W. Paul Reeve is Simmons Professor of Mormon Studies at the University of Utah. He directs the digital history project “Century of Black Mormons.”
This weekend the University will sponsor “Black, White and Mormon II,” the second conference on race in the modern LDS Church the University’s Mormon Studies initiative has sponsored. We approached Reeve with a number of questions about the “Century of Black Mormons” project.
- Could you briefly describe what the project is? When did it start, and why did you decide to begin it?
Century of Black Mormons is a digital public history project designed to identify and document all known black Latter-day Saints baptized into the faith between 1830 and 1930. It started as an awareness over the last five years or so that there was no central repository for numbering and identifying black Mormons. When someone found a reference to a baptism of a black person in a missionary diary, that information was merely an individual data point that was interesting on its own but that was easy to lose track of unless it was collected and preserved. What if the individual data points could be gathered together and documented in a systematic way. How might it challenge the standing narrative about Mormonism and race?
It seemed like the logical thing to do was to create a database to document and name black Mormons. I did not know how to go about organizing such a project but as I finished Religion of a Different Color I decided to give it a shot. It was a challenging new project that captured my interest. I applied for a Doing Digital History Summer Institute fellowship at that Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. I was accepted based on a proposal to create the database. It was a fabulous two week institute which convinced me that I might be able to pull it off.
I might add that I hoped that there would be a practical use for the database beyond what scholars might find. It is a public history project and there are a variety of potential “publics” who I hope it might reach. I was at a LDS Genesis group meeting in Texas a few years ago and I listened as a woman there lamented that as a black Latter-day Saint she sat through talk after talk about white pioneers every year during the month of July and yet she was never asked to speak in church because the assumption was that she had no pioneer ancestors and that there were no black LDS pioneers anyway. She added, “if I was asked to speak, where would I go to find resources? Where are the stories of black pioneers?” I hope that Century of Black Mormons can provide at least the beginnings of an answer to those questions. The site offers short biographies of each person who is loaded to the database but more importantly, at the bottom of each biography is a documents reader, which makes the primary source about a given individual publicly available for users to interpret for themselves.
2. How many Black Mormons have you identified so far? Where did they live? Are there any facts that might surprise us about them?
We have identified 238 individuals who are currently under research. As the research is completed and the biographies are written the individuals will be loaded to the website and the documents about them made publicly available. Of the 238 people under research, 40 are complete and loaded to the website.
As far as where black Mormons lived at the time of their baptism into the LDS faith the answers may in fact surprise you: Oshkosh, Wisconsin; Tylertown, Mississippi; Oakland, California; Johannesburg, South Africa; Lowell, Massachusetts; Minneapolis, Minnesota; London, England; and South Bend, Indiana. These are just a few of the places where black Saints encountered Mormonism and converted to the faith.
As for other surprises, I think there are some wonderful stories represented in the database. Here are a few highlights:
Esther Jane “Nettie” Scott Kirchhoff was a founding member of the Oshkosh, Wisconsin LDS Branch and served as the branch Sunday School Secretary for two years. Each time the missionaries were transferred in and out of the small branch it necessitated a reorganization of the Sunday School leadership. Such reorganizations took place five times over two years and throughout the resulting shuffling of positions Nettie Kirchhoff remained a stabilizing force—a consistent leader through every change. She served as secretary to every reconfiguration of Sunday School leaders up through the final reorganization recorded in the branch record which took place in November 1906. At that meeting Nettie accepted her new assignment as assistant teacher of the theological class. The Oshkosh Sunday School thus became home to not only a mixed gendered Sunday School presidency, but to a mixed race presidency as well.
Freda Lucretia Magee Beaulieu converted in 1909 at Tylertown, Mississippi, and waited 69 years before she was allowed to enter an LDS temple. In July 1978, she traveled over 1,000 miles from New Orleans to Washington D.C. so she could be sealed to her beloved husband who predeceased her.
Elijah Banks, was born in Tennessee in 1855 to a father he could only identify as “a colored slave.” He converted to Mormonism in Minneapolis in 1899 and taught Sunday school.
Julia Miller Lamb was a former slave who bore 14 children and was married for more than 60 years. She was baptized in 1898 in Union, North Carolina, when she was in her mid-70s.
Paul Thomas Harris was a convert from Johannesburg, South Africa who loved to feed the missionaries.
- Roughly how many of the first generation of Black Mormons had children that were baptized into the faith?
That is a difficult question to answer at this stage because the research on all of the families is not yet complete. It also depends on how we define “first generation of Black Mormons.” One family in Michigan and Indiana joined as a three generational family: a grandmother, son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren.
We do know that all of Jane Manning James’s children were baptized. Jane’s son Sylvester married Mary Ann Perkins James and all of their children were also baptized, three of them on the same day in 1882. Esther Jane James Leggroan, Sylvester and Mary Ann’s daughter and Jane Manning James’s granddaughter, raised her family LDS as well. Elijah and Mary Ann Able’s children were also all baptized. We found baptismal records for both of Green and Martha Ann Morris Flake’s children. Len and Mary Hope’s children were also all baptized, some of them on the day of their eighth birthday. Scholar Tonya Reiter is working on the Leggroan family for the database and has completed the biography of Frances Leggroan Fleming. Reiter writes that Frances was “a third generation Mormon on her father’s side and a fourth generation Mormon on her mother’s.”
We are also tracking “faith transitions”—when a person leaves Mormonism for another faith—when we are able to document it and that will also help us to better understand multi-generational faith. Of the baptized individuals for whom biographies are complete, 69 percent remained LDS through life, 17 percent transitioned to another faith, and 14 percent are unknown.
We will hopefully have more definitive answers as we complete the research.
4. How have you and your team members found the names of Black Mormons? Are there clues in church records?
There are clues in church records, however, there is no single path to follow. It is needle-in-the-haystack type of research. Some of the pioneer names, such as Jane Manning James and Elijah and Mary Ann Able, are well known. We start with them and then follow their children and grandchildren.
Other names come from crowd sourcing channels. A variety of people have added names to the list which they were aware of from their own research.
For some individuals we had to get creative: German Ellsworth, the Northern States Mission president after the turn of the twentieth century, wrote a letter in 1909 which mentioned three black families in the northern states mission, one in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, one in South Bend, Indiana, and one in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He did not mention their names. We used LDS membership records in those locations compared against US Census records to successfully identify all three families. And all three families have wonderful stories which I urge visitors to the database to explore.
The last way we have identified black members is by accident. When clicking through LDS baptismal records searching for someone on our list, we have invariably encountered the word “colored” scrawled in the margins of baptismal lists or LDS census records. I estimate that close to 30 names in the database are the result of a clerk or missionary writing “colored” next to a person’s name. It highlights the fact that “white” was default and that a clerk sometimes could not resist identifying someone who was not white. Writing “colored” in the margins was not universal, however, so that whatever total number we end up with in the database, it will automatically be an under-representation of the total number of black Mormons. Nonetheless, it will be a more definitive count than has been known before.
- Are there any institutions (the LDS Church, or beyond) that have been working with you on this project? If so, what help have they given?
This is truly a collaborative effort. The LDS Church History library has been generous in allowing us to use digital images from the LDS Record of Members Database and the LDS Church Census database, two crucial sources for our project. Visitors to the database will be able to see these documents for themselves in the documents viewer associated with each name.
The J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah has partnered with us on this project and is serving as digital host for the site. In addition the library provided technical expertise. I cannot say enough positive things about Anna Neatrour, an Omeka S specialist and metadata guru at the Marriott Library, and Leah Martin Donaldson from the library’s Graphic Design Department. The website looks as good as it does and is as well-conceived as it is because of their expertise. Jeff Turner, a PhD student in the History Department who is doing a minor in digital humanities is also responsible for the digital features of the site, including the map and timeline. The History Department at the University of Utah has also been supportive of this non-traditional project and awarded me the James Clayton fellowship to allow me to work on the database.
The heart and soul of the database are a group of dedicated volunteer scholars and graduate student researchers who do the difficult job of finding the source documents and writing the biographies. Ardis Parshall and Tonya Reiter are foremost among them, but also include Joseph Stuart, Mathew McBride, Tarienne Mitchell, Ben Kiser, Kaitlyn Benoit, Amadi Amaitsa and many more. The website has a “credits” page which lists the various people who have contributed in one way or another to the project.