United States

Black Members of the Church Research Guide

In 1852 President Brigham Young announced that black men could no longer be ordained to the priesthood. As the Latter-day Saints built temples in the West, the restriction also meant that black members could not receive personal temple ordinances. During the second half of the 19th century, blacks continued to join the Church through baptism, though men were not ordained to the priesthood. Some of the earliest generation of black pioneers, including Elijah Able and Jane Manning James, petitioned unsuccessfully to be endowed and sealed in the temple during this time.

Samuel D. Chambers (1831–1929)

Biographical Sketch

Samuel Chambers, the son of James Davidson and his slave Hester Gillespie, was born in Pickens County, Alabama, on May 21, 1831. He was then sold to Maxfield Chambers in Mississippi. In 1844, when Samuel was 13, he heard the preaching of recent convert Preston Thomas and was baptized into the Church.

After the death of his first wife, Samuel married Amanda Leggroan. Although Amanda did not immediately join the Church and Samuel had minimal contact with the Church while in Mississippi, he stayed faithful. After the Civil War, Samuel became a freedman and recalled, “I then commenced to save means to gather [to Utah]. . . . This took me four years.” After saving enough money, Samuel, Amanda, their son Peter, and the five-member family of Amanda’s brother, Edward Leggroan, left Mississippi for Utah. The group arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on April 27, 1870.

By 1872 the Chambers family attended the Eighth Ward. In 1875 Amanda was baptized, and Samuel was rebaptized. Even though Samuel was not able to hold the priesthood, he was faithful in his calling as an assistant deacon and dutiful in his responsibilities, which included taking care of the meetinghouse and other custodial duties. He said, “I have joy in cleaning up and whatever I am called to do.” Samuel also remarked, “We are called to act in the Kingdom of God; we should respond to every duty.” Amanda fulfilled her calling as a “deaconess” in the Relief Society, where she was known for her cooking. Samuel and Amanda stayed faithful until their deaths. Amanda died in 1925, at age 85, and Samuel in 1929, at age 98. The pair were buried in the Elysian Gardens Cemetery near Millcreek, Utah.

Sources: William G. Hartley, “Samuel D. Chambers,” New Era, June 1974; William Hartley, comp., “Saint without Priesthood: The Collected Testimonies of Ex-Slave Samuel D. Chambers,” Dialogue, vol. 12, no. 2 (1979), 13–21; William G. Hartley, “Samuel D. and Amanda Chambers,” in Celebrating the LDS Past: Essays Commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the 1972 Founding of the LDS Church Historical Department’s “History Division” (Provo, Utah: Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History, Brigham Young University, 1992), 79–84 (M258 C392 1992); Ronald G. Coleman, “Chambers, Samuel D. (1831–1929) and Amanda Chambers (1840–1925),” blackpast.org.

In Our Collections
Primary Sources

Minutes of Samuel’s Testimony
Recorded multiple times in Salt Lake Stake Aaronic Priesthood Minutes and Records, 1857–77 (LR 604 12).

Photograph, circa 1908
Samuel and Amanda Chambers (PH 242).

Undated (PH 1700 2949).

Oral History Interviews
Memories of Samuel Chambers as recorded by Annie Clayton, an African American woman who lived in the Salt Lake Valley from 1917 to 1958 (OH 1); Minnie L. Prince Haynes, who married a grandson of Chambers and associated with him from 1927 to 1929 (OH 5); and Ida H. White (AV 1033).

Gobo Fango (circa 1855–1886)

Biographical Sketch

Gobo Fango was born sometime around 1855 in the Eastern Cape Colony in modern-day South Africa. When he was three years old, his dying mother left him in the fork of a tree on the property of a local European family, the Talbots. Ruth Talbot took Fango in and raised him as an indentured servant of the family. Missionaries taught the Talbots in 1857, and they joined the Church, sold their property, and immigrated to Utah. During different parts of their journey, the Talbots hid Fango because of his skin color, including in Chicago when he hid under Ruth’s skirt to elude slave catchers.

On September 13, 1861, the Talbots arrived in Salt Lake City. They then settled in Kaysville, Utah, where Fango worked on the family farm. Fango was then sent to Grantsville, Utah, to help Mary Ann Whiteside Hunter with her sheep for 30 dollars a month, paid first to the Talbots and then directly to Fango after the abolition of slavery. In 1880, Fango moved to Goose Creek Valley, Idaho, to herd sheep with brothers Lewis and Billy Hunter. He also started to build his own flock and establish his own enterprise, but tensions were high between sheepherders and cattlemen in the Oakley area in the 1880s. On February 7, 1886, a Prussian immigrant, cattleman, and neighbor of Fango named Frank Bedke saw sheep grazing near his property. Bedke, along with two other men, confronted Fango and told him to move his sheep. When he resisted by asking Bedke for documentation of property lines, Bedke shot Fango three times and left him for dead. When Fango regained consciousness, he crawled approximately four miles to the house of Walter Matthews.

While on his deathbed in the house of Matthews, Fango dictated his account of what transpired to Matthews, who wrote it down. In his will, Fango left money to members of the Hunter family and to the Grantsville Relief Society (where Mary Ann Hunter had been president for 22 years). Fango died on February 10, 1886, three days after being shot. His body was laid to rest in the Oakley Cemetery in Idaho.

Sources: Margaret Blair Young, “Fango, Gobo (1855–1886),” blackpast.org; John Paul Millward, “An Account of the Life of Gobo Fango,” undated, Church History Library, Salt Lake City (MS 13543); H. Dean Garrett, “The Controversial Death of Gobo Fango,” in Stanford J. Layton, ed., Utah’s Lawless Fringe Stories of True Crime (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2001), 52–62.

In Our Collections
Primary Sources

Talbot Family Papers
Mentioned on the ship manifest for the Race Horse and in a history of the Talbot family titled “The Gathering to Zion,” in the Talbot Family Papers (ZA-01-00013).

Selected Additional Sources

Gobo Fango,” Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel database.

Bridget “Biddy” Mason (1818–1891)

Biographical Sketch

Bridget Mason, also known as Biddy, was born a slave on a plantation in Hancock, Georgia, on August 15, 1818. She was sold several times before being given as a wedding gift to Robert Mays Smith and his bride, Rebecca Ruth Dorn, around 1834. The Smiths soon joined the Church and immigrated to Utah in 1848 with the Willard Richards company. During the crossing, Biddy herded the cattle, prepared meals, and served as a nurse and midwife to her fellow travelers. Upon arriving in Utah in October 1848, the Smith family and their slaves settled in the Holladay and Cottonwood area.

In 1851 Brigham Young sent a group of Saints to settle in California and Smith went, taking his slaves with him despite being warned to release them, as California had entered the union as a free state, where slavery was illegal. While in California, Biddy’s daughter Ellen began courting Charles Owens, a well-respected business owner and a freed black man, who encouraged Biddy and her family to fight for their freedom using the California constitution. In December 1855, to avoid losing his slaves, Smith decided to move his household to Texas; however, on January 19, 1856, Biddy petitioned the court for her own and her family’s freedom, and the judge ruled in her favor.

After winning her freedom, Biddy took the last name of Mason, after Amasa Mason Lyman, an Apostle of the Church and mayor of San Bernardino. Biddy worked as a nurse and midwife, helping women of all races and classes. She purchased a home on Spring Street, becoming one of the first African Americans to own land in Los Angeles. In 1872 she helped organize the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. Skilled in business, Biddy pursued real estate transactions and became known as an entrepreneur and a role model for women, especially black women. On March 27, 1988, the mayor of Los Angeles and members of the First AME Church honored Mason with a special ceremony. The California Social Work Hall of Distinction celebrated her by naming November 16, 1989, as “Biddy Mason Day.”

Sources: Tricia Martineau Wagner, “Mason, Bridget ‘Biddy’ (1818–1891),” blackpast.org; DeEtta Demaratus, The Force of a Feather: The Search for a Lost Story of Slavery and Freedom (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2002); Ruth Pelz, “Biddy Mason,” in Black Heroes of the Wild West (Greensboro, North Carolina: Open Hand Publishing, 1990), 31–35.

In Our Collections
Selected Additional Sources

Biddy Mason,” Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel database.