1898 Sanderson Florida Conference
1898 Sanderson Florida Conference (Click to enlarge)

Please enjoy exploring Century of Black Mormons. If you have documents, photographs, or other supporting evidence on individuals in the database that you would like included, please share them with us at centuryofblackmormons@gmail.com . Likewise, if you know of Black Mormons who should be added to our database and you have evidence to support their inclusion, please let us know.

In the months leading up to the 2012 presidential election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, a few media outlets reinforced the public perception that Mormons (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) were predominantly white. Reporter Jessica Williams from Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show interviewed five Black Mormons and then called them “mythical creatures, the unicorns of politics.” She asked if the five whom she had met comprised the entire population of Black people in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Susan Saulny, a reporter for the New York Times, similarly speculated in a Times online video that there were only a “very small number” of Black Mormons, a “couple of thousand max,” or somewhere between “500 to 2,000.” Likewise, Jimmy Kimmel asked on Jimmy Kimmel Live, “Are there black Mormons? I find that hard to believe.”

Century of Black Mormons is designed to not merely answer such questions but to historicize them. A Pew Research Center survey found that between one and three percent of U.S. Mormons in 2009 were black (60,000 to 180,000 members), but to date no scholar has attempted to name and number the black Latter-day Saints in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. [1]

The questions that Kimmel, Williams, and Saulny asked in 2012 highlight the historical amnesia that dominates the public perception of one of the nation’s home-grown religions. It is a perception that is perpetuated by Mormonism’s historical narrative on the inside as well as misunderstandings on the outside. The irony lies in the historical evolution of that public perception. Black Saints were among the first to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 and have been a part of the Mormon experience from its beginnings. In fact, public perception in the nineteenth century centered on the notion that Latter-day Saints were too accepting of undesirable racial groups. One accusation leveled against Mormons in the state of Missouri, for example, was that they had “opened an asylum for rogues and vagabonds and free blacks.” [2] The first documented Black person to join this American-born faith was a former slave named Peter who was baptized in 1830, when the fledging movement was less than a year old. Other Black people trickled in over the course of the nineteenth century (over 290 identified so far) and were always a part of the Mormon story. At least two Black men were ordained to the faith’s highest priesthood in its first two decades and others of Black-African descent were also ordained. Yet by the beginning of the twentieth century Latter-day Saints themselves had erased Black pioneers from their collective memory and solidified race based priesthood and temple restrictions in their stead. On the inside and on the outside Black Mormons were lost to history.

Century of Black Mormons is a digital history database designed to document and recover what was lost—the identities and voices of Black Mormons during the faith’s first one hundred years (1830 to 1930). The LDS Church has never tracked membership by race and so official LDS baptism and confirmation records are not always useful. Yet documents do exist that have allowed us to identify Black Latter-day Saints, name them, and collect basic biographical information about them.

This database is centered on people of Black-African descent who were baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints between 1830 and 1930. Because early Mormon record keeping was not systematic, Century of Black Mormons researchers have attempted to verify LDS membership in some form or another but are not always successful. Names are included in the database when there is enough evidence to suggest LDS affiliation even if a date of baptism and confirmation could not be found. For example, no baptismal record survives for John Burton, an enslaved man whom we believe was baptized in Missouri sometime between 1833 and 1835. He later received two patriarchal blessings and appears in several Mormon records as a practicing Saint. In John Burton’s case we have entered a date range (c.1833-1835) in the database’s “baptism” and “confirmation” categories. Evidence for other people, such as Martha Ann Morris Flake, is even more tenuous. Historians have long assumed she was baptized when her white enslavers joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mississippi in the 1840s, but no record survives to document that assumption. She married Green Flake, a fellow Black Mormon, and their two children were also baptized, presumably under Martha’s and Green’s tutelage, but she is mostly absent from the historical record. In Martha’s case we have not entered any information in the “baptism” or “confirmation” categories, an indication that evidence of membership is tentative. We have created an item set, "Unproven Baptisms," to track such cases.

There are others in the database who ended up in the U. S. West because of an affiliation with Mormonism of some sort or another. We have included them in the database, but not counted them as Latter-day Saints, and have created an item set called "Not LDS" to track them. Children of Black Mormon families who died before the age of eight (the ealiest age at which Mormons baptize) are entered into the database and tracked through an item set called "Died before Eight." 

If we were able to identify a faith transition out of Mormonism, we include that information in the “faith transition” category. For those who joined the LDS Church before 1865, we also track whether they were enslaved at the time of baptism. We trace place of residence over time as evidence of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century mobility. We also attempt to document those Black Saints who received the lay LDS priesthood and temple rituals (while living or by proxy after death) before the LDS revelation on priesthood in June 1978 made those rites available for all people, regardless of race or ethnicity.

Because the LDS Church adopted a “one drop” policy in 1907 designed to prevent anyone with “one drop” of Black-African ancestry from being ordained to the LDS priesthood or admitted to LDS temples (other than to perform proxy baptisms for the dead), we have adopted a “one drop” policy for admission into the Century of Black Mormons database. [3] While the LDS “one drop” policy was aimed at excluding Black Mormons from priesthood ordination and temple admission, we are using a “one drop” policy to include people in our database. If we find evidence of a Latter-day Saint’s Black-African ancestry, then we include that person in the database. As a result, there are people in the database who eventually “passed as white” but for whom we have evidence of Black-African ancestry. In part, at least, this will demonstrate the difficulty of policing racial boundaries and the impossibility of ferreting out “one drop” of anyone’s racial identity, especially as some of those with Black-African ancestry were ordained to the priesthood or entered Latter-day Saint temples. We include the evidence for a person’s racial identity in each file.

Century of Black Mormons is a public history project designed to share not only the stories of Black Latter-day Saints with the general public, but the primary source documents which chronicle their lives. The document reader at the bottom of each biography is loaded with every source that Century of Black Mormons has permission to make publicly available. In a few cases, LDS membership records have been cropped or redacted to exclude membership information (such as evidence of excommunications) which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints considers sensitive. The written biographies, however, always include complete information as well as source citations so that researchers can find original documents at their host archives. Those using these sources for their own research purposes should always acknowledge CenturyofBlackMormons.org when using any sources or information from the database and should cite the name of the author who wrote the biography, the full name of the Black Latter-day Saint, and the corresponding URL, such as this: W. Paul Reeve, "Elijah Able," accessed July 27, 2020, https://exhibits.lib.utah.edu/s/century-of-black-mormons/page/able-elijah. In addition, researchers should also cite any primary sources to their original archives, the full citations for which are always available through the document viewer’s “more information” tab.

W. Paul Reeve

[1] Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of Mormons in the U.S.”

[2] E. S. Abdy, Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States of North America, From April, 1833, to October, 1834, 3 vols. (London: John Murray, 1835), 3:42.

[3] For a more complete context on the LDS Church’s “one drop” policy and the ways in which it functioned in practice see, W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), chapter 7.

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