Southwestern States Mission: Epithets for African Americans [edited]

By February 17, 2013

Note: this post contains racial epithets.

As described last week, Mormon missionaries in the Southwestern States Mission (especially those in eastern Texas) had occasion to interact with and observe many African Americans. The missionaries in this study referred explicitly to African Americans in ninety-one diary entries. In this (and next week’s) post I will evaluate the racial epithets the missionaries used.

Epithets like nigger and darky were not universally understood as pejorative until sometime (different times) in the Twentieth Century. However, by 1900 nigger was well on its way; negro or colored were the preferred words for self- and other-identification.

Since the meanings of the words have changed, how does the historian reading diaries one-hundred years after the fact interpret racial epithets? If, for example, in 2013, a young-adult, native-English-speaking American of Elder Jones’s linguistic sophistication used “nigger preacher” or “negro preacher” instead of “African American preacher” in conversation, I would understand intentional offense. In 1900-1901, Elder Jones wrote in his journal about “nigger preacher[s]” and “negro preacher[s].” How should I understand his meaning and affect?

I hope to gain a better understanding of how the missionaries thought and felt about race by laying all of their diary entries about African Americans out, side by side, and comparing the entries to one another and to the missionaries’ actions. This week I will focus on the epithets themselves; next week (and possibly the week after) I will look at why the missionaries thought it necessary to specify a race and the content of their comments.

The missionaries in this study used five epithets: negro, colored [man, woman, people, etc], nigger, darky, and black. [1] The table below shows usages per missionary.

SWSM Epithets AfAm 20130216a

I don’t find much pattern in the missionaries’ word choices other than it seems that each missionary had a default epithet. The prevalence of negro and colored are consistent with national trends at the time (edit: ie, those were the non-offensive terms).

On slim evidence, it seems that darky was less pejorative than nigger or negro and connoted economic success:

We then went on to a nigger’s house where we got a drink. After we had left his place we got lost, but finally we came to a rich darky at 1 a.m. where we stayed until morning. Had a good rest for what time we laid down. [2]

Beyond this possible meaning for darky, the other epithets seem interchangeable. At this point in my research, I don’t perceive any differences in usage or behavior between the missionaries who preferred nigger and those who used negro or colored. [3]

In the footnote I give some examples of how epithets were used. [4] Next week I’ll attempt to analyze some of the entries rather than just count words.

—Edited, 2013 Feb 18 1847 CST—
I have expanded the introduction to make the purpose of the post and its connection to the rest of the series more clear. The original introduction (up to the table of epithets) was as follows:
As described last week, Mormon missionaries in the Southwestern States Mission (especially those in eastern Texas) had occasion to interact with and observe many African Americans. The missionaries in this study referred explicitly to African Americans in ninety-one diary entries; they used five epithets: negrocolored [man, woman, people, etc], niggerdarky, and black[1] The table below shows usages per missionary.

The “Southwestern States Mission” series (homepage) examines mission life in (mostly) Texas around 1900.

[1] There are also three instances when a missionary quotes a third party as using an epithet: negro (a letter from the First Presidency, quoted by Duffin), colored (a letter from the First Presidency, quoted by Duffin), and pickaninny (a commencement speaker at a “colored college,” quoted by Cluff). The table indicates ninety-four diary entries containing epithets but there are actually only ninety-one. Three entries contain two or more different epithets. Cluff is credited with four entries, but only has two, each of which use negro and colored. Jones has an entry with both nigger and darky, so his total should be thirty-six. Some of the entries contain more than one instance of an epithet.

[2] Jones, 1900 Aug 30 Thu. Jones continued the next day: “The darky was well fixed. He gave us a nice bed. Elder H. Wanted to go on before breakfast but I persuaded him to wait. The woman fixed us a fine meal of chicken and other victuals, after which we thanked them very much for their kindness and went on to Gum Springs.” (Jones, 1900 Aug 31 Fri). All the other instances of darky are positive: “One of the neighbor darkies told the folks when we got ready to go that they could have their team and haul us to the train 6 miles. They were very kind. The man stopped his plowing to let us have his team. …we came on out of town. A darky came along and gave us a ride about 6 miles.” (Jones, 1901 Jul 31 Wed); “…I spent the eve in singing Etc. there was 6 Darkies come in and I played the organ and they sang. It was fin [fun / fine ?]” (Forsha, 1900 May 15 Tue); “After traveling all day. I again became very week weak. and couldn’t travel any farther. so we came to the house of a cattle man. he was a darky. we asked to stay all night and was made welcome. After supper we talked a while and went to bed.” (Forsha, 1900 Jun 18 Mon); “Came to Trinity River where a Darkey took us across in a boat.” (Forsha, 1900 Feb 19 Mon).

[3] Edit: the contents of note 3 have been moved to the beginning of the post and reworded. The original text was:

If I understand correctly, “nigger” did not become universally understood as pejorative until sometime in the Twentieth Century. However, by 1900 it was well on its way, with “negro” or “colored” being the preferred words, so the missionaries’ use of “nigger” requires analysis. In other words, if, in 2013, a young-adult, native-English-speaking American of Elder Jones’s linguistic sophistication used “nigger preacher” instead of “African American preacher” in conversation, I would understand intentional offense. In 1900-1901, Elder Jones wrote in his journal about “nigger preacher[s]” and “negro preacher[s]” and I do not (yet) see a difference in his meaning or affect in the word choices. Why he and his fellows thought it necessary to specify a race and what they had to say about said preachers is the topic for next week’s post.

[4] Examples of epithets for African Americans in the diaries (Note that this list samples the types of comments but does not represent their frequency; most of the epithets in the diaries appear in “sold a book to a nigger” or “paid a negro to wash our clothes” sorts of entries):

  • At night, Elder Hoyt and Bro. Findley went to hear a niggar preach. They seen a show, shouting and dancing and singing and all kind of capers. (Folkman, 1901 Oct 06 Sun)
  • As I was about ready to start there was a nigger came along in a wagon and I got a ride in with him. Had a long gospel conversation with him. (Jones, 1900 Jun 22 Fri)
  • Sold two Voice of Warnings, one to a nigger and one to a white man. (Jones, 1901 Jan 02 Wed)
  • We then walked on to Mr. Poteet’s. Just awhile we got there we gave a negro a Voice of Warning to wash our clothes. (Brooks, 1900 Apr 21 Sat)
  • There were several hundred negroes there waiting for the train. Some were to go while others just come to see the train. They would walk five miles to hear and see a train come and go. (Folkman, 1901 Jul 15 Mon)
  • We gave a little negro boy a nickle a piece  to take us across the river in a boat. It was ten miles to the next white family on the road. (Brooks, 1900 Feb 19 Mon)
  • The next morning Feb the 28 we go East and go through the negro community and find some white People we done Some Tracting among them. (Clark, 1901 Feb 28 Thu)
  • Went to the colored family where we had left our clothes the day before to get them washed. Gave her a Voice of Warning and 10c for doing the work. (Jones, 1901 Jan 17 Thu)
  • At night there was a collored band come there and give us some fine music and singing. Stayed untill half past ten. This is the first of that kind I have heard since comeing to Texas. (Folkman, 1900 Jul 07 Sat)
  • Elder Shipp and I spent together studying and eating peaches until 7 o’clock in the eve. when we attended a Colored Folks protracted meeting where we enjoyed ourselves Just The same as though we were at a Circus (Forsha, 1900 Jul 22 Sun)
  • [After the 1900 Galveston Hurricane] They are hauling in dead bodies by the wagon loads. They have had to resort to sinking them in the sea to dispose of them. They are in such a condition that they can not keep them, so they take them by the ship loads and take them out in the sea and sink them, rich and poor, white and black. (Folkman, 1900 Sep 10 Mon)

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I have nothing particular to say, except that potentially inflammatory matters deserve to be grounded in this kind of careful examination before the flames are lit.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 17, 2013 @ 11:25 am

  2. I’m sorry, but as an African American I find this blog post offensive. The content, the timing (during Black History Month), the source, the context–all of it. Just offensive.

    It’s true that many Mormons in the US have very little interaction with “diversity” but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to trot out stereotypes and epithets under the guise of scholarship.

    Comment by willatfarnsworth — February 18, 2013 @ 9:02 am

  3. Language changes and it makes no sense either to pretend that certain words weren’t used 100 years ago or to suppose that the words carried the same meanings that they have today. And there’s nothing in the original post to suggest that the use of any of those words today is acceptable.

    Just one note regarding the original post–you suggest that “negro” might have had some pejorative sense. If that was the case in 1900, it certainly wasn’t in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was the standard acceptable way to refer to blacks in the U.S. It was used by blacks, like Martin Luther King, Jr., and by white politicians and church leaders from all across the political and religious spectrum.

    “Colored” of course had its day when it was deemed appropriate–why else the NAACP?

    Comment by Mark B. — February 18, 2013 @ 11:09 am

  4. willatfarnsworth, perhaps it will help if I indicate that while I also find the usage of these words offensive, one of these missionaries is an ancestor, which makes it doubly offensive. Yet I think it is important to understand these in the context of their times, and the background of the missionaries themselves. I know that Texas was not the first time Elder Folkman encountered African-Americans, but certainly in much larger numbers than growing up in Weber County, Utah. We look at these things in hopes of understanding, and in the long run, do better ourselves.

    Comment by kevinf — February 18, 2013 @ 2:56 pm

  5. Thanks for the comments, Ardis, willatfarnsworth, Mark B., and kevinf.

    willatfarnsworth: I’ve revised the post to make its academic purpose more clear.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — February 18, 2013 @ 8:53 pm

  6. […] the last two weeks’ posts, I have established that Mormon missionaries in the Southwestern States Mission (especially those […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Southwestern States Mission: Interactions with African Americans, Part 1 — February 24, 2013 @ 8:40 pm


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