From the Archives: Wynetta Martin’s autobiography, Black Mormon Tells Her Story

By February 17, 2011

In the late 1960s, a black woman named Wynetta Martin joined the church in California, finding in Mormonism a loving God with whom she could identify. Martin moved to Utah at a time when the church was seeking to diversify its public face in response to boycotts of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and BYU. It was therefore a combination of her own tenacity as an individual (she drove all night from Los Angeles to make her audition) and the church’s need to adapt to changing circumstances that allowed Martin to become the first African American member of the Tabernacle Choir and the first black instructor at BYU (she taught classes on “Black Culture” in the Nursing department). In 1972, Martin published her autobiography, Black Mormon Tells Her Story: “The Truth Sang Louder Than My Position,” an insightful perspective on what it was like to be black in Utah in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Below are excerpts from the autobiography:

My name is Wynetta Martin. I am a Negro and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly called the Mormon Church. My story is not about Negroes, nor is it about Mormons or their church doctrine. It is about my life and how I became convinced to join the Mormon Church. I am now, happily, and willingly, a member of the Church. Many cannot understand why a Negro would want to join the Mormon Church. This too I will attempt to explain, at least from my personal experience.

Perhaps the fact that I quite eagerly, even greedily embraced, and still do, the promises of my church, a church that has been recently the target of many, who have accused of bigotry, segregation, and racism, and even in the most liberal of minds, my church has been cursed and despised, because it will not allow the people of my race the privileges, as yet, of the Priesthood, given to all other races. Perhaps this practice has instilled a great hatred and contempt for me in the eyes of my own people, and even in the eyes perhaps of many white people, both members and non-members, who learn of my conversion ? I cannot know what is in all hearts, and I cannot know the thoughts of all I meet; I do not judge them, nor do I ever try to convert or convince anyone of my race, even my parents, that this is the ?true? Church. It is right for me, but I cannot hope they will understand, and if they would not find peace in conversion to Mormonism, as I have done, I would not wish it for them. I think many times the acceptance has been more difficult on my part, acceptance of myself for what I am?obviously, colored; and accepting white people’s kindness and friendship inside the Church, as not a patronizing of me, but one of honestly accepting me, although, of course, this has not been universal with all members. The hurts of many, many small slights, both imagined and real, heal, but always I feel faced with new wounds opening, as I try to turn away from snubs, and from derision, from forced toleration that is suffocation and an insult to me on the part of some narrow-minded people both inside and outside the Mormon Church. Some people really believe that all Negroes are ?hotel maids? or ?Southern mammies? who have gone to their glory, but remain alive in the hearts and labels and breakfast tables on a syrup bottle! A real mammy with a kerchief wrapped around her head, and acres of impossibly white teeth, gleaming like a banner against a black sky of skin is the only image of the Negro race some people comprehend! (11-12)

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I knew this gospel was true. In comparison to the other churches I had joined, the Mormon Church did not destroy and wear down hopes of salvation. Never was Sunday a scolding session in this religion. The Mormon Church always was to me and is still a renewal of strength, and through chiefly taking the Sacrament of blessed bread and water, I am able to again have courage to face the challenge of the covenants I had taken in the waters of baptism. Also through the gift of the Holy Ghost given to me after baptism my week was aided and I seemed to be able to better live in the fashion that left my heart and my conscience at rest.

Some of the things that impressed me the most about the Church was learning about the practice of the Mormons to have family home evenings with their families, where they study gospel teachings and have evenings of fun together. I was also attracted to their practice of family prayer. But the thing that really converted me was reading the Joseph Smith Story. . . . It brought back to my memory my own very personal experience with the evil powers and praying within for deliverance and feeling the Lord’s spirit of peace come over me. I didn’t really want any lessons, but the Church leaders said that I had to have them in order to be baptized. So I asked if I could have them every night; but they calmed me down to one a week. I was baptized about two months [later].

I felt the Mormon Church had something to offer that no other church had to offer and that was authority to act for God. My heart and my mind was open to the lessons they gave me and I believed them. It was not hard for me to understand them.

While I was taking the lessons from the missionaries I was very excited about the Godhead lesson, learning about the three personages in the Godhead and about the special mission of the Holy Ghost to lead people to truth and help them in their lives The Book of Mormon helped me understand and accept my position as a black person much better. The Plan of Salvation lesson also helped me to understand things much better. . . .These two things, baptism and the Holy Ghost are the only requirements, contrary to popular belief, for entering the Celestial Kingdom and being with God for eternity if one is worthy. Therefore, the Priesthood covenants of the Temple which we are not allowed at this point are not really so crucial as popular belief dictates.

But enough of theology. My life from the moment of my baptism, to state a gross understatement, was changed. I attended church faithfully, I restored a lost ego, I became a better mother, a better daughter, and I learned to truly love my mother. (55-56)

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A new challenge presented itself as I began to dream of the possibility of becoming a member of the Tabernacle Choir. I knew I could sing, but I did know whether or not I could sing well enough for this magnificent choir. During this time I was working for the Genealogical Society and despite most people’s kindness, may race did present problems. Naturally I knew my race might be a handicap, especially because there were no Negroes in the Choir, nor were there any working with me at the Genealogical Society. My anxiety grew because despite many people’s obvious over-kindness, I knew many people were uneasy about me. One day a lady came up to me and asked in the most sincere innocence, ?Are you from the West Indies, Dear?? I said, ?No, why?? Well,? she said, ?Your skin and hair are of the West Indian type.? I knew of course she wanted to know what nationality I was, for it was beyond her comprehension that a Mormon would be a Negro or vice versa. I told her in a quiet manner that I was a Negro. She said rather flustered, ?Oh I’m so glad to see you working here, but are you a Mormon?? When I replied yes, she was close to collapse. Not a vicious woman, but a naïve one, she made it a point to go out of her way every morning and come to where I worked and say, ? Oh hello there, good morning.? (59)

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I remember one person approached me [in the Choir] and said, ?Sister Martin, we are happy to have you with us. What shall I call you?Black, Negro, or colored?? I thin said with a smile on my face and love in my heart, that they could call me anything as long as they spelled my name right!? (62)

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A few months later, I received an invitation to the B.Y.U. staff Ball. My, was I excited! I was probably the first Black person to attend one of these balls. I had a marvelous time. I wore a long pink gown and danced with the young men who were there.

Dinner was served and what delicious food! I enjoyed every bit of what was served. I can remember a Black man who attended B.Y.U., who was one of the waiters. I had a chance to talk with him and found out that he was a very intelligent person in his early twenties, in his second year of schooling I believe. I could have talked with him all night, but he was too busy being a waiter. Up to this moment I have met at least four Blacks who have attended B.Y.U., and I must say that members of any race, color, or creed are eligible to attend B.Y.U. as long as they meet the general qualifications and are capable of handling the courses. No race is barred from B.Y.U., and I’m here as a material witness. (69-70)

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The general reception I have received has been amazingly great. So many members have welcomed me with open arms, and I don’t find the general prejudice that so many think there is in the Mormon Church.

I can remember one fireside in 1969, during which someone asked me if I would change my skin to white if I had the chance. My, it’s a good thing when one is led by the spirit, because I was not confronted by this type of question before.

With a smile on my face I said that Mr. Clean, Ajax, and Comet serve the purpose for many things. I don’t care how much I rubbed with those chemicals, nothing would take my built-in tan away. I then said NO, I would not change my color from black to white because it wasn’t meant to be. Each race should be proud of their color. One thing sure, I have the advantage, since I don’t have to sit in the sun all day to get a tan. I have a built-in tan which cannot be removed unless our Father in Heaven takes a part in the transformation.

Many times I am asked if my own race gives me trouble for being a Mormon. My answer is that I have not been given any trouble by my own race. They will often ask me why I would join a church they think is prejudiced. My answer to them is that the Gospel is not prejudiced and I have met very few people in the Church which show any prejudice. There will always be some. No matter what church one attends or what race, creed or nationality we deal with, we will find good and bad people. We must not pin point one race or one religious groups as being prejudiced, or we are paradoxically ?prejudiced? in so doing. I hope that I can remove any prejudice that may exist anywhere I go for my race or my church. (70-71)

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I look forward now to the future, and I hold close to my cherished memories of the past, and I wait for the time, as there is a time for all things, when my family will be given the blessing of the Priesthood in our home. When it is time, God will know it, and that will be the right time. Still, it is difficult for me to imagine how I could possibly be more filled with happiness and how my life could be more saturated with blessings that at the present. I am so very glad that I AM A BLACK MORMON. (73)

Unfortunately, it is not known how Martin responded to the 1978 revelation that lifted the priesthood ban. After spending a brief time as the face of black Mormonism, she seems to have withdrawn from public life and passed away in Hawaii in 2000.

Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism From the Archives Gender Race


Comments

  1. I wonder, then, if she was the subject of this 1967 discussion recorded in President McKay’s diary. If so, they didn’t implement the policy discussed:

    Tabernacle Choir ? Application for by Negro members

    President Brown mentioned that Richard P. Condie, Tabernacle Choir Director, has received an application from a Negro woman, member of the Church to become a member of the Choir. Brother Condie feels that if she is admitted to the Choir, they should have at least one more Negro woman to be with her when they go on trips.

    In discussing the matter, we felt that if we admitted one or two Negroes into the Choir, we would be opening the doors to other applications that might be received. President Tanner suggested that we take the attitude that every member of the Choir must be a member of the Church worthy of a Temple Recommend, in which event Negro women would be unable to come because colored people are not given recommends to the Temple. In this event, they could not say that we are discriminating.

    Elder Dyer suggested that we say to this woman that we are not receiving applications at the present time, and we could then make certain that all members of the Choir are members of the Church in good standing and worthy of Temple recommends. President Brown was asked to ascertain from Brother Condie how many non-members are in the Choir as well as; those who could not receive Temple Recommends, and also what the repercussions would be if we were to release these people from the Choir.

    Sister Martin writes of her awareness of “unease” with the possibility of joining the Choir. I hope she never knew the full extent of that “unease.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 17, 2011 @ 12:08 pm

  2. David, thank you for sharing this information about Martin. She is a fascinating character, given her relationships with the Church in general, but specifically the Tabernacle Choir and BYU. I was particularly interested in her discussion about how all races were accepted at BYU – it emphasizes the discussion and sometimes controversy surrounding BYU over the Church and race at the time. Thanks for this.

    Comment by Ardis S. — February 17, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

  3. Thanks, Ardis P. I’d be willing to bet that Martin’s the black woman mentioned–she indicates in the autobiography that she applied but after hearing no response, she almost gave up. Then out of the blue Condie called her and told her to be in SLC for an audition (hence having to drive all night from LA to get there on time), so there was a lag between initial application and audition, where Condie apparently asked for direction. What disheartening (though not surprising) conversation among the brethren. Condie’s reference to needing to find another black sister to travel with the application would also likely explain that not long after Martin joined the choir, Marilyn Yuille also joined (although Martin does not mention Yuille in the autobiography, so it’s not clear what their relationship was like).

    Thanks, Ardis S. Martin is fascinating.

    Comment by David G. — February 17, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

  4. David–

    Thanks for sharing this. Martin was the first in a growing genre of black Mormon religious autobiographies (Alan Cherry, Jerri Harwell, Keith Hamilton, several African Mormon converts).

    Though certainly Martin’s narration is compelling, it isn’t the only part of her book. Martin’s publisher, John D. Hawkes, did not think her story was significant enough to stand on its own. He attached his own polemical defense of the priesthood ban to the end of Martin’s narration(“Why can?t the Negro hold the priesthood? by John D. Hawkes”: p. 81-93).

    Comment by Max — February 17, 2011 @ 5:53 pm

  5. Thanks, Max. Are you including a section in your dissertation on the autobiographies?

    Re: Hawkes’ essay, yeah, the way the volume is framed to make it “safe” for a white audience in the 1970s is fascinating. There’s also the “forward” by Ogden Mayor Bart Wolthuis that I think plays a part in that framing. The fact that both are male also plays an role here as I well, I think.

    Comment by David G. — February 18, 2011 @ 9:05 am

  6. Very interesting, David. Maybe you know that Rachel Cope gave a paper at a missiology conference in Chicago recently on Mary Frances Sturlaugson, the first black female Mormon missionary. Sturlaugson’s memoir, from what I’ve seen, and the excerpts you give here very much speak to each other. A comparative reading would probably be fascinating.

    Comment by Ryan T — February 19, 2011 @ 10:19 am

  7. David and I have talked about this a bit; a comparative reading would indeed be fascinating. I certainly need to spend some time reading Martin as I continue to work on the paper (it’s definitely a work in progress).

    This project is a bit afield for me — but I had a grant from the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals to work on this particular paper. I will be presenting a shorter version of my Chicago Presentation at Part II of the “Saving the World: The Changing Terrain of American Protestant Missions” Conference Series at the Duke Divinity School in March.

    Comment by Rachel — February 19, 2011 @ 2:06 pm

  8. By the way, using selections from memoirs like this, as well as something like Ed Kimball’s BYU Studies article, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood” (one of my favorite BYU Studies articles–a nice combination of boldness and diplomacy) when teaching Official Declaration 2, dispels myths. As I look out at my students during such discussions, I can almost see gears shifting in their minds (all of the “whys” they have been told don’t really hold up anymore). It’s quite beautiful and powerful to see their relief as they realize all really does mean all.

    Comment by Rachel — February 19, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

  9. Thanks, Ryan.

    Rachel, I hadn’t thought of using this in teaching OD 2, but you’re right that it would be powerful. I have to admit that reading Kimball’s article was a powerful spiritual experience for me, and combined with the simple potentcy of Martin’s narrative, it would be a very effective means to help normal LDS come to grips with the ban and its real impact on people.

    Comment by David G. — February 19, 2011 @ 3:41 pm

  10. Thanks for the post David. I first saw this book in the Black Studies section of the library here at UCSB.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 20, 2011 @ 1:47 pm

  11. I finally got around to reading this, and am glad I did. This is really fascinating and I’m glad to hear Max, Rachel, and others are beginning to utilize these writings.

    The Book of Mormon helped me understand and accept my position as a black person much better.

    Anybody else intrigued by this comment?

    Comment by Christopher — February 21, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

  12. Indeed, that is an intriguing statement. There are a couple of ways (at least) to read it. First, she could be referring to 2 Nephi 26:33

    For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.

    I lean toward that reading, since she indicates soon after making this statement, that in her view, only baptism and receiving the Holy Ghost are required for salvation, and that the race-based restrictions on the temple “are not really so crucial as popular belief dictates.”

    Or there’s the other reading, that she’s seeing the Lamanite cursed skin of 2 Nephi 5 (and related verses) and equating it with her situation. But at no point in the autobiography does she suggest she’s reading the BoM in that way or seeing her skin color as being the result of a curse.

    There may be other ways to read her statement, but I lean toward the former.

    Comment by David G. — February 21, 2011 @ 7:58 pm

  13. That makes sense, David, and I imagine you’re right based on the overall tone of her remarks.

    Had there been any comparative work done on how black (or any racial/ethnic group of) Latter-day Saints read/interpret the Book of Mormon as applying to them? Seems like a fruitful avenue for future research.

    Comment by Christopher — February 21, 2011 @ 8:40 pm

  14. http://www.ldsbooklovers.com/collections.asp?pid=387

    Comment by Bret — February 22, 2011 @ 3:00 am

  15. Does she explain further what she meant by this statement?

    The Book of Mormon helped me understand and accept my position as a black person much better.

    What did she mean by “position”. Trying to track down a copy of the work right now actually.

    Comment by Tod Robbins — February 23, 2011 @ 4:01 pm

  16. Sorry about the redundancy, I hadn’t refreshed the post recently!

    Comment by Tod Robbins — February 23, 2011 @ 4:25 pm

  17. Oh… nice link Bret!

    Comment by Tod Robbins — February 23, 2011 @ 4:27 pm


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