Southwestern States Mission: Interactions with African Americans, Part 1

By February 24, 2013

Note: This post contains racial epithets.

In the last two weeks? posts, I have established that Mormon missionaries in the Southwestern States Mission (especially those in eastern Texas) had occasion to interact with and observe many African Americans. This week and next I will attempt to better understand the nature of those interactions. Unfortunately, at present, all of my sources were made by missionaries, so the account is one-sided.

The first thing to notice, I think, is the relative scarcity of African Americans in the diaries compared to the number of African Americans living in eastern Texas. [1] It is possible that the missionaries simply failed to record race, but I think this unlikely. [2] The missionaries probably avoided or moved quickly through areas with high concentrations of African Americans. [3]

On the other hand, the missionaries reported to mission leaders how many books they sold and ?gospel conversations? they held and those reports did not distinguish race. Thus, there might have been an institutional incentive to spend time with African Americans. However, I don?t perceive any effort to urge African Americans to join the church. What book selling and conversing the missionaries did seems incidental or desperate—while on the way to a White population cluster and/or out of money.

Many of the diary entries that mention African Americans specify an economic transaction—selling a book, paying for laundering or ferriage, or trading a book for laundering. I don?t have a good sense for how to evaluate these exchanges. [4] In one instance Elder Brooks records specifically seeking an African American to do laundry, which suggests, perhaps, a cheaper rate. [5]

One of the big questions, I think, is how explicit any racial policies were. Sister Cluff is the only missionary in this study that mentioned anything like a policy in her diary (in 1905):

I went to Mrs. North’s, a lady who is very favorable to our people, and while conversing with her, an old colored woman came in and asked me what sect I belonged to and if we had come to bring our gospel to her people.  I satisfied her on the first, and told her we were not sent particularly to the colored people, whereupon she flew into a rage and said ?I knew your religion was from the devil for the Gospel of Jesus Christ is for everybody.?  In vain, I attempted to reason with her and tell her the time had not yet come, but her passion was something terrible.  Mrs. N. told her to go as she had been drinking.  She would not, so we went into the parlor and left her on the porch when she soon left.  This is my first experience with a Negro.  This one said ?I get my revelation straight from Jesus Christ, I talk with him face to face.? Mrs. N. told me afterwards that the woman was perfectly sober, but was a shouting Methodist. [6]

I don?t know if Cluff described counsel specifically given to missionaries or whether it was just a common understanding among missionaries, but the phrase, ?not sent particularly? seems a pretty good summation of the missionaries? proselyting work with African Americans as recorded in the diaries. The missionaries don?t seem to have been forbidden to talk about the gospel with, sing with, or share religious literature with African Americans, but the missionaries did not go out of the way for them.


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

[1] Depending on how we count, only 2-3% of the diary entries explicitly mention African Americans and no individual diarist reaches 5%. Jones has the highest percentage. As noted two weeks ago, the overall population was about 20% African American, with some county populations reaching 55%. I do not have a model that predicts the number of diary entries based on percentages of population, but my intuition says that an order of magnitude difference calls for some explanation. Note that counting diary entries is imprecise because sometimes the missionaries would not write for days and then go back and create dated entries for each day and sometimes they would make one entry that discussed multiple days; traveling Elders could plausibly be counted separate from all the missionaries; the diary entries are brief and leave out much of what the missionaries did; etc. The total number of entries is about 4,500.

[2] In most of the instances where race is specified, it seems to me that race is extraneous information. Why specify the race of the person who washed clothes or gave a ride unless the interaction with a person of that race were ?news?? Further, the diarists seem very particular about race when counting: ?Sold two Voice of Warnings, one to a nigger and one to a white man.? (Jones, 1901 Jan 02 Wed); ??got a ride with a nigger. Rode 3 miles with him, walked about half mile and got a ride with a white man for 2 miles from their.? (Folkman, 1901 Oct 25 Fri); ?I did the cooking for the Crowd. there was 14 white Men and two Niggers.? (Forsha, 1900 Mar 27 Tue).

[3] Cluster migration and segregation and all the conscious and unconscious ways societies divide themselves up made it possible for missionaries to avoid or move quickly through areas with high concentrations of African Americans. The missionaries also sometimes navigated around clusters of non-English-speaking German Americans and/or Polish Americans. There are multiple instances where the missionaries mention an African American community, and, more to the point, that they avoided it or merely passed through it. ?The next morning?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); ?We left him, going into a nigger community where we sold two Voices of Warning to them.? (Jones, 1900 Jan 30 Tue); ?They were the only white folks in this Community?? (Forsha, 1900 Jun 29 Fri); ?Bright and clear we go and do a little Tracting and run into a negro community then we go out in the timber and read Some and write? (Clark, 1901 Feb 27 Wed); ?we are tracting today. come where there is a town of colored people we run into and leaving that?? (Clark, 1901 Jan 26 Sat); ?It was ten miles to the next white family on the road.? (Brooks, 1900 Feb 19 Mon); ?There were a good many negroes living in the river bottom and a very few white men.? (Brooks, 1900 Mar 01 Thu).

[4] Note, however, that although many of the missionaries? interactions with African Americans were economic, most of their economic interactions were not with African Americans. I haven?t tallied all the sales, but entries with book sales to African Americans make up about ten percent of the total number of entries with book sales. The Elders often recorded the prices for services, so perhaps in the future I can compare White and non-White rates. Until then, there are many questions: Did the missionaries pay fair market rates? Did African American families feel manipulated or pressured to buy books? Did the missionaries provide welcome access to books and cash? Was the missionaries? economic behavior among African Americans distinguishable from that of the local White population? And so on.

[5] An alternate interpretation is that, since the missionaries lived mostly on the charity of White people, Brooks and companion did not want to establish a precedent of paying a White person for services that they otherwise did themselves or hoped to receive for free. ?The sun came out so bright, we decided to go on and try to get a negro to do our washing. There happened to be no negroes living on the road so we didn?t get it done. We moved on till night.?  (Brooks, 1900 Mar 29 Thu)

[6] Cluff, 1905 Jun 04 Sun.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Fascinating, Edje! Thank you!

    Comment by Margaret Blair Young — February 24, 2013 @ 1:41 pm

  2. A shouting Methodist? I hadn’t been familiar with that term.

    “They are despised by Satan’s train,
    Because they shout and preach so plain.
    I’m bound to march in endless bliss,
    And die a shouting Methodist.”

    (Shouting Methodists.)

    Comment by Amy T — February 24, 2013 @ 8:18 pm

  3. Excellent demonstration of reading between the lines. Or of stepping into your historical subjects’ shoes. Or however you want to describe your extracting of meaning from the slight clues available. Thanks, Edje.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 24, 2013 @ 9:53 pm

  4. Thanks, Ed. This is really fascinating stuff.

    Amy, on “shouting Methodists,” see chapter three of Ann Taves’s Fits, Trances, and Visions.

    Comment by Christopher — February 25, 2013 @ 10:12 am

  5. Thanks for the comments, Margaret, Amy, Ardis, and Christopher.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — February 25, 2013 @ 10:47 pm


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