Blacks in Church HistorySection 1: 1830–1851United States

    United States

    During the first half of the 19th century, the United States remained a hostile and even life-threatening place for people of black African descent. Slavery remained legal, and racist attitudes and laws perpetuated deep divisions between white and black populations. Amid this cultural climate, during the first decades of Church history, some newly baptized black members were called to positions of leadership, ordained to the priesthood, and called on missions.

    Elijah Able (1810–1884)

    Biographical Sketch

    Elijah Able was born in 1810 in Maryland. He may have escaped slavery using the Underground Railroad. He lived in Canada for a time before being baptized in Kirtland, Ohio, in September 1832. In March 1836 he was ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood and served missions in Ohio (1836) and New York and Canada (1838). He was ordained to the Third Quorum of the Seventy in Kirtland in December 1836, where he was a member of the Kirtland Safety Society. After moving to Nauvoo, he worked as an undertaker and carpenter. By 1842 Able had moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he worked as a carpenter and served as a leader among local Saints. At a conference in 1843, he was assigned by Heber C. Kimball, Orson Pratt, and John Page to do missionary work among “the colored population.”

    Able married Mary Ann Adams in 1850 and immigrated to Utah in 1853, where he and his family settled in Mill Creek and attended the Mill Creek Ward. Subsequent moves took him to Ogden by 1870 and Salt Lake City by the 1880s; he continued to work as a carpenter and owned real estate. He remained an active member of his Seventies quorum, was rebaptized during the reformation activities of the 1850s, requested temple ordinances (which were denied to him), and served one more mission to Ohio in 1883–84 while in his 70s. His son, Moroni, died in 1871 at age 23, and his wife died of pneumonia. Able fell ill while on his mission in Ohio and died on Christmas Day in 1884, two weeks after returning home. He is buried next to his wife in the Salt Lake Cemetery.

    Sources: Nineteenth-century records report his last name variously as Able, Abel, Ables,or Abelta. See W. Kesler Jackson, Elijah Abel: The Life and Times of a Black Priesthood Holder (Springville, Utah: Cedar Fort, 2013); Margaret Blair Young, “Abel, Elijah (1810–1884),” blackpast.org; Margaret Blair Young and Darius Aidan Gray, One More River to Cross, rev. ed., vol. 1 of the Standing on the Promises series (Provo, Utah: Zarahemla Books, 2013), 1–109, 335–44).

    In Our Collections
    Primary Sources

    Record of Priesthood Ordination, 1836
    Recorded by Frederick G. Williams on Mar. 31, 1836, in Kirtland, Ohio, in a volume of Kirtland Elders’ Certificates, 1836–38 (CR 100 401).

    Deed to Property in Kirtland, 1837
    Transfers property to Isaac Galland on June 15, 1837, in the Hiram Kimball Collection (MS 27035).

    Receipt for Work for Joseph Smith
    Undated in the collection Joseph Smith Receipts and Accounts, 1838–40 (MS 12801).

    Property Purchase Record in Nauvoo, 1839
    Signed by Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Hyrum Smith on Dec. 8, 1839 (original in the Newell K. Whitney Papers, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah).

    Memorandum of Work Agreement, 1840
    Ebenezer Robinson contracted with Able and others to print a pamphlet for carpenters in Nauvoo, Feb. 20, 1840 (MS 2983).

    Remarks Noted in Conference Minutes
    Clerk Henry Elliott recorded minutes of a conference in Cincinnati on June 25, 1843, which are preserved in the Historian’s Office Minutes and Reports for Local Units, 1840–86 (CR 100 589).

    Record of Work
    In Brigham Young, Account Book, 1836–46 (MS 17984).

    Letter to Brigham Young, 1854
    Dated Mar. 14, 1854; preserved in the Brigham Young Office Files, 1832–78 (CR 1234 1).

    Receipt for Payment from Daniel H. Wells, 1858
    Dated June 28, 1858; preserved in the Brigham Young Office Files, 1832–78 (CR 1234 1).

    Deed to Property in Ogden, 1870
    Transfers property to Hosea Stout, Nov. 30, 1870, in the Hosea Stout Papers, 1832–75 (MS 16379, box 7, folder 1).

    Photograph
    In the George A. Smith Photograph Collection, circa 1862–73 (PH 5962).

    Drawing
    Undated in (PH 5868).

    Accounts by a Mission Convert
    Eunice Kinney learned the gospel from Able and described the experience in a testimony recorded in 1885 (MS 4226) and a letter written in 1891 (MS 16323).

    Selected Additional Sources

    Able, Elijah,” josephsmithpapers.org.

    Elijah Able,” Early Mormon Missionaries database.

    Elijah Able,” Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel database.

    George Cantor, “Brigham Young Monument, Pioneer Trail State Park,” 334–35, in Historic Landmarks of Black America (Detroit: Gale Research, 1991) (979.2251 C232u 1991).

    Deni Krueger, “Elijah Abel: A Selective Bibliography,” circa 1978, Church History Library, Salt Lake City (M201 K94e 1978).

    Joseph T. Ball Jr. (1804–1861)

    Biographical Sketch

    Joseph Ball Jr. was a biracial child born to Mary Montgomery Drew of Massachusetts and Joseph T. Ball Sr., an immigrant from Jamaica. Ball’s family was a family of activists. His father founded a society to help African American widows, and his sisters fought for women’s rights. Ball was baptized in 1832 by Brigham or Joseph Young. By September 1833, he had moved to Kirtland, Ohio, where he was ordained an elder. In 1837 he was called to serve a mission to New England and New Jersey alongside Wilford Woodruff. In 1844 William Smith ordained Ball a high priest, making him the first black man to be ordained to that office. He then served as president of the Boston Branch from October 1844 to March 1845, becoming the first black man to preside over a Latter-day Saint congregation. In 1845, at the invitation of Parley P. Pratt, Ball moved to Nauvoo, where he received a patriarchal blessing from William Smith. By August 1845, both Ball and William Smith had left the Church.

    Source: Rick Bennett, “Ball, Jr. Joseph T. (1804–1861),” blackpast.org.

    In Our Collections
    Primary Sources

    Letter Reporting Missionary Service, 1838
    A summary of his service in New England with companions Wilford Woodruff and James Townsend; sent to Joseph Smith, Edward Partridge, Sidney Rigdon, Hyrum Smith, and Church members in Missouri on Mar. 9, 1838; published in the Elders’ Journal, July 1838, 35–36.

    Mentioned by Joseph Smith
    In a letter to Vienna Jaques, Sept. 4, 1833.

    Selected Additional Sources

    Ball, Joseph T.,” josephsmithpapers.org.

    Joseph T Ball,” Early Mormon Missionaries database.

    Green Flake (1828–1903)

    Biographical Sketch

    Green Flake was born into slavery on the Jordan Flake plantation in Anson County, North Carolina, on January 6, 1828. Ten years later, Jordan Flake gave Green to his son James Madison Flake and his bride, Agnes Love, as a wedding gift. Several years later, James moved his family and their slaves to Mississippi, where the Flake family met Benjamin Clapp, a Mormon missionary who taught them the gospel. The Flake family was converted and baptized. On April 7, 1844, Green Flake and another slave of the Flakes were baptized by Elder John Brown.

    Shortly after being baptized, the Flake family left Mississippi to join other Church members in Nauvoo, Illinois, and then moved across the plains to Utah. Green Flake and two other slaves, Oscar Crosby and Hark Lay, were part of the first company to make the journey. This group set up Winter Quarters, Nebraska, which served as Church headquarters for a year while the pioneers were on the move. In April 1847, Brigham Young and a small vanguard set out for the Salt Lake Valley. He assigned Green Flake to be his driver for the trip. On July 22, 1847, Green Flake and Orson Pratt entered the Salt Lake Valley in the first wagon (Young was not with them because he had become ill).

    Once in Utah, Green built a log cabin and planted crops in the area known now as Cottonwood in preparation for the arrival of his owners, the Flake family, who arrived in October 1848. Around 1850, Green married another slave, Martha Crosby, and together they had two children. Agnes Flake moved to California after her husband, James, passed away. Some accounts state that before she moved, she gave Green Flake to the Church as a form of tithing, while others claim that she merely allowed him to remain behind. All accounts say that Green Flake was later freed by Church leaders, which is reflected in the 1860 U.S. census.

    Several years after Martha’s passing in 1885, Green moved to Gray’s Lake, Idaho, to be closer to his children and their families. In his later years, members of the Church celebrated Green for his contributions to the Church. At the Utah Semicentennial Pioneer Jubilee in 1897, Green was given a commemorative pin in recognition for his pioneering efforts. He passed away in Idaho on October 20, 1903, and his body was sent to Salt Lake City, where he was laid next to his wife in the Union Cemetery.

    Sources: Jonathan A. Stapley, and Amy Thiriot, “‘In My Father’s House Are Many Mansions’: Green Flake’s Legacy of Faith,” Pioneers in Every Land series, Feb. 19, 2014, history.lds.org; William E. Parrish, “The Mississippi Saints,” The Historian: A Journal of History, vol. 50, no. 4 (Aug. 1988), 489–506; Margaret Blair Young, “Flake, Green (1828–1903),” blackpast.org.

    In Our Collections
    Primary Sources

    Photograph of Homestead
    In Union, Utah, circa 1910 (PH 1509).

    Sketch
    Undated (PH 1278).

    Mentioned in a Letter to Brigham Young
    William Crosby letter to Brigham Young, Mar. 12, 1851 (CR 1234 1).

    Selected Additional Sources

    Historical Notes and Files
    A detailed family history of his owner, James Madison Flake (M270.1 F5764ja 2011); student papers on the founding of Union Township (MS 5189) and black pioneers of 1847 (M270 J668u); photocopies of newspaper clippings and articles (MS 6968).

    George Cantor, “Brigham Young Monument, Pioneer Trail State Park,” 334–35, in Historic Landmarks of Black America (Detroit: Gale Research, 1991) (979.2251 C232u 1991).

    Green Flake,” Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel database.

    Jane Elizabeth Manning James (circa 1822–1908)

    Biographical Sketch

    Jane Manning, the daughter of a freed slave from Connecticut, grew up in the Joseph Fitch household, where she joined the Presbyterian Church at the age of 14. Jane recalled, “I did not feel satisfied; it seemed to me that there was something more that I was looking for.” About a year and a half later, she learned that a Latter-day Saint missionary was preaching in her community, and she wanted to hear his message. Her preacher told her to not go and listen to the missionary, but Jane went anyway. After hearing the elder preach, she was convinced that she had found the true gospel, and she was soon baptized.

    A year after her baptism, Jane left Connecticut to gather with the Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois, along with members of her family. Jane and her family were forced to walk over 800 miles after not being able to secure enough money to pay an “early fare,” which was not required of white passengers. “We walked until our shoes were worn out, and our feet became sore and cracked open and bled until you could see the whole print of feet with blood on the ground.” Jane and her group arrived in Nauvoo in 1843. She stayed in Joseph and Emma Smith’s home and helped them with household chores. After Joseph’s death, Jane lived for a time with Brigham Young’s family.

    In 1844 Emma Smith offered to have Jane sealed to her family as a child. Jane turned the offer down. She stated in her autobiography that at the time, she did not understand the significance of the proposal. Jane later married Isaac James, a freedman from New Jersey. She and her family walked across the plains with the other pioneers. During the trip, Jane gave birth to her son Silas in Keg Creek, Iowa. On September 22, 1847, the James family arrived in the Salt Lake Valley with an advance group of pioneers, making Jane the first documented African American woman in Utah Territory. In Utah, Isaac worked for Brigham Young taking care of his livestock.

    After Isaac left his family and Jane’s second marriage had ended, Jane became concerned with the spiritual standing of her family. In the 1870s, she asked the First Presidency if she could be endowed and sealed with her children to Walker Lewis, a black priesthood holder. Her petitions were repeatedly turned down by Church leaders, who cited Church policy. She later asked to be sealed to the Smith family as a child, as Emma had offered in Nauvoo. The First Presidency denied this request but allowed that she could be sealed to the Smith family as a servant, which Jane accepted. On May 18, 1884, Joseph F. Smith and Bathsheba W. Smith acted as proxies for Joseph Smith and Jane, sealing her as a servant to the Smith family. In the end, this ceremony dissatisfied Jane, and she repeatedly petitioned to be sealed to the Smith family as a child until her death in 1908.

    Around 1900 Jane dictated her history to Elizabeth J. D. Roundy as a short autobiography. Jane told Roundy that she wanted her autobiography read at her funeral. Jane remained dutiful and active in the Church, and she continues to be celebrated for her faithful legacy. Jane said of herself, “I want to say right here that my faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ as taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is as strong today, nay, it is, if possible, stronger than it was the day I was first baptized. . . . I try in my feeble way to set a good example to all.”

    Sources: James Goldberg, “The Autobiography of Jane Manning James: Seven Decades of Faith and Devotion,” Dec. 11, 2013, history.lds.org; see also Henry J. Wolfinger, “Jane Manning James (ca. 1820–1908): A Test of Faith,” in Colleen Whitley, ed., Worth Their Salt: Notable but Often Unnoted Women of Utah (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1996), 14–30; Ronald G. Coleman, “‘Is There No Blessing for Me?’: Jane Elizabeth Manning James, a Mormon African American Woman,” in Quintard Taylor and Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, eds., African American Women Confront the West, 1600–2000 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003), 144–64; Margaret Blair Young, “‘The Lord’s Blessing Was with Us’: Jane Elizabeth Manning James, 1822–1908,” in Richard E. Turley Jr. and Brittany A. Chapman, eds., Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Volume Two, 1821–1845 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2012), 120–35; Quincy D. Newell, “Narrating Jane: Telling the Story of an Early African American Mormon Woman,” Leonard J. Arrington Mormon History Lecture Series, no. 21 (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2015); Ronald G. Coleman, “James, Jane Elizabeth Manning (1813–1908),” blackpast.org.

    In Our Collections
    Primary Sources

    Autobiography
    The original, handwritten manuscript as dictated by Jane circa 1902 to Elizabeth J. D. Roundy (MS 4425) and a typescript transcribed from the original (MS 13308).

    Photograph of Jane
    Included in the George A. Smith Photograph Collection, circa 1862–73 (PH 5962).

    Letter to John Taylor, 1885
    Included in John Taylor’s First Presidency Correspondence, 1877–87 (CR 1 180).

    Photograph of Pioneers
    Includes Jane and her son Sylvester; taken in front of the Bureau of Information at Temple Square on July 24, 1905 (PH 2604).

    Sketch
    Clipped from the Salt Lake Herald, July 6, 1897, page 8, and included in the Third Ward (Liberty Stake) book of remembrance, 1847–1950 (LR 9113 24).

    Selected Additional Sources

    Jane Elizabeth Manning James,” Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel database.

    Kwaku (Quacko) Walker Lewis (1798–1856)

    Biographical Sketch

    Kwaku Walker Lewis was born in Massachusetts in 1798. He was a freedman, abolitionist, barber, and Freemason. Lewis won his freedom in two court cases, Quacko v. Jennison (1781) and Jennison v. Caldwell et al. (1783). In 1843 Lewis was baptized by Parley P. Pratt, and in 1844 Lewis was ordained to the priesthood by Joseph Smith’s younger brother William Smith. Lewis was highly respected among the membership of the Church and was considered a spiritual leader. William Appleby wrote of Lewis in his journal, stating, “He appears to be a meek and humble man, and an example for his more whiter brethren to follow.”2

    Lewis’s son married a white member of the Church in 1847, which caused some controversy. Lewis and his family moved to Utah Territory in September 1851. While in Utah, Lewis received a patriarchal blessing from John Smith (an uncle of Joseph Smith), declaring him to be from the tribe of Canaan. Soon after, Lewis left the Church and returned to Lowell, Massachusetts, in October 1852.

    Sources: Historical records spell Kwaku as Quacko or Quack; most Church records refer to him as Walker Lewis. Connell O’Donovan, “The Mormon Priesthood Ban and Elder Q. Walker Lewis: ‘An Example for His More Whiter Brethren to Follow,’” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, vol. 26 (2006), 48–100; Michael Aguirre, “Lewis, Q. Walker (1798–1856),” blackpast.org.

    In Our Collections
    Selected Additional Sources

    Walker Lewis,” Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel database.

    “Black Pete” (circa 1810–1840)

    Biographical Sketch

    Peter Kerr was a former slave living in Ohio when missionaries began preaching in the area. He had been freed through the will of his master, John Kerr, but stopped using his master’s name upon obtaining freedom and became known as “Black Pete.” Pete joined Sidney Rigdon’s congregation and often stayed in the home of Newel K. Whitney. Like most members of Rigdon’s congregation, Pete was baptized a member of the Church after listening to missionaries in the fall of 1830, making him the first known black member of the Church.

    Among some early Saints, Pete was considered a leader and a revelator. He integrated his newfound faith into his existing religious worldview, which combined traditions of Christianity, African religions, and Islam (the religion practiced by his mother). Some evidence suggests that he manifested the gift of tongues. Pete claimed to receive a revelation that he should marry Lovina Williams, the daughter of Frederick G. Williams. Henry Carrol reported that Pete asked Joseph Smith if he had any revelations concerning Pete’s marriage to a white woman and claims that Joseph told Pete he could get no revelations for him. Lovina later married Burr Riggs instead. Shortly after this, Pete disappears from the records of the Church.

    Sources: Some sources also refer to Peter as “John” or “Jack.” Mark Lyman Staker, Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2009), 3–9, 29, 64, 77–79; Matt McBride, “Black Pete,” Century of Black Mormons; Rick Bennett, “Kerr, Peter ‘Black Pete’ (1810–1840),” blackpast.org.

    [2] William Appleby autobiography and journal, May 19, 1847, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.