian Jan Shipps, “Notwithstanding the rosy picture of a world filled with Mormons which is being projected by the Church News and the official Ensign, the power of the LDS gospel to sustain communities of Saints throughout the world without requiring them to adopt peculiarly American attitudes and stereotyped life styles has not yet been fully proven.”9
The question Shipps raises is relevant even in the United States, just as multicultural studies show that historically America has not been the melting pot that was presented in earlier history books. Contemporary Latino-Americans, native Americans, Polynesian-Americans, and Asian-Americans as well as African-Americans have resisted cultural obliteration and can all point to examples of not being fully accepted by white Latter-day Saints. Odessa Neaman, a Yakima-Shoshone, for example, told a story about Mormons protesting loudly against her cousin playing native American music in her apartment.10 Many ethnic students at Brigham Young University explained they first felt they were a minority when they were treated differently by the predominantly white student body.11
Although some people from different cultures might learn to interact in the public sphere, work, school, and church meetings, they might not interact at all in their private lives. Two businessmen might speak the same professional jargon, wear the same accepted three-piece suit, and conduct committee meetings using Roberts’s Rules of Order. Yet one might go home, pull on a t-shirt, and relax in front of the television with a Coke while the other removes his shoes, meditates [p.123] in a Zen garden, and relaxes with a highly stylized tea ceremony. LDS ethnics thus struggle to determine what part of their cultures they may maintain in the Mormon church and what of the Mormon culture they should adapt.
What are the private and public experiences of LDS African-Americans in blending with Mormon culture and interacting with white members? Since LDS church meetings are usually integrated, some of the experiences blacks have at church are similar to their encounters with whites at work and school. In this study the sphere of public interaction is attendance at church meetings and church-sponsored socials. Private experiences involve friendships and participation in non-church-related social activities.
Worshipping with people who are not black is a new experience for most black Mormons. Survey respondents had considerable contact with non-blacks before joining the Mormon church, but even more after conversion. While many (54.2 percent) said they “very often” spent time with “non-blacks” before joining the church, more (71.1 percent) do now. When “very often” and “sometimes” responses are combined, the figures jump from three-quarters (75.6 percent) before joining to almost 90 percent (89.6 percent) after. Most of that contact is apparently with members. When asked how often they now spend time with non-members, responses were similar to interaction with non-blacks before they became Mormon (49.3 percent “very often”). Obviously, this increased exposure escalates the possibility of both positive and negative experiences. What in fact happens?
Bobby Darby grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, and lived in Buffalo, New York, before moving to Charlotte to stay with an uncle. There he met his wife Darlene, also from North Carolina. The Darbys had not been active in a church before Mormon missionaries knocked on their door. When asked how white Mormons had accepted him, Bobby responded: “We were accepted pretty good, better than we would have expected. We see in some people that they really do not like being around us; but out of a love of Christ, they do it anyway. We can respect that, too. A lot of things that I do, I do not like doing; but if the Lord says it is the right way to do it, then we just do it and just expect the best.”12
Simultaneous perceptions of positive and negative experiences were not uncommon. As Alan Cherry conducted interviews, he concluded that black Latter-day Saints are experiencing integration in the church, while at the same time cultural differences lead to prejudice and discrimination. According to Cherry, this is not necessarily contradictory. American blacks confront negative experiences daily in the United States, and an incident that Euro-Americans as “the way things are.”
EFFECTS OF 1978 PRIESTHOOD ANNOUNCEMENT
What effects has the priesthood announcement had on black Mormons’ experiences? Has the lifting of priesthood restriction made a difference in how black members feel about the church, and if so in what way? Did white Mormons change their views of blacks after the announcement?
After due allowance for individual variation, the perhaps unexpected pattern that emerged from the survey showed that many who joined prior to 1978 were as positive about their feelings of acceptance as those who joined afterwards. Six of the survey questions were directed to those who joined the church prior to the announcement. Only twenty-five answered these questions, and their responses varied widely. While this number is small and the results statistically insignificant, they do show some of the concerns that black Mormons had before and after the announcement. When asked whether they agreed with the statement, “My feelings about the church have changed dramatically since the revelation, a fifth (20.8 percent) said yes; less (16.7 percent) said no. More than three-fifths (62.5 percent) said there was not much change. However, to the statement, “I feel that I am more accepted by other members of the church,” 4 percent said “very often” and 8 percent said “never.” The majority, 52 percent, responded “sometimes,” and 32 percent said “seldom.” To “I feel I am a more important part of the church experience since the revelation,” 22.2 percent said “very often” and 44.4 percent said “sometimes.” And to “I[p.125] feel even less accepted by other members of the church, a third (33.3 percent) said “never,” and 48.1 percent said “very seldom.” So while some felt the priesthood announcement made a difference in their acceptance in the LDS church, others felt it made no difference at all.
The survey included two open-ended questions. To “the biggest differences I have noticed among black members since the revelation,” the most frequent responses were priesthood ordinations and outreach to other blacks. To “the biggest difference I have noticed among non-black members with regard to black members since the revelation,” the main response was more acceptance.
The interviews allowed people to elaborate on these feelings. Tom Porter, who was baptized in 1958, said he enjoyed working with white LDS servicemen in Europe. He became a Latter-day Saint after he returned and was living in Indiana, where “I was totally accepted into the church. I had not one derogatory word spoken to me about it. It was just a beautiful experience for me. I loved it.” He was inactive for seven years, but when he went back, “I walked into the church and sat down, and it was as though I’d never been away. I was totally accepted. I have yet to be any place I’ve felt uncomfortable in the church in Alaska and Hawaii and throughout the continental United States. Any place I am on a Sunday I go to church. I’m just totally accepted as though I was a member of that ward and was there last Sunday.”13
About the time Van Floyd joined the church in 1975, the family moved within the Los Angeles area. They were immediately welcomed into the new ward. A daughter, Gayla Renee Floyd, who had joined in 1973 when she was eleven, recalled: “Everybody was interested in the Floyd family. It was very comfortable. We were a different family than anything that they’d ever seen. We started to feel comfortable with them.” When asked how she was accepted by the wards where she has lived, she replied: “I think very well. They think of me as one of them.”14
Robert Lang commented, “One thing I found out about people: if they have a love for you, they will do anything for you. I do not know[p.126] of anybody in the Inglewood Ward that, if I would ask them to do anything, they would not put forth an effort to do it. They are good ward brothers.”15
HYDE PARK WARD
Most black Latter-day Saints never dealt with priesthood restriction. The more recent issue has been acceptance in integrated congregations. The Hyde Park Ward in Chicago demonstrates how acceptance, individual personalities, and expectations play a major role in how black members perceive their lives as Latter-day Saints. The Hyde Park Ward is by no means typical. The congregation represents a number of cultures and provides an interesting case study. These LDS African-Americans in the ward openly discussed their feelings of acceptance by black and white members and attempted to understand the situation. They articulate well the various cultural dilemmas that they face.
In 1988, when Alan Cherry conducted interviews there, the Hyde Park Ward blended Mormon faculty and graduate students with local residents. Most members perceived this diversity positively as an enjoyable challenge. Marie Smith, a forty-year-old black single mother who worked as a secretary at the university, liked the diversity that came from having “all nationalities. “16 Catherine Stokes, a black health care facility supervisor for the state of Illinois and a former Relief Society president, was openly delighted by the cultural diversity. She later reported: “We have Samoans, Chinese, blacks, Jamaicans (there is a difference), Caucasians of all flavors, Spanish, Mexican, and [the] deaf group …. On a given Sunday in Relief Society, you may see translating in French, Spanish, and Cantonese, and signing for the deaf.”17 One white member of the Hyde Park Ward loved singing Mormon hymns and NAACP songs in the same meeting.18
Despite this openness to diversity, some black members questioned the congregation’s ability to accept African Americans. Those blacks who had been members longer helped calm troubled waters. Stokes had “regular contact” with newer blacks “to talk over things because they want to know what the white folks mean when they say thus, thus, and thus.”19 Natalia F. Thompson, an African-American widow in her early sixties, had been crippled by an accident shortly before she was baptized in 1985. She listed black members to whom she felt close but added, “We haven’t segregated ourselves.”20
Other African-Americans reported that other black members were not personal friends. Juanita H. Johnson, a Chicago policewoman who was baptized in 1985 and whose husband is not a member, saw Thompson as “family” and Stokes as her “mentor” in the church but stated: “The other ones I speak to and try to be encouraging if they’re feeling down about certain things that are going on. I try to be positive, but I don’t associate with them socially. It’s strictly church-related for the most part.”21
Marie Smith, who joined the church in 1985, agreed that most of her contact with other black Latter-day Saints was at church but attributed most of the situation to her status as a single mother: “I’ve never had any close relationships, and that’s been sad for me …. The black women … in our ward when I first came … were all looking for husbands. When I came and I wasn’t that kind of a person, they wondered what I was looking for probably. They felt like I was a very independent person …. [As a result] there’s just not a closeness. No one says, ‘Why don’t we have Sister Smith come over?”22
Natalia Thompson felt similarly frustrated at not being able to share her feelings about the gospel with a close friend: “I wish I did[p.128] have a study partner. At church we have forty minutes in [Sunday school]. Before we can have a little discussion, the time is gone.”23
Black members expressed a range of feelings about their interactions with white members. For Samuel Coggs, a single father and professional who became a Mormon in 1987, the experience was positive. Before he joined the LDS church, he reported, he had often felt like a token in mixed groups; but in the church, “I walked into a situation … where there’s 5 percent blacks and [I] felt comfortable …. I haven’t seen where they made any color-line distinctions in terms of how they treat me and in terms of the opportunity that I have to serve. Nobody’s made me feel color-conscious even though the numbers dictate that would happen in other situations.”24 Linda Williams, who joined the church as a teenager, was a twenty-two-year-old college student when she was interviewed. She said one reason she joined the church was because “the people were very friendly there… . I see no discrimination with the blacks and the whites in the church. I pretty much believe that we all believe that we are brothers and sisters.”25
Rosetta Moore Spencer reported feeling that one ward member did not like her because she was black. However, when the man bore his testimony, he mentioned marching during the Civil Rights era, and she realized she had misjudged him. “I use that as a testimony to others,” she commented. “As I’ve seen black sisters and brothers come and go in the church. I use [this experience] to let them know that if you look for something, you can find it.”26
A number of Hyde Park Ward members commented that their only real interaction with other ward members, black or white, was on Sunday. Some recognized that belonging to a ward with a “big turnover” meant limited time for establishing relationships, and according to Natalia F. Thompson, “We had a pledge that everybody’s[p.129] a committee of one as a welcome committee.”27 Others want more social interaction. Williams acknowledged that “black fellowshipping” was “low,” adding, “We are so busy with our own schedules that we don’t have the time to help someone else.” Since she did not live in the Hyde Park area, she worried her daughter would not have enough contact with other Latter-day Saints: “Basically I just see them on Sundays …. But it seems that we have a friendlier relationship” than she did with non-Mormon acquaintances, even when she knew them longer. “Knowing that we are heavenly brothers and sisters helps a lot,” she summarized.28
Janis E. Parker, a journalist who joined the church in 1986 and whose husband was not a member, also lived outside the Hyde Park neighborhood. She felt those associated with the University of Chicago were an unconscious clique. “It’s not like they’re trying to keep you out,” she admitted, “but it’s kind of hard to get in.” She wanted to get to know the church members better but still felt close to them. She praised their concern during her convalescence from a surgery. “The love, the concern, the care is there, and it doesn’t matter if we’re the best of friends,” she said staunchly. “They’ll do more for you than your relatives or your long-time girlfriend or whoever will. They take the time; they make the time.” She felt that Relief Society, especially homemaking meetings, gave her a chance to get to know the sisters and feel “the sisterhood and the love among the women.”29
Marie Smith, disappointed at the low level of fellowship outside of Sunday services, acknowledged candidly: “I think I came with a chip on my shoulder because [I] expected open arms …. As Christians we’re supposed to be Christ-like.” She felt that white Latter-day Saints were “like foreigners; they have never been able to widen their horizons.” For example, she said she had learned to relate to Peter Gillo, a deaf black African who taught in the Chicago area. “White people survive among themselves,” she acknowledged, “but in other situations, they are threatened.”30
In addition to limited opportunities for socializing and inevitable racial/cultural differences, some also identified educational barriers. Johnson, a policewoman, explained that it was often intimidating to new members when “every other word is a three- or four-syllable word.” She also felt that the university students did not know what it meant to be poor and did not perceive the resentment of inner-city residents toward “do-gooders.”31 When she attended singles’ activities, patronized mainly by students in their twenties, Marie Smith, who was in her forties, felt: “I’m not really included in the conversation. When I am included, they get on an intellectual level that far outreaches me mentally sometimes. I wonder if it’s not done purposely on subjects that they know I have no knowledge about like the ramifications of cosmology.”32 Another form of patronage was perceived by deaf members who felt “coddled.”33
Victor Soil, who works for a school district in Chicago and has been a Mormon since 1982, was specific. Whites should be “re-educated” to let blacks be “self-sufficient.” He explained: “It’s like they were keeping black people as pets. But they’re not pets. They’re people that can be taught and can be of service to other people and to the Lord. They’re not people just to be kept around to make you feel good.”34
As these examples indicate, the experiences of black Mormon interweave public and private assimilation, independence, and positive and negative experiences. Those who describe discrimination also affirm experiences of inclusion. Relationships between black and white Latter-day Saints are based on expectations, which vary among individuals. Since social needs vary, some are satisfied with their interactions with other Mormons while others wish for more contact. Though there is overlap between private and public spheres, each has its own dynamic as the next two chapters show.
7. For a general study, see Richard L. Jensen, “Mother Tongue: Use of Non-English Languages in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1850-1983,” in New Views of Mormon History: A Collection of Essays in Honor of Leonard J. Arrington, eds. Davis Bitton and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987), 273-303. Some specific studies include Mulder, Homeward to Zion, and Jessie L. Embry, “Little Berlin: Swiss Saints of the Logan Tenth Ward,” Utah Historical Quarterly 56 (Summer 1988):222-35.
10. Odessa Neaman Oral History, 36, interviewed by Jessie Embry, 1990, LDS Native American Oral History Project, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Archives and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.
12. Bobby Darby Oral History, 7, interviewed by Alan Cherry, 1986, LDS Afro-American Oral History Project, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Archives and Manuscripts, Lee Library (hereafter LDS Afro-American).