Black Saints in a White Church
Jessie L. Embry
[p.161]Although survey respondents socialized frequently with non-blacks at LDS church-sponsored activities, fewer felt that contact extended beyond the church house (see Table 1). There are several possible explanations for the difference in acceptance “at church” and socially. Going to church together does not imply friendship, nor does it necessarily imply prejudice if church members do not socialize together outside of church (see Table 2). Yet blacks feel that they are more likely to include whites socially (38.8 percent to 32.3 percent) than whites are to include them.
Does this mean that church ties are stronger than cultural ties? Two survey statements asking for strength of agreement dealt with camaraderie: “In general, I feel closer to blacks than I do to most members of the church” and “Most of my close friends are non-blacks.” The responses were equally split. (See Table 3 above.) Surprisingly, middle-class members were more likely than working-class members to say they felt closer to other blacks than to white church members. Middle-class blacks may have felt more confident in giving these kinds of responses, which working-class members may privately hold but consider inappropriate—though this is speculative.
The survey figures show neither full integration nor segregation between black and white Latter-day Saints. Interviews reflect the same ambivalence about interracial friendships. Albert Wilson, a retired businessman from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, who joined the Mormon church in 1981, commented, “We don’t do much socializing with [white Latter-day Saints], and primarily it is because they don’t have much of a social life themselves. They are home with their families. The wife and I do stir up social activity. We will invite them to the house and to church functions when the church have things like that.”1 When one considers the time demands of a lay ministry, it makes sense that when members are involved with each other it is usually in a church setting.
Matthew Clark, a graduate student, and Crystal Gathers Clark, who worked in the engineering department of a television station, had been Mormons for just over a year when they were interviewed in 1986. They reported little interaction outside church meetings. According to Crystal, “We have invited several of our friends from the church over for dinner and just to socialize. We haven’t been invited very many places in return.” She admitted to feeling that such one-sided hospitality was partly racially motivated but added: “I think that they really feel, ‘We’re not going to invite them over here because[p.162] they’ll look down on us.’ But we are not like that. We’re genuine people. We have feelings, too. We don’t flaunt the things we have …. We had a few tell us, ‘We haven’t had you over to dinner because our place isn’t as nice as yours.’ We said, ‘We’re not interested in that. We couldn’t care less about where you live or where we live. We just like the fellowship and like to be friends.'”2
“Socially I don’t have a problem,” said James Mallory, “because in my walking up and talking I will invite somebody over for dinner just as soon as they will look at me. I have done that on a lot of occasions and haven’t been invited back.” Was there an element of racial discrimination in those missing invitations? “I don’t look at it from that point of view as to whether it’s my color or not.” But after thinking about it, he admitted, “It’s a possibility.”3 Willie Perry Perkins, born in 1909, was twice widowed before she was baptized in Greensville, North Carolina, in 1983. She asserts that she does not have problems because she maintains an even-handed attitude. “If [white people] want to be standoffish, they have got the right. If they want to be mean or stiff and act low and uppity, they have the right. I still love them. If they want to be lovely, they have still got a right.”4
As with public interaction, the interviews contain specific examples of both positive and negative experiences. For many, members of the LDS church became like family members. Anita Durphey, one of the first black Mormons in the St. Louis area, managed a store. She said her bishop, now her stake president, said if she had problems she should bring them to his attention. But she never had to do that because, she said, “I was welcomed with open arms. The church has been my family. It’s my extended family.”5 Nathleen Albright, who joined the church in Virginia in 1971, said she had never felt such acceptance as that which she experienced from church members. “I [p.163] finally found home, so to speak, when I joined the church.”6
Delphrine Young grew up in Oklahoma and Kansas in a racially-conscious environment. His father was killed by a white police officer for allegedly “resisting arrest.” Throughout his youth and young adulthood, he had no integregational experiences. He moved to Los Angeles in 1963, where he worked for a hospital and joined the LDS church in 1981. Although he had cause to be bitter towards whites, he commented that being around “a white Latter-day Saint is just like going around your brothers and sisters …. They are not bigoted people where they will speak to you here and will not speak to you there. Every time they see you, you are Brother Young …. Whether you are in the street, whether you are in your home, whether you are in their home, you are Brother Young. They do not have any prejudice. At least I have not met a prejudiced Latter-day Saint yet. I have not met any that berate you; I have not met any that call names; I have not met any who used racial discrimination; I have not met any that bring slanderous remarks towards you. I have not met any that are backstabbing where they say awful things about you.”7
Mason Anderson, who was born in 1945 and grew up in a single-parent home in Charlotte, North Carolina, felt like a family member at church. “I have been accepted as a brother …. They accepted me as a Christian. They have worked with me to bring about a change in my life and an understanding towards the ministry and toward the word [of God]. They have worked with me as a brother. The sisters and the brothers have made me feel welcome in their homes as a part of the family… without seeing any color barriers.”8
Benjamin Washington concurred. A truck driver who had served as a counselor to a missionary branch president in North Carolina, he was the employment specialist in his ward when he was interviewed in 1986. A member for eight months, he felt: “There is no color as far as I am concerned …. All the ones that I have come in contact with treat[p.164] you just as they are your brothers or sisters They are just wonderful people.”9
Many found the Mormons they met followed Jesus’ advice to “do unto others as ye would have them do unto you.” Natalia Thompson, who was born in 1925 and was older than many of the members in the Hyde Park Ward, said: “These young people are living what they preach. They don’t preach brotherly love and sisterly love; they live it. That’s the thing that I love about them.”10
Leo Arrington returned to Hawaii after his discharge from the military and was working as a paramedic when he converted. He called white Mormons “my best friends” and commented on going to the temple with them: “I don’t look at color, and I think when they look at me they don’t see a color but they see another brother in the Lord. You can look at it in a negative way and you have feelings. But why do that? There’s no reason for it. You accept people as you see them, and they accept you as they see you.”11
Jerry Willis, a former AME minister, was working for the U.S. Post Office in St. Louis when he was interviewed. He conceded that his report sounded too good to be true. “But from Utah, California, to here, I’ve had no problems, ill feelings, or discrimination that I can identify with like I’ve had in the Protestant churches. I was in the integrated churches there. Here people really treated me swell. I felt from day one that I belonged. I never felt ostracized or that I was separated as a whole.”12
Margie Ray White, fourth of nine children, was born in North Carolina to an inactive Baptist mother. White joined the Presbyterian church in 1971 and Mormonism in 1984. Trying to describe Mormons in her ward in Monroe, North Carolina, she groped to express her feelings: “I really don’t know the words to put it in but [I have been[p.165] accepted] just great. I have never felt and I have never been shown so much love. To tell the truth, I really didn’t know there was that much love in the world to see the way the white Latter-day Saints treat the blacks. I would have never dreamed this would have been here in this life. It is beautiful; it is great.”13 Norman Brown, a blue collar worker who grew up Catholic in a black neighborhood in Baltimore, commented simply: “I didn’t know I could love white people so much.”14
James Johnson from Monroe, North Carolina, who had been a member for less than a year when he was interviewed in 1986, spontaneously described the members of his ward in glowing terms. “I love everybody in the church. The people are just so nice. The white sisters hug and kiss me; the black sisters hug and kiss me …. They show me that I am somebody, they are somebody, and what type of church we are in.”15
Emma Williams, a widow from Hickory, North Carolina, who joined the church after she retired, had been a member for over a year by 1986. Asked how she was accepted, she responded: “One hundred percent. They have shown all kinds of love, all kinds of compassion. They have shown their real feelings. When I walk into that church, I can feel the warmth. When I walk into their homes, I can feel that.” She remembered appreciatively one incident. When missionaries learned she was ill, she remembered they “came over and gave me a blessing. I did not feel like cooking. Here came the Relief Society with all of that food. I said, ‘I am sick. I do not feel like eating.’ But they brought it anyway. I said, ‘Bless your hearts.’ That was an act of love.”16
Others identified esteem that grew from a shared belief system. Joseph Faulkner was still a leader in the NAACP, yet his LDS friendships were stronger than those associations. “Because of my longstanding Civil Rights involvement, I have many whites, professionals,[p.166] teachers, and just common workers who like to call me up, talk to me, and congratulate me.” A Mormon since 1983, he commented: “Quite naturally my LDS friends treat me more cordially because they understand me better and I’m closer.”17
Other members reported more ambiguous experiences. Lula Biggs, who grew up in Selma, Alabama, during the 1960s, was living in Birmingham, Alabama, when she was interviewed eight years after her baptism. The reactions of white members she knew varied, she explained, depending on the setting. “We’ll be in church together. Just some of them. Not all of them. They’re fine, and they’re shaking your hand. When you go downtown and you get around the other whites, you don’t know what that person might say to you in just a regular conversation. Some of them might tend not to say as much.”18
Alan Cherry contributed a personal story from the 1970s when, as a member of “The Sons of Mosiah,” a Mormon musical group, he stayed at the home of a white Latter-day Saint in Atlanta, who sincerely “[told] me that he was prejudiced. I sat there listening to him, realizing that I had eaten his meal that his wife had prepared for me. He and his wife had given up their bed for me to sleep in. I and my group were invited there by his beautiful eighteen-year-old daughter to perform for his fellow church members. When he said that, I realized, ‘If this is prejudice, it certainly isn’t what I always thought it would be like.'” Cherry continued: “I realized something very poignant. He had bared his soul to show that he was confused.” While this white Latter-day Saint could share time with Cherry in his home, “he felt a strong attraction for and commitment to a code that as a Latter-day Saint he couldn’t really accept, but yet these values had their sway with him …. This prejudice might flare the next day if we were seen in downtown Atlanta together, and he might treat me totally differently than he was at that moment.” Acknowledging this apparent double standard “hurt him” because “he couldn’t predict his behavior. He saw it as a regrettable weakness.” Cherry concluded: “I saw it as a [p.167] regrettable weakness, but… I had other weaknesses, and all… I [did] was … feel brotherly sorrow for him.”
As a teenager growing up in New York City in the 1960s, Cherry had determined never to cross the Mason-Dixon line because of horror stories about Southern segregation and lynchings. And before his conversion, he would have probably thrown the man’s admission of prejudice back into the man’s face. But now he had no desire to do so.19
Some blacks do not see cultural diversity as a possibility because differences are so marked. Natalie Palmer-Taylor, raised by her single mother in Ohio, married at eighteen, divorced, joined the Mormon church in 1982, and decided to move to Utah. She admitted she did not “allow” whites to feel “comfortable” enough with her to develop close relationships: “It is not something that I even do consciously, but I notice a lot that there is this thing about me that says, ‘Do not ask anything too personal because it is none of your business.'”20 Nor does she share freely her own inner thoughts, finding a certain security in aloofness. She added that only one white Latter-day Saint, a visiting teacher companion who had lived in multi-racial Hawaii, had asked her about being black. “I know that she is not asking as a condemnation to me but [for] knowledge for herself…. It is not a phony thing. It is a very relaxed thing on her part. I like that. Other than her I have never had anybody ask me anything on the basis of color.”21
Other blacks withheld information from white LDS friends, feeling they would not understand. Vincent Lewis, a student who grew up in mainly black California communities, had been a member of the church for only eight months when he was interviewed in 1985. He had talked to a white friend “about being black” but added: “I do not really think he can conceive what it is like because he has never gone through anything like that. It is hard for him to understand being black or being brought up without the gospel.”22 Deborah Spearman from[p.168] Philadelphia said matter-of-factly: “I don’t care how nice white folks are to you. They can’t relate to the problems that black people have.”23
Betty Ann Bridgeforth grew up Catholic in Chicago, where she was active in the Civil Rights movements and knew Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson. After she joined the LDS church in 1979, she moved to Utah. She agreed that whites have problems understanding the black experience but added sympathetically: “I think they have understood as best as they can. After all, they are kind of just going on nothing at all and then here you are …. They try to see [me] as a person [even if] they do not always understand what I am going through.”24
William Johnson, a businessman who had been in the navy, had graduated from college in 1974 and had been a member since 1978, felt some blacks were overly sensitive. “I think we [blacks] are automatically programmed and we’re too quick to perceive racism where it really doesn’t exist. Whenever a problem comes up, we’re too quick to point to the problem and say, ‘The problem is racism.’ That is not necessarily the case. It’s not only true in the church, but it’s true in life in general.”25
DATING AND MARRIAGE
Contradictions in culture are especially wrenching in more personal interactions with the opposite sex, where race and religion are poised to collide. Black converts worry about whom their children will date and marry. Single members face the same dilemma about their prospects of dating and marriage. The contradiction stems from the LDS church’s mixed messages. On the one hand church leaders insist that blacks—like all single members—date and marry only “temple-worthy” members and marry only in temples. Simultaneously, they discourage interracial and intercultural marriages. The concern about[p.169] interracial marriage was so intense that the same Church News announcing the 1978 lifting of the priesthood ban also carried a statement entitled “Interracial marriage discouraged.” The article stated, “For a number of years, President Spencer W. Kimball has counseled young members of the church to not cross racial lines in dating and marrying.” It continued by quoting a 7 September 1976 BYU devotional address by Kimball: “We recommend that people marry those who are of the same racial background generally …. and above all, the same religious background, without question.”26 Although no more recent statements have appeared about interracial marriages in church publications, black and white members report similar informal instructions from local church leaders.
James Ashley Fennell II, a single medical student in Greenville, North Carolina, in 1986, summarized the dilemma presented by “so many contradictions in counsel”: “Naturally we have counsel not to date outside of the church because that can cause problems …. But then there is the counsel to avoid dating or marriage outside of your race. If you follow that counsel, then you are put in another paradox because you just don’t run into that many black Latter-day Saints. Then I got some counsel that maybe I am supposed to go and find somebody that I really like who is black and bring her into the church, but that is contradictory to the counsel of not going out of the church to date. You see the paradoxes that result.”27
Of the 80 who completed questions about their own dating and marriage possibilities on the survey, 70 percent responded “never” to “I have been told by a member of the church that I couldn’t date him or her or that we would have to stop dating because we are of different races,” but 15 percent said it happened “very often.” The remaining 15 percent was split between sometimes, 7.5 percent; seldom, 1.2 percent; and very seldom, 6.3 percent. Slightly less (63.4 percent) responded “never” to “I have been told by another church member not to date someone because we are of different races.” Survey respondents were also queried about “Trying to find a suitable mate.” Almost 11 percent (10.9 percent) did not respond, perhaps because they did[p.170] not feel well informed or have an opinion. Of those answering the question about difficulty in finding a mate, 45.5 percent said it was “very often” difficult to find such a mate, 17.9 percent said “sometimes,” 8.4 percent responded “seldom,” and 12.3 percent expressed “very seldom.”
Interviews provided anecdotal information about the problems of single black adults. The most frequently mentioned problem is scarcity of black singles, a problem especially severe prior to the priesthood announcement of 1978. Robert Stevenson, who joined the church in 1971, married a white Mormon, Susan Bevan, on 21 April 1978. They had met at Brigham Young University as students, but her Mormon family questioned the viability of the relationship. When Stevenson left for a military assignment, he thought it might be a convenient time to terminate the friendship. “Everybody from the garbage man to the stake president had told her that marrying me would be to her eternal detriment.”
But they had such strong feelings for each other that they sought an interview with a general authority, Boyd K. Packer. Packer called in Marion D. Hanks. According to Stevenson, “Elder Packer squared off on one side, and Elder Hanks squared off on the other.” Packer argued that Stevenson “could accomplish [his] mission in life and be more effective without being married to a white woman.” Hanks said, “I think it’s the best thing in the world that you marry Susan. I think that you’ll be more effective and you’ll be able to break down racial barriers easier.” When they left that discussion, says Robert, “There was no doubt in my mind and Susan’s mind that the choice that we had to make was left squarely up to us.” They decided to marry and have since been sealed together for eternity in the temple.28
Nathleen Albright also tried to reconcile conflicting counsel. When she first joined the church, she and some close LDS woman friends “would just sit around on New Year’s Eve and cry into our hot apple cider and lament over the fact that we were not married.” When she moved to Erie, Pennsylvania, she spent considerable time with a white male friend, “but I did not consider it dating …. I didn’t want to get involved with a white guy.” She repeatedly inquired about single[p.171] black men in the church and “tried to meet them the best I could through letters and maybe even by visiting them if they were close by.” None of these relationships was promising· In Utah she met a black man she liked and wanted to marry, but he saw her only as a friend. When she finally met a black man who proposed, she promptly agreed, but the relationship deteriorated sharply. After five months when she was pregnant, her bishop advised her to get a divorce.
Her efforts to have a career and raise her daughter made dating a low priority. Because of the priesthood ban, she had a “comfortable niche” not worrying about marriage. But she eventually started dating a white colleague with whom she worked in the church’s singles program, and the relationship had become serious by June 1978 when they heard the double message of both the priesthood announcement and the statement opposing interfacial marriage. Albright recalled reading “In the Church News …, ‘We like to discourage interracial marriages.'” She thought, “Now what do I do?” Despite her concerns she felt that her answer was to marry him. She recalled, “When I finally decided to ask the Lord, ‘Is it okay, Lord?’,… He answered, ‘Yes.’ I could not even finish the question …. I [was] saying, ‘Are you sure? … You know what the leaders of the church have said.’ … He answered again, ‘Yes.'”29
Melvin D. Mitchell was fifty-one years old when he was interviewed in 1988. Never married, he had adopted a son and explained: “Race doesn’t have anything to do with it, but there aren’t enough single black women in the Latter-day Saint church to meet up to my expectations and what we’re taught as far as Latter-day Saints.” He added: “I do have a couple of black female friends. They’re a lot younger than I am. That’s neither here nor there. It’s very hard for black men to date in the church. From what I understand, it’s very hard for black women also.”30
Fifty-two-year-old Calvaline Burnett of Birmingham, Alabama, was dating a Baptist deacon in 1986. Although he was not Mormon, he was Christian and she hoped to marry him. She explained: “I prayed for a husband, a good husband. Now I’m not praying for a husband.[p.172] I’m praying for [this man I am dating] to be my husband.”31
Cherrie Lee Maples joined the church in Kansas and served a mission in California before moving to the Washington, D.C., area where she was interviewed in 1987. She said her dating dropped to “zero” after she became Mormon. She wanted to date a black Latter-day Saint whom she could marry but made race a higher priority than religion. “I have had some experience with dating men outside of my race,” she observed, “but I am more comfortable in dating black Americans because they are from the same culture. It is by choice.”32
Anita L. Durphey, a store manager in St. Louis, Missouri, was the divorced mother of grown children when she was interviewed in 1988. “My only philosophy is that if Heavenly Father wants me to have a mate in this life he’ll make it possible,” she said.33 Brenda Sanderlin, a former nun in her late twenties from San Jose, California, faced her options realistically, “I am female. I am black. I have entered a religion where it may not be possible for me to get a spouse, much less have a family even though we advocate families. Due to my age when I accepted the gospel, there is a very strong possibility I will never marry or have children.”34
White Latter-day Saints sometimes try to help by match-making black LDS women and men. Rhoda Shelby, a cheerleader at BYU, accepted these efforts by “good LDS people [with] so much love in their heart and so much compassion.” She acknowledged, “Sometimes they fail because they don’t have the right way to do it.”35 Jerri Allene Thornton Hale from Detroit wryly pointed out that joining the church in 1977 made a “dramatic difference” in her social life. Her dating dropped “to none because they were so few blacks in the church.” She recalled two black male members in her area. One “had dropped out[p.173] of school in the sixth grade to work.” As a college student, Hale felt “there were just too many differences there.” She “just didn’t get along” with another black member: “We argued more than anything.”36 When whites tried to match-make, she resisted simplistic approaches of: “He is black; isn’t that enough?” To such attempts she would retort: “Would you marry any white guy?”37
William L. Cox lived in eastern North Carolina and knew few single black Mormon women. A regional representative told him: “I know of a young lady that I think you need to meet, a member of the church, a young black woman, and a very righteous lady.” Cox took the woman’s name and arranged to meet her. According to Cox, she “was in the process of praying about … meeting someone. We started talking as if we had known each other for twenty years.” However, problems developed: “She wanted to get married real quick …. I did not have that prompting from the spirit.” “A city girl,” she was “offended” by Cox’s “rural life, this farming situation.” She wanted to be married in the chapel first “where all of her family could be involved and then get married in the temple later. I told her, ‘Absolutely not.’ That is the one thing I stood firm on. I just insisted that we would get married in the temple or we would not get married.” They broke off their relationship, and Cox admits ambiguous feelings: “I miss her. I think I have missed the opportunity to get married to a very good lady, a very religious lady because I felt that was the right principle to stand on.”38
Not only whites but some African-Americans felt being black should be reason enough for a relationship. Boris Spencer grew up in North Carolina as a Baptist. He recalled in one area where he lived were “one black Mormon girl, and one black Mormon guy. I don’t know why they never dated…. They should have clung to each other just for that one thing.”39
[p.174] Some attempts at match-making were successful. Annette Reid from the Bay area in California joined the LDS church in 1980 when she was twenty-four. She dated a white Mormon before and after her mission to Salt Lake City, but “there was so much opposition to this friendship.” After considerable thought, Reid decided to postpone marriage plans and made her views public in a Mother’s Day talk, stating single women “shouldn’t sit around waiting to get married.” She listed things she would like to do.
She was “actually doing those things” on her list when a mutual acquaintance introduced her to Emanuel Reid, a black member. She was good natured but skeptical about the introduction: “A member of the church figured, ‘Black woman, black man. Ah, they must meet’—a match made in heaven just because we are the same shade and color. To me it was just, ‘Okay, here comes another one.'” To her surprise she and Reid experienced immediate rapport. She said, “It was like old home week.” Part of it was because of race. “We spoke the same language.” It was not just a cultural language though. “Spiritually we were on the same wavelength,” she said.40
Melvin Valeante McCoy from Ohio and Sharon Cornett from Kentucky were also introduced by white Latter-day Saints. Melvin was born in 1958 in Tennessee, raised Lutheran, attended the Baptist church, and then became Bahai. He was working temporarily at a mall booth during the 1984 Christmas rush, met some Mormons working in the booth next to him, and was baptized in 1985. The mother of a woman McCoy visited as a home teacher told him about Cornett, a native-born Kentuckian who had served an LDS mission. When McCoy received Cornett’s “address and phone number on the piece of paper, … I knew that this was who Heavenly Father had in mind as my eternal companion.”41 He wrote, and Cornett telephoned in response.
After a three-month “long-distance relationship,” they began seeing each other about once a month.42 Cornett had uneasy feelings[p.175] when they became engaged but stated: “I’d go to the temple and feel really good about it. We knew that it was the right thing to do…. We agreed that when we started dating that it would be a temple marriage or nothing. We both had that goal, and we worked for that.”43 The McCoys were married in 1987.
Successful interracial marriages like that of Nathleen Albright show a promising alternative to always looking for the “right” Mormon black partner. But racial barriers can fall hard for in-laws. Boris Spencer, a student at Utah State University when he was interviewed in 1985, observed: “In this little Mormon community of Logan that is 90 percent Mormon the blacks have made a bad name for themselves because of the one or two ‘bros’ at the college that mess around with their little Mormon girls and get them pregnant.” Spencer was briefly engaged to a white girl: “Her brothers and sisters accept[ed] me …. Her mom just simply [wouldn’t] take me in. But … her grandmother accept[ed] me.”44
Kenneth K. Mack, a former football player at Utah State University and a member for four years when he was interviewed in 1985, had to deal with being idolized by sports fans but mistrusted in social settings. He married Ruby even though her “whole family classified blacks as crime oriented, abusive, loud, no manners, and no sense of direction …. As a matter of fact, … her mom said I was going to be a nobody.”45 The chill remained until the Macks’ first child was born. Then Mack explained his mother-in-law “actually started communicating with me.”46
Ruby Mack added: “Most of our neighbors are LDS. No one would speak to us until he joined the church …. Then they were mostly intimidated by him, I think, because he is a football player and he is big.” She also reported that when they visit other wards, people would stare. But “once they listen to him speak or they listen to us speak, then they lighten up a little bit.”47
It seems logical that the problems of mixed-race dating would be even more severe for teenagers. However, survey respondents with teenage children saw fewer problems than expected. Of 57 who responded to questions about teenage dating, 83.1 percent said “never” in response to “My teenage children have been told by another church member not to date someone because we are of different races”; 13.6 percent said “sometimes” and only 3.4 percent said it happened “very often.” Parents felt that their children did not get that reaction from the people in the ward. In response to the statement “My teenage children have been told by members of the church that they shouldn’t date church members or would have to stop dating because we are of different races,” 80.7 percent said they had “never” been told that; 12.3 percent said “sometimes”; and 3.5 percent, “seldom.” When survey respondents were asked if black teens defined non-member blacks as their “only chance to date,” 35.4 percent said “very often” it was true and 31 percent said “sometimes.” The rest of the answers were divided among “seldom” (8.9 percent), “very seldom” (10.8 percent), and “never” (13.9 percent). Over a fifth (21.4 percent) did not respond.
Complex feelings of both faith and frustration about their children’s acceptance as Mormons emerged from the interviews. Rosetta Moore Spencer’s daughter Latoya was in her early teens when Rosetta was interviewed in Chicago in 1988. Rosetta commented: “I know the Lord is blessing [Latoya] to be a very strong little girl because at a time when peers and friends are so important to her she may be in a situation where she may not be in the church social group. The girls are all friendly with her, but as far as dating….that’s our next biggest challenge. What will she do?”48
Vivian Troutman especially found that her two daughters from a previous marriage suffered. Although her older teenage daughter was a class president in the church’s Young Women’s organization, she always felt like an outsider. But Vivian had great hopes for both daughters: “By them just coming into this [church] at the ages that they are, I feel good about it. I feel that it is going more smoothly.”49
When Janet Wright Rice was interviewed, her three sons were grown and living away from home. Two had served missions. “I would like to see my sons marry black girls in the church,” she said, “but if there are no black girls in the church for them to marry, I’d rather them marry someone else in the church as opposed to going outside of the church looking for someone.”50
Mary Angel Wilbur, a high school student and beauty contestant in Pittsburgh, was the only black teenager in her ward and stake. After explaining that she had dated only one member, a young black man six years her senior, she spelled out the familiar painful dilemma. Her Young Women and seminary teachers warned the class to date only members, but she explained: “I really have no choice if I want to date at all. There is no way that any guy at my church would ever ask me for a date. I have accepted that fact …. They see my color and not me.”51
Martha Branigan, who converted from Catholicism as a high school student in Beloit, Wisconsin, was interviewed at BYU. Although she dated white students, the uncertain reactions of her dates was a strain: “I do think some whites are hesitant to ask black women out because they just don’t know and they are afraid to take that chance… . There are just too many questions that haven’t been answered, and they don’t want to risk their eternities.” She explained that she encountered a range of suggestions. One was that if she could “find someone that you feel good with, God will sanction it, and it will be okay.” Others had questions and reactions that surprised her. As she tactfully put it: “I would expect them to have a deeper understanding of the gospel.”52
Michelle Evette Wright, a student at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at the time she was interviewed, had been Mormon since age twelve. Lightly she said: “Whether I was a Mormon or not,[p.178] I would probably have dated very little because I am very hard to please… . In high school … church standards were hard enough, not to mention the ones that I had.” Her former boyfriends had not been black. One had joined the church, but she was sure it was not because of her. “I tried to make him hate me before he joined, and he joined anyway.”53
Mary E. Smith, a Jackson, Mississippi, teenager, had been a member for a year when she was interviewed in 1987. “We’re great friends,” she said of her relationships with the other Mormon teens. “I get along with them.” She said she was a “curiosity” with the girls. At slumber parties she noticed: “They always seem to find something new that I do that they’ve never seen before like roll my hair.” She said her “off-the-wall” dances “amaze” the boys. One white girl was an especially close friend: “I think of her as my sister. We go places together …. She once told me that she would never consider not wanting to take me somewhere because I was black. She said that was silly. I can feel the same way about her.” She added, “With others, we’re close, but I don’t see them as much as I see [her].” Still she admitted that dates were few: “The white boys seemed to say, ‘You’re cute,'” but “they’ve always sort of kept their distance.”54
Eva Joseph, a divorced mother who had been a sales representative, explained a further complication in meeting other men: “As a black LDS I do not get invited to anyone’s home. If we are given something like a dance, … we are not invited. No one tried to make friends with us as far as to say that we are welcome.”55 Doris Nelson Russell, another single mother and a professional singer from Los Angeles who had been a Mormon since 1980, enjoyed her callings and her participation in the southern California choir. But “sometimes I still feel a sense of loneliness …. There are a lot of people I love in the church, but I have not developed a lot of close friends in the[p.179] church. I would love to.”56 Part of this distance may be caused by marital status. Reginald Allen, a married black man, observed that there were many more single black females in his ward than single black males. He sensed a natural “aloofness.”57
Natalie Palmer-Taylor, a divorced mother with a son living in Salt Lake City, agreed that marital status was often a barrier. Activities were “always family things” and she always felt like an “outcast. I do not even go to them. I do not even pretend that I am going to go. I simply do not go because I feel like everybody is there as a family and it is just me and my son. I do not even feel comfortable in that setting…. I am single in a married church.”58 Eva Joseph in contrast found support as a single parent. Dismissing the “racial mess” with the acknowledgement that one finds it “every place that you go,” she refused to “let that bother me.” She insisted, “As far as helping and building my family and strengthening it, that is the thing I like about the church. Being a single parent, there is a place for me there.”59
Just as there are mixed reactions about how successfully the LDS church has achieved public assimilation, there are also mixed responses to private assimilation. Black Latter-day Saints who report adequate acceptance at meetings are less likely to have social interactions, friendships, and dates with white members. But responses range from blacks who claim to have never met a bigoted Mormon to the other extreme. Most simply recognize individual variations.
Single black members, whether teens or adults, face poignant problems—who will they date and marry? The two-part counsel—to marry within their race and to marry a church member—leaves a perplexingly small candidate pool. Another concern, especially for single parents, is their place within a married church. Some feel accepted; others feel excluded. Once again, much of the problem—and[p.180] much of the solution—lies in individual responses to the ideals of justice, love, brotherhood, and sisterhood in the mutually-shared principles of Mormon Christianity.
1. Albert L. Wilson Oral History, 14, 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).
Jessie L. Embry, Black Saints in a White Church, p.176 1985, LDS Afro-American.