Black Saints in a White Church
Jessie L. Embry
[p.131]The category of “public interaction” in this chapter refers to the experiences of LDS Afro-Americans at church-related meetings and activities. Besides the three-hour block of Sunday meetings, there are ward socials for all members and special activities for children and teenagers. Mormons with callings also go to ward and stake “in-service” meetings to help them understand their positions. As the Hyde Park examples pointed out, much of the interaction between Mormons takes place in these several meetings. This chapter examines the experiences of LDS African Americans in such public settings.
Two survey questions, essentially the reverse of each other, asked how blacks felt about their congregations. In response to the question “I feel like I am an important part of my ward/branch,” 66.5 percent said “very often” and 89.8 said “very often” or “sometimes.” Only 2 percent marked “never.” However, in response to the question “I feel like an oddity in my ward/branch,” just over half (52.9 percent) said “never” and 18.8 percent marked “seldom” or “very seldom.” More than one-quarter (28.3 percent) marked “very often” or “sometimes” (10.5 percent, “very often”; 17.8 percent “sometimes”). People under thirty were more likely to feel like they were “oddities.”
The survey posed several questions about relationships with white Latter-day Saints. To the statement, “I have found that the people in my ward/branch are eager to be friends with me,” more than half (55.1 percent) said “very often” and almost an additional third (31.1 percent) said “sometimes.” Over 80 percent, therefore, sensed active friendliness from ward members. Only 4.1 percent felt ward members were “never” friendly.
In response to the statement “I feel included in ward or branch social activities,” two-thirds (67.5 percent) said “very often” and just over a fifth (21.5 percent) said “sometimes.” Thus 89 percent felt a part of the activities at least part of the time. Only 3.5 percent said they “never” felt a part; 7.5 percent said “seldom” or “very seldom.” The statement “ward/branch members do not hesitate to include me at church functions” did not elicit equally positive responses. More than half (51.8 percent) sensed no reluctance by ward members to involve them. However, 12.2 percent said there was “some” caution, and slightly more (13.7 percent) said they were “seldom” or “very seldom” included. Over one-fifth (22.3 percent) felt there was hesitation by church members to include them.
Geographical location, gender, education, segregated or integrated neighborhoods, and racial makeup of previous churches were not statistically significant variables. There was a slight tendency for those who attended church more often to feel included. This is hardly surprising, since it is difficult to include someone who is absent. But acceptance goes beyond simply feeling welcome. People like to feel at ease around associates. In response to the statement, “some non-blacks avoid me or are uncomfortable around me,” the responses were once again equally divided. Almost one-third (31.8 percent) said “never.” Slightly less (28.3 percent) said “seldom” or “very seldom.” The rest 40.2 percent felt some discomfort. Even very active black members occasionally felt they were being avoided. Johnnie McKoy, a member of the stake high council in Greensboro, North Carolina, at the time he was interviewed in 1986, recalled going to one of the wards in his stake to speak on a monthly assignment. McKoy, who usually goes out of his way to greet people, was chatting to ward members as he walked towards the chapel door. He noticed the white bishop who was approaching the same door “slide around” to another door. McKoy could not help wondering if the bishop was avoiding him.
Although McKoy considered this incident unfortunate, similar experiences led his wife to stop attending meetings. Just after they joined in 1980, they were one of three active black couples. The bishop called McKoy to be the second counselor in the Sunday school and his wife to teach junior Sunday school. “We were still new in the church, and there was some tension there,” McKoy recalled. “My wife was beginning to be treated one way, and I was beginning to be treated [p.133] another. They respected me and admired me for coming to church, but they seemed to try to push my wife out. They were saying some nasty things to her.” With startling candor the Sunday school officers had told Mrs. McKoy that “they were really giving her that calling because they were the worst kids in the church … [and] because she was black.” She interpreted the calling as being a desperation move on their part; but the worst part was that “the [white] kids would start calling the [black] kids ‘niggers,'” said McKoy. As a result Mrs. McKoy “woke up one Sunday morning and said she was not going back to church anymore. She said those people were not Christians.”1
Matthew Clark, a student who lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, had been a member for about a year before his interview in 1986. He was also aware of members’ discomfort. He and his wife, Crystal Gathers Clark, had been married in her parents’ Mormon meeting-house in Southern Pine, North Carolina, and enthusiastically fellow-shipped by the members before their own conversion. Matthew recalled, “When we first became members [in Raleigh], everybody was very excited about us becoming a part of the church.” However, it soon became apparent that members were mainly interested in a baptism, adding, “[But] as time progressed, it got to the point that it was rare that any of the members would speak to us …. They would always stand off and look at us like we were some freaks. We couldn’t figure out why they acted distant towards us. We thought maybe it was us that were acting funny…. We tried to be friendlier, and it didn’t work.”2
Since adult Sunday school and other classes encourage open discussion, the survey asked, “How often do you ask questions or share your ideas during church meetings?” Over half (55.7 percent) said “very often”; a quarter (25.9 percent) said “sometimes,” making a total of 80.6 percent who regularly made comments. Only 1.5 percent said “never.” The survey also asked for a response to the statement,[p.134] “Non-black members of the church think I know less about the gospel simply because I am black.” Over half (57.4 percent) said this “never” happened and an additional fifth (21.6 percent) said “seldom” or “very seldom.” The remaining fifth were split between saying it happened “very often” (6.7 percent) and “sometimes” (14.4 percent).
Since the LDS church calls on members to be leaders and teachers, the survey asked for a response to the statement, “I feel that I have not been given as many opportunities for church service because of my race.” Over three-fourths (77.7 percent) said “never”; 3.6 percent said “very often,” and 6.1 percent said “sometimes.” Because church leadership is overwhelmingly white, black Mormons who seek ecclesiastical or personal counsel must deal with white preconceptions. Three-fourths (76.5 percent) said church leaders had never “given me prejudicial counsel or advice.” Although 8.6 percent said “sometimes,” only 2 percent said that the counsel “very often” reflects prejudice. But whether the counsel is overtly prejudiced or not, a significant gap appeared in response to the statement, “I feel understood by my church leaders.” Only about a third (36.3 percent) said “very often”; slightly less than a third said “sometimes” (31.3 percent); a fifth (20.4 percent) said “seldom”; 7.5 percent said “very seldom”; and 4.5 percent said “never.”
Black American Mormons sense a similar gap in understanding on the part of fellow church members. To the statement, “I feel understood by the members in my ward or branch,” only 28.9 percent said “very often,” and 34.3 percent said “sometimes.” Again the percentage of “seldom” responses (25.9 percent) was high. Only 4 percent said “never.” In a rephrasing of the same issue, even fewer felt “white members of the church are aware of the needs and problems of black members.” Only 16.5 percent responded “very often” while 37.2 percent said “sometimes.” Almost one fifth (19.7 percent) said “very seldom,” and slightly less (19.1 percent) said “seldom.” Seven percent (7.4 percent) said white members were “never” aware of the needs and problems of black members. These said, however, that this perceived misunderstanding had not made them leave the church (63.2 percent, “never”; 21.4 percent, “seldom” or “very seldom”; 6 percent, “very often”; 9.5 percent, “sometimes”).
Fleshing out the surveys’ bare numbers, the interviews describe remarkable experiences of integration along with instances of prejudice and discrimination.
All types of questions probably run through new members’ minds as they approach the chapel door for the first time. Will members welcome them? Will they see any blacks? Darrin Davis joined the church in Summit, New Jersey, in 1977 as a teenager. Although “there were no black members in our ward,” he recalls, “when I went to church, the people just really grabbed on to me. They were really, really super friendly. The biggest asset the church will ever have are its members and how they treat each other and how they treat newcomers.”3
Joseph C. Smith grew up as a Baptist in Tennessee and Nebraska and joined the LDS church in 1982 while he was in military service in Germany. He and his wife Marilyn “walked into the church. There was not a black soul in there for one thing. But the people were just so friendly. Everybody shook our hands and greeted us. I did not feel uncomfortable around anyone.”4
Elijah Royster, who worked with a Mormon in 1978, went across Honolulu to attend a fellow employee’s ward. Arriving late, he was seated in an overflow area with parents and their restless children, whose noise easily defeated his efforts to “listen to the speakers.” This “negative mood,” however, changed after the meeting. “Then I noticed how all the Saints were so friendly and kind and shaking our hands …. Immediately I recognized it was genuine; it wasn’t a put-on; it wasn’t something phony.”5
Van Floyd, who had been raised Methodist Episcopal during the 1930s and 1940s in Texas, was overwhelmed when he joined the Mormon church in southern California in 1975. “You could tell their feelings came from the heart,” he remembered. “That type of acceptance I’d received so much until the one or two instances where someone was derogatory don’t even matter….It just rolls off because you know the majority is good.”6 Ed Scroggins commented on the [p.136] absence “of this faked, canned jive …. They are for real.” The sole awkward moment came when a Sunday school teacher was not sure how to describe him. Scroggins told her to “just say black.”7
Dorothy Gray Jones grew up during the 1930s in Alabama and then moved to New York where she and her husband lived until they moved to Philadelphia in 1978. She went to college and trained to be a teacher. She was also interested in religion, so she and her husband accepted the missionaries’ invitation to attend church. “Everywhere I looked I saw families,” she recalls fondly. Her husband dampened her enthusiasm; “he said, ‘Aw, don’t be fooled. These are all people putting on a show for you. They probably knew they were going to have visitors.’ … I thought about it and I said, ‘You are probably right. I guess I have to go again then to find out for sure.'” Although her husband decided not to return, Dorothy called the missionaries a month later and asked for a ride to church. “I knew this wasn’t planned …. When I walked in there, everybody was hugging me and shaking my hand.” She added the experience was very different from the Catholic church of her childhood. “We came in, and we sat down quietly. We didn’t even look back to see who was behind us …. When the service was over, we got up and went. There was no warmth.”8 She became a Mormon in 1980. Even though her husband never joined, ward members were “so loving, warm, and helpful” during the two years he suffered from cancer and at the time of his death; they also continued to offer her support during her widowhood.9
When the Wright family from Baker, Louisiana, joined the Mormon church, they heard that some white members stopped attending church services. But the rest willingly accepted the Wrights. Betty Wright Baunchand, formerly a Baptist and a member of the Church of God in Christ before joining the Mormon church at age thirty in 1978, recalled, “I think we have been accepted graciously with open[p.137] arms.” She added, “Some of them, of course, are withdrawn, but in general they know that this is the Savior’s church and this is the way it has to be. It’s not a white church or a black church. It’s His church.”10 Her niece, Michelle Evette Wright, who was also baptized in 1978 at age twelve, said many of the members were “excited” to see black members. Some who are now “our closest friends” confessed that they had initially “opposed… letting blacks come in.”11
Johnnie McKoy attended a crowded investigator’s Sunday school class in Greensboro, North Carolina, as a new member in 1980. The next week few returned. “I recognized then that I was the only black in the church. I felt like the people were not coming in the class because I had joined the church and I had already run the people out of the church. I had a guilty conscience about it.” However, when he checked this perception with the members, they told him that a high turnover among unbaptized investigators was perfectly normal. “I gave a sigh of relief to know that I was not really experiencing what I thought it was.”12
William Thompson, who lived in Decatur, Georgia, when he was interviewed in 1987, was apprehensive when the missionaries invited him to a stake conference in Jackson, Mississippi, where he first contacted the church. He knew the meetinghouse was in a white neighborhood, yet “I was stunned” by the warm welcome. “The people were so receptive. I couldn’t believe it.”13 As a result Thompson continued to investigate the church and was baptized in 1980.
Clement Biggs, who grew up in segregated Alabama, related a heartwarming story of Christian acceptance. His ward accepted an invitation to participate in a Christian fellowship bowling league. At the bowling alley a woman from another team informed him blacks were not allowed in the league: “I’m sorry you can’t bowl with us today,[p.138] but one day we’re all going to be together. There’s not going to be any black and white. It’s going to be all one people.” Rather than make a scene though, Biggs “just told her, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ and walked on out.” The ward members, however, did not offer platitudes. Instead they withdrew en masse. “Everybody from our branch came on out …. If we couldn’t bowl they weren’t going to bowl,” he recalled emotionally. “We all stood outside. We hugged, and we had tears.” The incident was especially hard on his fifteen-year-old daughter who kept asking why they were not bowling. Biggs “waited until later when I felt better about it” to explain. He added, “I can truly state that all of the experiences … that I have had in this church have been positive experiences. I looked for fault when I first became a member. I couldn’t find any.”14
FACTORS INFLUENCING ACCEPTANCE
Several variables influenced black perceptions of white acceptance. Blacks who had frequent interactions with whites in other institutions found relationships at church to be more comfortable. Over half (57.4 percent) of survey respondents said they had frequent contact with whites prior to joining the Mormon church. An additional one-fifth (22.6 percent) said they “sometimes” had contact with whites before they were Mormons. Those interviewed talked about how previous contact helped relationships. Joseph Faulkner, who was instrumental in integrating Republic Steel of Gadsden, Alabama, praised Gadsden Ward members: “So many people there…just don’t show any prejudice because they are in business and they work with both black and white.”15
Rhoda Shelby grew up in Moses Lake, Washington, where there were few blacks. She joined the LDS church in 1981 in high school and then attended BYU. “I guess I am lucky,” she commented, “because it was not that much different for me to come from Moses Lake to BYU because it was basically the same kind of atmosphere.” She had no “culture shock” because she “never had [barriers] in the[p.139] first place.”16 David Diamond Gathers, who grew up in New York City and then moved to a white neighborhood in North Carolina with his family as a teenager, always associated with whites. When he first went to church in Raleigh, when he was in college, “I was the only black there. I did feel a little uncomfortable at first, but I figured I had always grown up around [whites] and I should not feel uncomfortable.”17
A number of blacks attributed comfortable relations to their own attitudes. Burgess Owens grew up in Tallahassee where his father taught at Florida A & M. He played football for the University of Miami because he wanted to be in a racially mixed area. He later started a business in New York City, where he found his ward accepting. “Obviously there are going to be some folks that haven’t understood that love yet,” he acknowledged,
but you should be able to get into an environment where that isn’t an issue. You should not come and feel that you are the only black, the only white, or the only Hispanic. You come into an environment where people accept you because you are there and because you are their brother or sister. Now to a lot of people this sounds very dreamy. But one thing about this church is that is exactly the way I feel. I have friends of mine in this church that I don’t look at the color.18
Ed Scroggins, an inactive Southern Baptist, married an inactive white Mormon woman. He joined the church in 1980, and then his wife and children died in a house fire. When he was interviewed in 1985 in Phoenix, Scroggins was married to a Hispanic Latter-day Saint. He recognized “that nice, warm glow” which he identified as common among Mormons because “we all came from the same Savior, and we all have his sweet spirit. That is what draws us to one another. As long as that sweet spirit is there, there is no interference.”19
[p.140]Virginia Johnson, who works with contestants on television game shows, converted in 1981. Although she stated that some comments at church would have angered her in her “black power” days, she is now assertive about acceptance: “I do not go in expecting not to be accepted. I will put my hand out especially to somebody who I think will not want to shake my hand.” Members comment that it seems as if she has always been a member. She corroborated, “I just feel natural there. I feel like I have been there forever.”20
Lois W. Poret from New Orleans had attended Catholic and Baptist services before becoming a Mormon in 1982. “I sense prejudice,” she acknowledged, “but I just overlook it in most cases because I treat people the way I want to be treated whether they dislike me or not. I kill them with kindness. I really don’t have any problems … because I don’t let it bother me.”21
Mary Jean Harris from the St. Louis area had been a member for three years before her interview in 1988. She had joined mainly because her husband Edward did and found Mormon friendliness in direct proportion to her own. “If you want to act snobbish around me, I can do the same. If you act like when you speak to me your nose will stop up, I will speak to you and I try to make my nose stop up.” One woman spoke to her only when she could not avoid it, but Harris recognized “that’s just her way. She really doesn’t mean any harm …. She’s old and this is the way that she was brought up. When she’s around me, she’s nice just like anybody else. She has a kind of way of saying, ‘I know you’re black.’ As Sundays go by every time we see each other, she has a little more to say.”22
Several other blacks expressed the same feelings. Gehrig Harris, who had been active in sports in college and was a high school principal in White Castle, Louisiana, when he was interviewed in 1987, said: “Some people may be a little cold; but if you’re cold, then you have got two people cold. I have warmed up a lot of[p.141] people.”23 Vivian Collier, who had actively sought a religion at age twenty-three in Richmond, Virginia, found that some people were “stand-offish” because they felt uncertain how to relate to people from other cultures. “I feel like I can help their outlook and perspective of blacks and of others. A lot of them have really opened up to me, I guess, because I’m willing to open up to them.”24
Betty Jean Hill of Jamaica came to the United States when she was eighteen during the 1940s, married, divorced, met Mormon missionaries in Colorado Springs, and was baptized in 1981. She married a white Mormon that same year. She articulated a common ideal: “In Christ’s church there is no black and white,” adding more realistically: “I never let race enter my mind too much if at all.”25 Melonie Quick felt that the members in Charlotte “accept me as just a person, not a black person or weird person, but just a person. That is how I accept them.”26 Calvaline Burnett joined the church at age fifty-one and had been a member for a year when she was interviewed in 1986. She attended a Birmingham ward that was “99 percent white” and explained: “Even though they were all white, I did not look at them as all white. I looked at them as individuals. They took me in as an individual, as a person.”27
For many the key to acceptance was not overreacting. David Diamond Gathers served a mission in Utah. In describing his interactions with Latter-day Saints, he observed, “I look at it as if they cannot accept me just because of what the color of my skin is, then they have the problem and I don’t. If that is their hangup, they will have to answer for it when it comes judgment time.” Rudeness, he felt, was not an invitation to invoke the law of Moses, “an eye for an eye,” but to follow Jesus’s admonition to “turn the other[p.142] cheek.” “If somebody says something to me that is not quite right,” he explained, “I feel that it is not my responsibility to say anything rude to them. I just say something nice to them and keep going.”28 Nathaniel Womble, who joined the church in 1978 in Atlanta and lived in Salt Lake City before returning to his home state, said: “I’ve heard people make off-color remarks, but I understand … that these are things people have grown up with and that’s something they have to overcome.”29
Some explained that a minority of white Latter-day Saints had problems accepting them. Nathleen Albright, who joined the church in 1971 and has lived in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Utah, and California, said “99.9 percent” of her ward members have almost forgotten that she was black.30 Donald L. Harwell learned about the Mormon church in a bar from a Latter-day Saint woman he married and then later divorced. He commented since that he joined the church in 1983, “most Latter-day Saints do not care about race. [But] there are always that 10 percent. Once in awhile you can feel it.”31
Black Saints often find they have to go out of their way to dispell stereotypes. Norman Lee Brown, who grew up in a black neighborhood of Baltimore and was living in Greensboro, North Carolina, when he was interviewed in 1986, asserted: “I have had no problem communicating with white people because I can talk with any white person on his level, whether he be a college president, the president himself, or the lowest of hillbillies.” A two-year member, he singled out working on church welfare assignments as an integrating experience: “I know that friendship[s] have developed because they can’t help but know that this is one black that works. A lot of white people have ideas that blacks don’t like to work and that we are lazy.”32
[p.143]Elizabeth Baltimore hoped to complete a Ph.D., a goal which seemed to catch many white Latter-day Saints off-guard. They “don’t know what to do with me,” she remarked. “A number of them are shocked that I’m bright, intelligent, and academically inclined.”33 Dan Mosley, a former employee of the NAACP, praised the Camelback Sixth Ward in Phoenix, Arizona, for being both “a highly intellectual group who have a better capability” and not “feel[ing] threatened by a black of their equal presenting an equal petition for activity within the confines of their service group.”34 Melvin Mitchell, who was born in 1937 and served in the marines, felt that he was accepted in Columbus, Ohio, where he joined the church in 1985 because he wasn’t “the average black person …. I don’t go in there flashing my credentials [but] … I showed them what I could do …. I think it startled some people… because they thought, ‘He’s not as dumb as he looks.'”35
Twenty-eight-year-old Darlene Bowden, from Charlotte, North Carolina, and a Baptist before her conversion in 1984, had to readjust some of her own economic stereotypes: “They surprised me at first because they were rich and white and still … don’t mind being around blacks. If they are rich, most white people look for blacks only to scrub their floors or do some cooking in the kitchen. They hire maids.” She added, however, the members were “mostly home type people” who did not maintain class distinctions.36
A religious doctrine that provides a bridge between cultures is the Mormon belief that all people are spirit children of the same heavenly parents. Bobby Darby from Charlotte, North Carolina, had no religious affiliation before he was baptized Mormon. “Deep in my heart I feel by the way LDS people associate and congregate with black Americans they are showing and proving to the whole world that the[p.144] days and times of black Americans being treated as flunkies and second class citizens are over. We are all Heavenly Father’s children.”37 Audrey Marie Pinnock, who was born in Jamaica and then raised in New York City, had been a Catholic and a Methodist before becoming Mormon. She was often the only black member in her wards and had braced herself “for times when they would treat me bad, but I only saw that we were all children of God.”38
PREJUDICE AND DISCRIMINATION
In addition to relating positive experiences, people interviewed noted a variety of negative encounters. Some initial reactions were socially rather than racially motivated. For example, Susan Walker, a widow born in Selma, Alabama, in 1918 who was working as a volunteer in a senior citizen center in Chicago when she was interviewed, said it was some time before anyone “spoke to me” when she began attending church in 1984. With time her relationships had improved and “now [I’m] just at home.”39
Donna Chisolm, who joined the Mormon church in 1980, had previously worshipped with blacks. While in college, she attended a Greensboro, North Carolina, ward and felt everyone was “sugary sweet” not only to her but to each other. Her reaction was “this is really fake. They are not really that nice. I didn’t think everybody could be this good all the time. I saw the little kids coming up to their mothers just asking permission to do something simple …. I just wasn’t used to children being that respectful to their parents. Everybody was smiling; everybody wanted to shake my hand. At my Presbyterian church they just liked to gossip.”40
Vincent Lewis, who lived in Pittsburg, California, with his Pentecostal grandmother, had been a member for eight months when he[p.145] was interviewed in 1985. He admits he went to church to “shock them,” deliberately wearing “braids in my hair and things like that” to this “all-white church …. I guess at first they probably thought I was kind of strange.” After the initial shock, he admits, “They have become really friendly.”41
Most of the survey respondents did not identify “outright” prejudice from white members. Only 4 percent said they experienced prejudice “very often,” 17.7 percent said “sometimes,” 13.1 percent said “seldom,” 21.2 percent said “very seldom,” and 43.9 percent said “never.” Perhaps the most painful experience was reported by Mary Angel Wilbur, a high school student in New Kensington, Pennsylvania. She joined the church in 1983 six months after her mother. She recalled a bus excursion to the Washington, D.C., temple with the stake’s teenagers. A boy sitting behind her “talked a lot about ‘niggers,'” and “poured pop over the back of my chair so it went over my hair and on my dress.” She was completely “humiliated” and so confused at such unkindness on the way to the temple that “I think I cried the whole time.” A girlfriend, the branch president’s daughter, tried to console her, but “it didn’t really help because it was done.” Adult leaders were unaware of the incident. She recalled: “They could see that I was really upset the whole time,” but they did not ask her why, and, feeling alienated, she would not approach them. She returned from the excursion, resolving never to go back to church. The branch president’s wife called and “made me feel a lot better because she told me that he was just one person. The church was true, and it wasn’t the church’s fault that some people were rude and ignorant. That really kept me going through all that.”42
Elizabeth Pulley, who grew up in the Church of God in Christ and joined the LDS church in 1977 after marrying a Latter-day Saint, felt she was often “overlooked or left out” in Relief Society when she first joined the church. “It was always, ‘Oh, I didn’t see you’ or ‘I didn’t mean to slight you in any way.'” Excessive cordiality made her uncomfortable. One woman hugged and kissed her and then went into the[p.146] restroom. Pulley went too and found the woman at the sink “scrubbing her lips.” Pulley concluded, “She is really not sincere.” Yet she interpreted such experiences as “trials and tribulations” to help her “grow” and learn “patience or love or understanding.”43
West Virginia native Arthur Preston, who had lived in Chicago since age eighteen and was looking for a religion when the missionaries came, said, “You have to have a strong spirit to be in that church. I am quite sure that there are some earnest people within the church that are good, but overall some of the people’s hearts are not right.” His son had been attending church regularly when a white youth came up and told him: “Hey, black boy, what are you doing in here?”44 James Mallory from Stone Mountain, Georgia, baptized in 1982, recalled that has patriarchal blessing contained a warning: “I would have callings in the church and I would have to approach some of the brethren. [The patriarch] said some of them would be resentful with me. I have sensed that on some occasions. I guess you could call it prejudice.”45 Forewarned he dealt with such reactions calmly.
The survey also asked how blacks perceived the experiences of all LDS African-Americans. Answers to the statement, “I don’t think prejudice is a serious problem among church members,” were split: 16.8 percent felt that prejudice was a problem “very often,” 27.6 percent said it was “sometimes,” 23.5 percent “seldom,” 17.3 percent “very seldom,” and 14.8 percent “never.” Interpreting motive is inexact, but survey respondents, when asked if other Latter-day Saints said “offensive things to black members on purpose,” also gave ambivalent responses. A quarter (26.1 percent) were “not sure,” but 1.5 percent “strongly agreed” and 8.5 percent “agreed” that offensive comments were made “on purpose.” But 63.9 percent “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed.” The difference in responses might be related to a number of factors. After reading some of the interviews, sociologist Armand Mauss felt that people seemed reluctant when asked to discuss their[p.147] own examples of discrimination. This may be due to embarrassment, fear of sounding petty or weak, or appearing to denigrate their church. They were sometimes more able to discuss other blacks’ experiences, which were often hearsay but reinforced perceptions of discrimination.
A more serious problem than deliberate malice was ignorance, insensitivity, and a general lack of experience with cultural and racial diversity. When asked if “non-black members often ignorantly say things which are offensive to black members,” 37.0 percent “agreed” or “strongly agreed.” Nearly half (49.5 percent) “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed,” and 13.5 percent were “unsure.” Samuella Brown, who was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1948 and lived in Columbus, Ohio, where she had been a member since 1983, talked about the distinctions based on intent: “I’ve seen more ignorance than prejudice because Mormons, from what I’ve picked up and from what I learned …. were always kind, caring, [and] considerate …. I perceive them as being a caring people, but just ignorant to certain things.”46
Ardelia Stokes, who joined the Mormon church in Chicago, recalled no acceptance problems until she began attending BYU in 1980. “People were not out and out hostile racists per se,” she observed. “They were ignorant. They did not know how to deal with me—or me with them, for that matter. I guess I would have to say we were ignorant of each other.”47
Emanuel Reid, a former Baptist, praised the Saints of Roopville, Georgia: “Even though they had their problems and they were growing too, they were real people. They showed me love, understanding, and it was a true friendship. Some of them didn’t quite know how to approach me or what to say, but I knew they were sincere and they were good people.” He acknowledged: “A lot of them still don’t quite understand black people. A lot of them ask—I don’t want to say stupid—questions, but if they thought about what they were saying when they said it, I don’t think they would ask[p.148] the questions that they do from time to time.”48
Donald L. Harwell, a Utah businessman, corroborated the racial naivete of Utah Mormons. It “amazes me. This is 1985, and people still do not know that we are no different than they are …. I… make jokes about it. I… tell them my skin will not rub off on them.” But he added he often wishes there was more than humor to his comments. “Sometimes I think maybe the skin should rub off and they would have less to worry about. It might be something they could deal with.”49
Robert Lang, who owned an insurance business and had worked as an appliance repairman, regards “off-the-wall” comments as “teaching moments.” He added charitably, “Anything like that comes through ignorance, not knowing and curiosity.”50
One manifestation ignorance was oblivion to the pervasiveness of racism in America. William B. Jenkins’s bishop asked if he had had any “unpleasantness with some members.” Jenkins, who had joined the church in 1982 at age sixty-eight, told the bishop gently: “There’s nothing for me to tell you about that because the one that does it may be a good friend of yours.” Taken aback the bishop said he had not thought of that. Jenkins said, “Bishop, there are a lot of things you all overlook.”51
When someone asked DeNorris Bradley if he had experienced prejudice in his ward in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he said yes. The person was surprised. “He honestly thought that I had been in the church this long and hadn’t experienced any type of prejudice, any type of slanders, any type of remarks. He thought their church was just that good and there were no problems.” Problems included difficulty in finding someone to give him a ride to church, an older sister who dubiously said she hoped he would “stick” with the church, and people leaving when he entered a room and avoiding eye contact. “I don’t think I was being overly sensitive,” said Bradley. “You have to[p.149] realize that being black in the South, you develop somewhat of a sense about prejudice. Whites don’t realize … their body language, their handshake, or their eye contact could give it away.”52
John Phoenix observed such unconscious behavior. He was born in the Washington, D.C., area, graduated from high school in 1937, and fought in World War II before graduating from Howard School of Pharmacy in 1953. Some whites “feel that their educational level and their social level is above most blacks,” he observed. “Even though they have their scriptures and they know that their black brother is equal and there’s supposed to be a feeling of equality, subconsciously they don’t always get this feeling. Their true feeling is manifested in their actions. Now they do a pretty good job of covering up, [but] being a black, I can make this determination pretty easily.”53 Phoenix attended the LDS church during the 1970s but did not join until 1980 because of the priesthood restriction. His wife had attended meetings with him and was also disturbed by the priesthood ban. They separated in 1981, partly because of Phoenix’s activity in the church.
Another manifestation of cultural ignorance was over-enthusiasm. Vanessa A. Carter attended Baptist and Pentecostal Holiness churches as a youngster in Sacramento. At the time she was interviewed in 1985, she had been a Mormon for five or six years and was studying to be a nurse. It was the conspicuousness of her situation that she disliked. Some stared. She was flooded with invitations to speak at meetings from Latter-day Saints who, with unconscious patronage, assured her, “I just know you will have a good talk.”54 When Donna Chisolm moved to Greensboro to attend college, she “felt people looking at me. I even heard people say, ‘It is nice that black people are beginning to accept the gospel.’ That made me mad. I don’t even know why. It was like they were really making a big deal out of it, and we were people just like everybody else.”55 George Garwood, Jr., who joined the church in[p.150] 1972 in Tooele, Utah, also felt people were “overly friendly” and believed that he was “always on display.”56 Audrey Marie Pinnock of New York City, who was serving a mission in Utah in 1985, explained that Utah Mormons “feel it is their fault that blacks did not have the priesthood. They try to overdo …. One of the best things I am doing on a mission is to show them that I am a person and a child of God. They do not have to roll out the red carpet. They can ignore me or treat me as a regular person.”57
Linda Reid, who had attended Unitarian, Baptist, and Methodist churches before becoming a Mormon in 1977, said wistfully, “If [only] the members of the church would just get to know Linda for Linda, instead of, ‘Oh, yes, she’s that cute little black gal.’ I would honestly hope that when I die that my headstone doesn’t read, ‘Oh, yes, she’s that cute little black gal.'”58
Survey respondents did not see this as a major problem. To the statement “non-black members of the church give me overexaggerated flattery just because I am non-white,” 55.4 percent said it never happened, 28.2 percent said it happened but did not “bother” them, and 16.4 percent said it happened and they were “bothered” by it.
Katherine Warren, who joined the church in the 1970s, resented her bishop in New Orleans stereotyping her—even though it was positive. “You’re a good person,” he said. “I’m thinking about making you a missionary. Sister Freida [the only other black member in the ward] is all right.” Warren added with astonishment: “He was thinking all blacks were the same.”59
Survey respondents found conspicuousness less of a problem than those interviewed. When asked if feeling stared at in church was irritating, 9.5 percent acknowledged that it “bothered” them, but 50.7 percent said that it “never” happened. The rest said it “happened” but it did not “bother” them. When asked if people assumed they were not members when they visited another ward, only 12.1 percent said it[p.151] “bothered” them; 42.6 percent said that it “happened” but didn’t “bother” them; and 45.3 percent said that it “never happened.” Only 16.5 percent reported discomfort about attention that “had more to do with color of skin than the individual.” Over a third (35.6 percent) said it “happened” but didn’t “bother” them, and 47.9 had “never” experienced it.
Finally we asked if other Mormons referred to the “curse of Cain” and blacks’ experience in a pre-earth life. Nearly 70 percent said that other members of the church “never” attempted to “explain why they were black.” Only 13.6 percent said that it “happened” and “bothered” them, and 16.6 percent said it did “happen” but was not a problem.
Sharon Davis, a Jamaican who moved to the United States with her mother after her father’s death, turned down several invitations from her boyfriend, Darrin Davis, before she visited his ward. Although she knew Shorthills, New Jersey, was a “very exclusive” and “all-white town,” she expected to find other people of color. She explained she was “very uncomfortable. I thought, ‘If people really cared, they wouldn’t be staring.'” She told Darrin she would never return “because it was the most embarrassing situation.”60 She later changed her mind and Darrin baptized her in 1978.
Sylvia V. Arnold, a student and a single mother who was baptized in 1986, lived in Richmond, Virginia. She felt “loved” in the ward but was bitterly hurt when she needed a ride home from church one Sunday and the sister she wanted to approach “didn’t want to give me a ride.” She stated: “It might be something small …. I just felt like dying that day right in church, but I held it in. The woman was trying to avoid me asking for a ride home …. I think I should have been a little stronger and understanding about that,” she added tolerantly, “and to look at it that nobody’s perfect.”61
Janet Brooks from the St. Louis, Missouri, area who joined the church in 1982, drew on her own wellsprings of Christianity to deal with prejudice. She said, “You know when a person’s real within his heart and sincere, and you know a phony when you see one.” Yet she[p.152] realized she could not change the phony people. “I just smile, say, ‘Lord, have mercy,’ and keep going.”62
When Emma Williams’s married son asked, “Do they treat blacks right?” she answered, “As long as you have got a Heavenly Father who loves you, you do not have to worry about who is going to treat you right or who is going to treat you wrong. The Heavenly Father is able to see you through any situation.”63
Mary Angel Wilbur found people more accepting in Provo than her hometown ward in New Kensington, Pennsylvania. “In Utah… even though we were the only black people there, I remember I felt so welcome· I didn’t feel like I was different at all. But [in New Kensington] … I had been a member for three years and sometimes still feeling like an outsider has been really hard.”64 Sharon McCoy, who joined the church in Kentucky in 1979 and served a mission to the Dominican Republic, also felt that location made a difference. “In Kentucky I felt a lot of love and I felt like they were my family …. When I moved [to Barberton, Ohio], I hated it.” She found the people “snobs,” adding that they had “warmed up since I’ve gotten to know them and I’ve made an effort, too.” But she concluded: “If I had to join the church up here, I probably wouldn’t be active because they’re just not too friendly.”65
A contrasting experience was Barbara Ann Pixton’s multi-ward membership. A career navy person, she joined the Mormon church in Italy in 1979 with her son. “All the love and affection that we were shown in that little branch made me very anxious to go to Utah.” Another member warned, “People in Utah are in cliques. They usually are born, raised, work, and grow up around the same people …. Don’t go in there and get your heart broken.” Pixton noticed some reserved reactions in Brigham City, Utah, including some coolness from members of her white husband’s family. But after she bore her testimony[p.153] in fast and testimony meeting when her baby was blessed, “this little old lady who was sitting way in the back pushed her way through the crowd …. She said she enjoyed my testimony so much she just wanted to come up and hug my neck. We both stood there hugging each other in tears. It was great. She didn’t know me…. She only knew who I was from me bearing my testimony.”66
Other military assignments took Barbara and her husband to wards and branches in Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and San Diego. In all of them Barbara reported positive experiences. When she was interviewed in 1986, she was living in Hawaii where she attended a ward with other military families. “The members in our ward are very loving,” she said. Despite the mobility, “We’re pretty close …. A few of the Samoan sisters are more comfortable if they are around Samoan sisters which I can understand. Some of their English isn’t very good.” But at an enjoyable homemaking meeting “we learned how to make leis and weave straw baskets … like the Samoans do.”67
Other blacks saw regional differences as personality differences among wards. Jerry Watley, the seventeenth of twenty-two children, said his initial experience in the Birmingham First Ward was warm. “Everybody was just one.” When the ward was split, “I got my feelings hurt for awhile, and I kind of stopped going. I kind of felt empty, but … I said, ‘If a person doesn’t like me, I’m not going to be around him.'”68 Although his wife did not like his decision, she did not pressure him. After some time he started attending the new branch where he became elders’ quorum president· He was serving in that position when he was interviewed in 1987.
Pauline Alice Jenkins, born in 1922, had retired from her federal job when she joined the LDS church in 1982. After being in “two wards that … were really great,” she described a third ward as “okay” but added: “We’re not really that happy with it.”69 Her husband William[p.154] also noticed a little less spirituality, a little less “closeness” in the new ward. He attributed the difference to economic inequalities in the ward. Some new ward members were from a wealthy neighborhood “out where the money class is.”70
Rose Shepperson Taylor from Chesterfield, Virginia, who joined the church in 1980, found that her first two wards ‘pulled together as a team and everything went off like clockwork.’ When she was sick “my house [was] clean[ed].” She was also encouraged because the bishop printed his office hours “in the program” each Sunday for when he was available to talk to ward members. In contrast she felt less concern from current ward members and her husband Thomas could not ‘relate to [the] bishop …. I just think he doesn’t know enough people over in this ward, and he’s still trying to get his feet wet.”71
A few problems are identifiably regional. Many Mormons in New York were originally from Utah. Reginald Allen, who joined the church in 1978, observed that these Utah transports “are a little more clannish.” He added: “This is not the feelings of blacks but [also] many of the whites who are from the east.”72
Some members sought explanations for prejudice in economics and education. Victor Soil, who joined the LDS church when he was forty years old in 1982, was school district truant officer when he was interviewed in 1988. He said: “I noticed a little feeling of intellectual superiority there for awhile” from white members in the Hyde Park Ward. He commented gently: “I’ve felt many times that they felt they were so intelligent that you couldn’t understand what they were talking about.”73 This perception might be shared by whites who were not in graduate school. Vivian Troutman, who grew up in Mississippi and lived in Chicago before joining the military, observed class differences among Mormon women in Piedmont, California, who were in[p.155] her Oakland Ward when she joined the church in 1984. She referred to them as ‘snobs with their noses in the air.”74
In one example of a lack of class insensitivity, Arthur Preston, who attended a Chicago ward, was ordained to the Aaronic priesthood in the bishop’s office. He assumed whites were ordained in the chapel. “To this day, I don’t know why,” he lamented. “Why wasn’t that in the chapel?” Because he was not paying tithing, the bishop would not give him a ticket for the Chicago temple dedication. Preston felt the reason was because there were a limited number of tickets and was hurt when he found out that was not true. “The God that I worship tells me that when you have things within your heart, you pray them out …. I have tried my best to see things with a right spirit. I’m trying to overcome those things, [but] to me things are not the way they could be.”75
Eva Willis identified gender problems in acceptance. Her husband Jerry felt well accepted, but she added: “I have sisters today that won’t speak to me as I go down the hall. I have sisters who teach the classes on Sunday in Relief Society that will not call on me if I raise my hand. I have sisters that if I walk up to them and start talking to them, they will completely ignore me. “She said at first she was upset, but she has been able to handle the problem spiritually: “I have prayed about it and put those feelings behind me.”76
Martha Poston, who grew up in North Carolina and was living in Georgia when she was interviewed, was a member of the Peace Corps when she investigated the church in 1983. When she asked missionaries about potential problems in attending a white congregation, they assured her: “Those people will love you.” On her first Sunday “the brothers really welcomed me there, but the sisters gave me that cold shoulder.”77 Drinda Preston of Chicago also observed that Relief [p.156] Society was emotionally trying. Except for a few sisters, the women, she explained, “are not nice. They are not friendly …. Only a few… have anything to say to me or try to get to know me.”78 Vivian Troutman agreed. The men at church were welcoming, but “it is the women that have hangups.”79 Sarah Kaye Gripper, a single working mother and part-time student in Springfield, Illinois, also noticed: “I have been very well accepted among the men in the church, more than the women of the church.” She decided that “some of the wives have never come in contact with a black person and don’t know how to approach a black person.”80
Others felt generational differences, realizing that older Mormons were both less likely to have grown up around blacks and were more likely to have internalized the priesthood restriction. Charles Smith, Jr., described himself as having “key friendships especially [with] some of the younger people. We took a liking to them, and they took a liking to us.” Even though he was in his sixties, he played softball and basketball with them.81
Keith Norman Hamilton, a law student at Brigham Young University when he was interviewed, was the first black baptized in his ward in North Carolina when he joined the LDS church in 1980. He explained: “The people were really warm.” Although “some of them did not know how to approach me,” he recalled with great affection a sister in her eighties who “hobbled up to me and said that she had waited for the day for this to happen and she knew that before her life ended she would see blacks come into the church in Raleigh.” He added: “You have to remember that these older people still had some traces of the Civil War mentality back in North Carolina.”82
Thomas Harrison Johnson, who was seventy-nine when he was interviewed in 1986, looked back on his seven years in the church and agreed: “The Latter-day Saints my age don’t know how to accept me. Most of the Latter-day Saints my age are this pioneer stock and many of them haven’t had the opportunity to have the education that I have had or the experiences I have had.” Meanwhile, he said, “Some of the Latter-day Saints who are in their middle fifties or early sixties … are hesitant because they have been brought up a certain way and my experiences are so much different from theirs …. The younger people accept me as an elder person· I have closer friends among the younger people than I do [those]… who are in their fifties and sixties. … I get along with the kids very well. The kids don’t see any color line anyway.”83
Of all the people interviewed, Bobby Darby best summed up the feelings of black Latter-day Saints: “You prepare for the worst, but you always expect the best.”84 Most white Mormons seem well-intentioned—some overly so—or are at least willing to be reeducated. Most of those do not at least try to conceal their ambivalence or hostility. So most black Mormons find that they are accepted as equals, though aware of a subtle undercurrent of discrimination that usually disappears with time.
1. Johnnie McKoy Oral History, 9-10, interviewed by Alan Cherry, 1986, LDS Afro-American Oral History Project, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Archives and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah (hereafter LDS Afro-American).