Lucy Emily Woodruff Smith’s 1893-94 Diary: What it Reveals about Lucy, her Husband, and Ourselves, Part I

By February 28, 2012

With the increased attention to George Albert Smith since his turn in the line-up of Prophets for the 2012 Relief Society and Priesthood curriculum, President Smith has captured the imagination of LDS members for his vulnerability, his personal struggles with chronic mental and physical illness, and his perceptibly gentle and compassionate nature.  Indeed, his very flawed humanness has made him recently a kind of accessible hero-prophet—one with whom some Mormons feel a more intense kinship.  With that keen interest, it’s timely to talk about his wife, Lucy.

On January 1, 1893, Lucy Emily Woodruff Smith began a diary—most likely a New Year’s resolution—to document her time as the missionary wife of George Albert Smith.[1]  Soon after their marriage in the Manti Temple in May of 1892, George and Lucy were called to serve in the Southern States Mission under President J. Golden Kimball.  George spent five months in the proselyting field until he returned to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he worked in the mission office.  Lucy joined him in November of 1892, living in the mission home.  Lucy kept her diary for just over a year, during which time she revealed herself to be a curious tourist in an area notoriously hostile to Mormonism in general.  For that reason, I found imminently useful her subtle dance between healthy homesickness for Utah and her genuine fascination with the culture, people, religions, history, and race relations of the South.  In so many ways, Lucy’s one year of cultural immersion mirrored how Mormons today might insert themselves into the very modern challenges of how to find acceptance while also struggling to accept others.

While Lucy offered comment on many areas of mission life, from receiving newly-arrived elders, to visiting local parks, cemeteries and Civil War sites, she also provided interesting and complex views of race.  On Sunday, Jan. 22, Lucy reported simply, “. . . . A negro boy tried to get in the house.”[2] Inserted so innocently within tedious descriptions of household duties and periodic headaches that kept her bedridden, the statement might have been lost in importance. But it masked a more sinister racial attitude that underlay Lucy’s brief time in the South.  One week later, while on a walk during some nice weather, Lucy “entertained myself with some little niggers that were so dirty they could scarcely see.”[3]  How easily she appeared to engage the racialized language and stereotypes

President J. Golden Kimball, Lucy Emily Woodruff Smith, George Albert Smith, and Elias S. Kimball, ca. 1894

of early 1890s America.  This was especially surprising for one so cloistered as she had been during her growing up years in Salt Lake City.   I’m willing to accept, as Paul Reeve recently argued here,[4] that we can’t take responsibility for the racial attitudes of our Church leaders, or, I would add, average members– if we can include Lucy as such– considering that she was the wife of a future prophet and the granddaughter of another one.  Still, it’s painful to hear the words of one of our own, so unapologetically prejudiced, because we want them to be better than that.  We often look to the past to find examples of progressive notions—no matter how isolated—that reinforce our own ideals, that forge a needed connectivity, and that help us not feel so alone.  That said, I also found a hope in an inner struggle that played her racism against her compassion.

Racial tensions in Chattanooga came to a terrible culmination in February of 1893.  On February 14th, Lucy confessed that she had been “sick & nervous all night.”  The reason:  “A negro committed an awful outrage on a white woman.”[5]  The next day, Lucy wrote, “Didn’t get up until late.  I felt so badly.  Remained in the house & read correspondence.  The negro was lynched on the river bridge.”[6]   That Lucy would be an accidental witness to a very famous and public example of Lynch Law in the South is an important intersection of Mormonism and race within the larger narrative of American history. Indeed, lynching had reached an all-time high the year before, with 161 blacks killed.

The accusation in this case was typical for Jim Crow South.  One “Alfred Blount” had entered the home of Mrs. M.A. Moore, a 51-year-old widow, asked for something to eat, and attacked her.  When Mrs. Moore fainted, Blount committed the rape while she was unconscious and then fled.[7]  Certainly lynching was not completely unfamiliar to Lucy, as Reeve as clarified, there were “. . . seven lynchings in Utah between 1882 and 1903 (another historian estimates twelve total), [but] . . . the majority of victims were white in Utah.”  While I don’t have the space to go into the details of Blount’s case here, still, the case carried certain characteristics common to race-based lynchings in the South.  He was accused, denied a trial, taken from jail, and tortured and hanged by an extralegal mob in a very brutal and public fashion.  Most importantly, like many black men who were accused of raping a white woman in the late-19th century, his guilt was not certain, the accuser “could not identify him as the culprit,” and there “was ample proof of his innocence.”[9]  Blount’s own widow later sued the sheriff “for allowing her husband to be mobbed and killed.”[10]

Lucy says no more on the subject, but I’m fascinated by her initial reaction.  Did she feel “so badly” only because the woman was purportedly raped, or because a man had been brutally lynched?  It’s hard to say.  She also doesn’t say whether she viewed the lynching personally.  I prefer to think that she felt some conflict over knowing such a violent crime had been committed against the accused.  In fact, this event did not deter Lucy from altogether interacting with blacks.  When, just a few days later, a storm caused the Tennessee River to flood its banks, washing away dozens of houses—mostly of African-Americans who lived along the river, she lamented, “My its [sic] terrible how the poor suffer.”[11]  And during the flooding, Lucy and a friend “took a walk down in negro town and they all run out to see us.”[12] These interactions were certainly not carried out with a feeling of equality, but they also exposed a refusal to dehumanize blacks entirely.  And yet, when she and George made a Sunday afternoon visit to a “negro Methodist revival,” she sneered that “a description here is unnecessary it will ever be fresh in my memory.  Never saw anything so funny in my life.”[13] A few months later, she had a similar experience at a “negro meeting down the hill.”  “We were only there a few minutes when a girl got religion and how she did rant around.  It frightened me and made me sick.”[14]

What emerges as most amazing in these racialized comments peppered throughout Lucy’s diary is how easily she inserts herself—and by default, her religious community—into the larger narrative of white hegemony in 1890s America.  Perhaps in marginalizing and stereotyping blacks as she does, she’s innocently unaware of how outsiders perceived members of her own religion. As Reeve has described, Mormon polygamist wives were themselves racialized as part of a national fear “that polygamy was giving rise to a new ‘race,’ filthy, sunken, and degraded.”  Thus, the true irony for someone like Lucy Smith in Chattanooga in 1893, was that some critics of Mormonism had called for a “solution . . . to start lynching Mormon missionaries after ‘the black men are all lynched.’”[15]

My intent is not to excoriate the wife of a beloved LDS prophet, especially because I hope to present a more complex and hopeful picture of her in an upcoming post.  Still, I find in Smith’s 1893 experience in the South a parable for a similar struggle that the Mormon community feels today.  At once marginalized for our doctrines that are unacceptable to mainstream Christianity, our troubling historical episodes and marital practices that are skewered by critics on both the left and the right, we have not achieved mainstream acceptance, even in spite of a claiming a high-profile presidential candidate.  At the same time, our own social and cultural rigidity causes us to marginalize, whether it’s on hot-button issues like gay rights and foreign immigration, or even how we accept diversity of political and religious belief within our own ranks.  Perhaps like Lucy, we sometimes don’t see our own hypocrisies and how we can, at the same time, be both unfairly excluded while also unfairly excluding.  But, also like Lucy, we are bundles of complexity, working through our fitness for a more productive and positive engagement in the wider world.  I continue to have hope for the latter.

 

 


[1] Lucy Emily Woodruff Smith (1869-1937), Diary, 1893 Jan.- 1894 Feb., Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[2] Smith Diary, 22 January 1893, p. 7.

[3] Smith Diary, 31 January 1893, p. 9.

[4] W. Paul Reeve, “Mitt Romney, Blackness, and Brigham Young, Part II,” at http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2012/02/16/guest-post-mitt-romney-blackness-and-brigham-young-part-ii/

[5] Smith Diary, 14 February 1893, p. 12.

[6] Smith Diary, 15 February 1893, p. 12.  Blount was lynched on the Washington Street Bridge, also known as the “County Bridge” to locals.

[7] Chattanooga Times, 15 February 1893, p. 1.

[8] For the detailed story of Blount’s crime and murder, see http://www.darkfiber.com/tomb/johnson/blountlynched.html

[9] Cleveland (OH) Gazette, 8 July 1893.

[10] Cleveland (OH) Gazette, 8 July 1893.

[11] Smith Diary, 19 February 1893, p. 13.

[12] Smith Diary, 20 February 1893, p. 14.

[13] Smith Diary, 26 February 1893, p. 15.

[14] Smith Diary, 6 August 1893, p. 64.

[15] Reeve, “Mitt Romney, Blackness, and Brigham Young, Part II.”

Article filed under Race Reflective Posts


Comments

  1. A few months ago I ran across a letter by Lucy Smith in the Young Women’s Journal. With the George Albert Smith manual being the one for study in Relief Society this year, it’s been complicated approaching Smith’s life and ministry, having just read his wife’s shocking comments about race in the Southern States Mission.

    I can’t imagine why I drew any sort of a straight line between Smith’s ministry and the observations of his young, earnest wife upon being suddenly yanked out of upper-class Salt Lake City society and submerged into a very foreign, dangerous, complex post-Reconstruction Tennessee, but I did. So thank you for addressing this topic and providing context to her reaction to the South. I’ll look forward to your upcoming post as well.

    Comment by Amy T — February 28, 2012 @ 10:07 am

  2. Thanks Andrea, I look forward to your future contributions.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 28, 2012 @ 11:58 am

  3. This is fantastic, Andrea; thanks for this.

    Comment by Ben P — February 28, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

  4. Thanks for sharing, Andrea! What a very thoughtful and engaging post!

    Comment by David H — February 28, 2012 @ 12:35 pm

  5. Andrea, this is wonderful. Thank you. I especially like this:

    “we are bundles of complexity.”

    Comment by Christopher — February 28, 2012 @ 1:07 pm

  6. After reading Woodger’s recent bio of George Albert Smith, I got the impression that Lucy was a pretty high-maintenance wife…codependent and possibly with mental health issues of her own.

    Comment by David — February 28, 2012 @ 1:12 pm

  7. Yes, David: I might address some of that on the next post. She often did not get out of bed until noon or later, or sometimes just spent the entire day in bed. Her physical complaints rivaled those of her husband.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — February 28, 2012 @ 2:57 pm

  8. Radke-Moss,
    Nice post. I think her comments on blacks are one way in which Mormons attempted to claim whiteness for themselves, even subconsciously. Southern whites were in the clutches of a century long struggle to reassert white supremacy. While Lucy’s religion made her suspect, at least her race did not.

    I really like your concluding paragraph. I am hopeful too that if Mormons can understand how completely they were constructed as racially different, and recognize the absurdity of it, that they will then be willing to look inside and see how absurd their own constructions of cursed descendants of Cain/Ham/Laman are and use it as a catalyst for change. High hopes, I know.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 28, 2012 @ 8:11 pm

  9. Her diary seems like a rich source; thanks for sharing it with us.

    Did she feel “so badly” only because the woman was purportedly raped, or because a man had been brutally lynched? It’s hard to say.

    It seems to me that it is (perhaps) more plausible to read “I felt so badly” as an explanation for why she “Didn’t get up until late,” rather than as offering her own reactions to the lynching. But like you, I would hope that she was able to feel to some degree of revulsion at the lynching. Her remark about the suffering of the poor, while revealing her own class biases, does show her willingness to feel compassion for those less fortunate than her.

    While I don’t have much to add on Mormons in the South, I did write a post a few years ago highlighting Wallace Thurman of Harlem Renaissance fame’s 1926 article describing growing up in Utah (and how it wasn’t all that different from Georgia) and some of my own thoughts on why Mormons, who saw their West as a place of religous refuge, were not more open to making Utah a racial refuge.

    Comment by David G. — February 28, 2012 @ 10:12 pm

  10. Andrea, great opening post! I’ll echo Paul’s appreciation for your closing thoughts. Looking forward to part 2!

    Comment by Jared T — February 28, 2012 @ 10:29 pm

  11. Thank you for a very interesting and well written post! I look forward to more!

    Comment by Jack Ply — February 29, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

  12. Andrea,

    An interesting post. Thanks for sharing!

    Your reference to Paul Reeve’s mention of the racialization of polygamous wives and their offspring, and Reeve’s comment (#8) about Mormons asserting whiteness, brings to mind a letter I came across a few years ago written by a non-Mormon living in Missouri during the 1830s. The letter writer explained to his audience that the good folk of Missouri did not consider Mormons to be “white,” and that they were careful to distinguish between themselves and Mormons on that basis.

    Having (at that time)recently read several books on the construction of whiteness, I recall being intrigued by the letter and the fact that I had, quite by accident, stumbled across a primary document in which someone was claiming whiteness over and against Mormons in Missouri. I had known about the late 19th C. efforts to racialize Mormons, but to see it as early as the 1830s came as a surprise (though perhaps it should not have).

    Comment by Dale Topham — March 1, 2012 @ 1:32 am

  13. Aha! I should have read Reeve’s post at Keepapitchinin before making my earlier comment. Sigh.

    Comment by Dale Topham — March 1, 2012 @ 1:39 am

  14. Thanks, Dale! I found a similar comment by Mary Isabella Horne, who remembered that the Missouri mobs separated everyone into the categories of “Mormons and white people.”

    Comment by Andrea R-M — March 1, 2012 @ 4:19 pm

  15. […] also wrote a fascinating post about race in Lucy Emily Woodruff Smith’s 1893-1894 mission journal which went up just a few hours before the Bott controversy erupted. This is part 1 and part 2 is […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » JI Resources on Blacks and the Priesthood — March 4, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

  16. […] my previous post here, we learned about Lucy’s racial attitudes as a Mormon visitor in the post-bellum South.  And yet […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Lucy Emily Woodruff Smith’s 1893-94 Diary: What it Reveals about Lucy, her Husband, and Ourselves, Part II — March 7, 2012 @ 1:46 pm

  17. […] partly what prompted my own interest in looking at Lucy Emily Woodruff Smith’s 1893-94 diary here and here.  I’m also looking forward to today’s post by Jonathan Stapley here, which gives us […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » March Madness: Recovering our Past through Women’s History Month and Relief Society Birthday Parties — March 13, 2012 @ 10:52 am


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