Black Heroes in Latter-day Saint History: The Latest in Museum Lecture Series

Contributed By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 2 March 2016

Margaret Blair Young, left, and Darius Gray share a light moment during their lecture titled “Black Heroes in Latter-day Saint History” for the Evenings at the Museum Lecture Series at the Church History Museum on February 18, 2016.  Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Article Highlights

  • Elijah Abel, Jane Manning James, and Green Flake were influential individuals in early Church history.
  • Many black heroes in Latter-day Saint history were faithful and steadfast, even in the midst of harsh trials.

“God does indeed work in mysterious ways, and when you least expect it.” —Darius Gray, researcher

Margaret Blair Young and Darius Gray met in July 1998 and soon thereafter formed a partnership researching and chronicling the lives of heroic African American Latter-day Saints in early Church history. In the process, they have been blessed with miracles—what they have come to call “manna”—in the form of documents and snippets of information that have helped them tell the stories of these men and women.

Sister Young and Brother Gray shared the stories of three individuals in a presentation they gave February 18, the first installment in the newly revitalized Evenings at the Museum Lecture Series. The lecture series is sponsored by the Church History Department at the newly renovated Church History Museum in Salt Lake City. This first lecture was in observance of February being Black History Month.

Sister Young and Brother Gray focused on the lives of Elijah Abel, Jane Manning James, and Green Flake.

Brother Gray was a member of the presidency of the Genesis Group when it was organized by the Church as a support organization for black Latter-day Saints in the years before the 1978 revelation was received that removed the restriction on ordaining men of African descent to the priesthood. A convert to the Church in 1964, he eventually became the president of the Genesis Group after the revelation was given in 1978.

Sister Young taught literature and creative writing at Brigham Young University for 30 years. By 1998, she was feeling a void in her career and went to the temple with a prayer in her heart to be given something to do “that would matter,” she told the audience at the museum.

In connection with that experience and with a priesthood blessing she received from her husband, she soon felt prompted to begin writing black history. She was apprehensive, though, that black history being written by a white woman would seem like “appropriation.”

“The Lord had been preparing Darius for many years to help out with this project and many more,” she said.

“I was born black,” he added jokingly, drawing laughter from the audience.

She first heard of him when she listened to his testimony on a cassette tape recording. They met when she was invited to be on a panel observing 20 years since the 1978 revelation. Brother Gray attended the meeting and afterward introduced himself.

“I’ve got you in my purse!” she said, referring to the cassette she was carrying.

Later, at his suggestion, they began to coauthor books, including a novel trilogy about early black members of the Church.

“God does indeed work in mysterious ways, and when you least expect it,” Brother Gray said. “It has been a process. Working in partnership with someone writing books is a challenge. With two people who are strong-willed, opinionated, and with differing viewpoints, it takes God’s intervention to bring it all together.”

Brother Gray said that shortly after he joined the Church, he learned that in among 2.5 million members, there were an estimated 300–400 black members, amounting to less than half of 1 percent.

“I felt very isolated,” he said. “I did not see others who looked like me, did not see others who reminded me of my parents or people I had grown up with, churches I had attended.”

He found that connection as he learned about black Latter-day Saint pioneers.

Elijah Abel

One who was ordained in the early days was Elijah Abel, who participated in temple ceremonies in Kirtland, Ohio, and was baptized for deceased relatives in Nauvoo, Illinois.

The two lecturers displayed an obituary that was published in the Deseret News on December 26, 1884, which made prominent note of the fact that Brother Abel was ordained an elder “as appears by certificate,” was subsequently ordained a seventy, and labored as a missionary in Canada and the United States, returning home two weeks prior to his death.

“The detail is significant,” Brother Gray said. “I love that they recognized then, in 1884, that at some point in history people would want to know that this man truly was ordained to the priesthood.”

Jane Manning James

Sister James journeyed from Connecticut with other black people under great hardship to join the Church in Nauvoo. She later crossed the plains with the Church to Utah and remained faithful, though her longing to be endowed in the temple remained unfulfilled throughout her life.

Sister Young recounted an experience in which Eliza Partridge Lyman was left at home after her husband, Amasa, was called with others on a mission to California. She wrote, “May the good Lord bless and keep them. He left me with no flour in the house nor any way to get it.”

Her diary records, “Jane James, a colored woman, let me have about two pounds of flour, it being about half she had.”

“Jane herself was not in the richest condition,” Sister Young noted, and read from her recollection, “Oh how I suffered of cold and hunger, and the keenest of all was to hear my little ones crying for bread and I had none to give them. But in all, the Lord was with us and gave us grace and faith to stand it all.”

Green Flake

Brother Flake was born into slavery in North Carolina in 1828. He was baptized into the Church in 1844 but remained a slave, taking the name of his master, James Flake.

Brother Gray noted that it was Green Flake who was driving the wagon in which President Brigham Young was riding when he first gazed at the Salt Lake Valley. It was Brother Flake to whom President Young said the now-famous words, “This is the right place; drive on.”

Some of the “manna” that Sister Young and Brother Gray shared during their lecture was a note written by Brother Flake responding to an invitation to him to attend a 50-year jubilee honoring the 1847 pioneers. He wrote (spelling preserved from original): “Dear friend: I reseved you most kind and wellcom leter and ticket and was glad to rseved it and I will bee down to the Julile. Yours truly, Friend Green Flake.”

Sister Young also shared these recorded words attributed to Brother Flake at a Pioneer Day celebration in Idaho: “Being a slave is all right—if you just want to be a slave, that is. But many of the colored folks wanted a better life if they could find one. Most everyone don’t want to be a slave and be in bondage to another, because you cannot have even your own thoughts and dreams. You cannot plan for the future when all decisions get made by someone else.”

Darius Gray’s conversion

Brother Gray concluded the lecture by telling of his conversion as a young adult at his home in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1964.

He had returned home from working on the West Coast, and his mother informed him of a new family in the neighborhood, “white, but they seem awful nice.” She said they had “a whole slew of kids.”

The next day, Brother Gray was walking with a friend and passed by the home of the new family. A group of children ran up to them and said, “Hi! You’re Aidan [Brother Gray’s middle name]. We’re the Felixes. We’re Mormons, you know.”

Later the father, John Felix Sr., and the mother, Barbara Felix, shared a copy of the Book of Mormon with Brother Gray.

He read it reluctantly at first, but he soon had questions about it. That led to his meeting with missionaries. He accepted their message.

On the day of his pre-baptism interview, he had a question arising from his Book of Mormon reading. He wondered about the implications of his own dark skin.

“Well, Brother Gray, the primary implication is that you won’t be able to hold the priesthood,” one of the missionaries replied.

“He went on to give me more detail, but I did not hear a word after that,” Brother Gray recounted, “I thought, ‘How foolish of me to have put my trust in this new faith.’”

That evening, covered with a blanket in bed in his unheated bedroom in December, he opened his window and prayed. He received no answer. He repeated the prayer.

“And this time, I received personal revelation,” he said. “I did not see God the Father, Jesus Christ, angels, but I heard, ‘This is the restored gospel, and you are to join.’

“There was no mention of the priesthood restriction, whether it was just or unjust, whether it was of God or of man, simply, ‘This is the restored gospel, and you are to join.’

“Based on that, the next day, December 26, 1964, I entered into the waters of baptism. … I have known with a firmness from that date that this is the restored gospel. I can’t say I believe; I have to say, ‘I know.’”

“I was born black,” Darius Gray quips after Margaret Blair Young says the Lord had been preparing him for many years to help her tell the story of black Mormon pioneers. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Margaret Blair Young, left, and Darius Gray tell of Jane Manning James during their lecture on black heroes in Latter-day Saint history for the Evenings at the Museum Lecture Series at the Church History Museum on February 18, 2016. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.