Rogers, Elizabeth Bessie Ritchie
Elizabeth “Bessie” Ritchie married her sweetheart Willis Rogers in 1904 in the Salt Lake Temple, a wedding that represented nothing out of the ordinary except for the fact that Bessie was the daughter of a former slave. Her father, Nelson Holder Ritchie, was born into slavery in Missouri, the child of a white man and an enslaved woman. Nelson then married Annie Cowan Russell, a white woman, making Bessie the descendent of at least two generations of mixed racial ancestry. She passed as white and thus received her temple rituals in 1904 even though five years later her father and mother would be denied temple admission because of her father’s race. The Ritchie family story thus demonstrates the mutability of racial categories, especially across generations of mixed racial ancestry. It also illustrates the impossibility of monitoring racial boundaries in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Bessie was born in Great Bend, Kansas, in 1884 where her parents ran a hotel and livery stable. Latter-day Saint missionaries took room and board at the Ritchie hotel and developed a lasting friendship with the family. When Bessie was six years old, her mother Annie converted and cultivated deep ties to the church. Missionaries Willard Johnson and William Mann blessed Bessie and three of her siblings at a Kansas church conference in 1891, two months before her seventh birthday, and then baptized her two oldest siblings. Bessie was not baptized, however, until after she turned eight and the family moved to Utah.
The family in fact waited for Bessie’s eighth birthday to hold a baptismal service at Beck’s Hot Springs north of Salt Lake City in 1892. Bessie and her father Nelson were to be baptized for the first time that day while her mother Annie and her siblings Olive and James Alvie planned to be rebaptized. A family friend, Walt Wiseman was to be baptized at the same time.
On November 17, the people involved gathered at the hot springs for the occasion, but for Bessie at least, the day did not go as planned. As she later recalled, “all were baptized before I was and when father went down it made such a splash and noise with the water it gave me a little fear.” Latter-day Saints practice baptism by immersion which meant that a person’s entire body was supposed to be immersed otherwise the ritual would have to be repeated. This added to Bessie’s anxiety, especially as she watched two repeat baptism’s take place. As she recalled, “Walt’s face showed in the water so he was baptized over. Alvie’s foot came up and he was baptized over also. By this time I was so afraid I ran and tried to hide. When it came my turn I started to cry and scream. I screamed so loud they could not say the prayer. Elder Mann took me and ducked me in the warm water then brought me out again. It was nice and warm in that water, but I still kept on screaming so loud that I was not baptized that day.”
Bessie waited until the following spring before she was baptized. This time there were several baptisms planned at the East Bountiful mill pond north of Salt Lake City and Bessie was included. On March 28, 1893, several families packed picnic lunches and gathered for “a big celebration” of the various people being baptized. This time Bessie knew what to expect and her mother suggested she go first so that her anxiety would not build as she watched others being baptized. As Bessie remembered, “Mother had me ready and told the man if he did not baptize me first I would be so frightened they could not get it done. The man took me by the hand and took me right into that cold water at the mill pond and it about took my breath and I sure came out choking and coughing. There were so many looking on I was afraid to cry. I was baptized and confirmed the same day right there by the mill pond.” Whatever trepidation her baptism created, Bessie remained a committed Latter-day Saint for the rest of her life.
At age 19 Bessie married Willis Rogers in the Salt Lake Temple; the couple would have ten children together, nine boys and one girl. Two of Bessie’s children died of tragic circumstances but she raised the remaining eight to adulthood, some of them mostly by herself. Her husband Willis died in 1928, two years after Bessie gave birth to their youngest child Klint, leaving Bessie a widow. She did not remarry but managed what must have been a busy household on her own.
There is no indication that Bessie was aware of any controversy surrounding her father’s racial identity or that she understood herself to be anything other than white. All surviving public documents, beginning with an 1885 Kansas State Census and ending with the 1940 US census, list her as white. Yet in 1909, her father and mother attempted to follow her lead and have their love for each other sealed in a Latter-day Saint temple. Their bishop however denied them access because he said that Nelson “had Negro blood in him.” Nelson and his wife Annie pointed out that Bessie and her sister Olive had already been sealed in the Salt Lake Temple, but that fact did not change their bishop’s mind.
Despite her mixed racial ancestry, all of Bessie’s male children who lived to be old enough received the lay Latter-day Saint priesthood and they, along with Bessie’s daughter Melba, also received temple rituals well before June 1978. Bessie and the family that she raised passed as white and thus slipped past the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ racial policies meant to exclude people of Black African ancestry, “no matter how remote a degree,” from priesthood ordination and temple admission. Surviving descendants of the Ritchie family continue to find African ancestry in their DNA. Ritchie family descendants thus demonstrate that if “one drop” was the standard, there has never been a period in Latter-day Saint history without priesthood holders and temple attenders of Black African descent.
After their marriage Bessie and Willis moved to Grayson (renamed Blanding in 1916), in the southeast corner of Utah, in San Juan County. Willis worked as a farmer and the couple raised their young family as devout Latter-day Saints.
It was also in Blanding that tragedy struck Bessie and Willis, not once but twice. In 1914, the pair’s second born child, Aldous Henry Rogers, died from spinal meningitis when he was seven years old. Six years later, two-year-old Arlo Ritchie Rogers, their eighth child, died from an accidental gunshot wound. Both boys were buried in Blanding, as was Willis after his death in 1928.
The death of Bessie’s two young boys stayed with her for the rest of her life. Seeking to lighten the burden that such losses represented, Bessie regularly scoured newspaper obituaries and sent letters of empathy to parents who faced the loss of children. In 1963, the Deseret News featured Bessie in a story about her letters of kindness and noted that she had written over 1,900 such letters over the past twenty-seven years. Many recipients wrote back and asked the source of her kindness. She corresponded with some, welcomed visits to her home from others, and continued to receive birthday and Christmas cards from even more. Her letter writing endeavors offered her a sense of peace and became a way for her to turn her own tragic losses into acts of compassion toward others.
After Willis passed away, Bessie moved to Salt Lake City where she spent the rest of her life. She immersed herself in church service and enjoyed her time in the Primary, a Latter-day Saint organization for children. Her real passion however, was family history. She became a worker in the Salt Lake Temple and completed genealogical research for over 1,000 people a year. She became a life member of the Genealogical Society of Utah and earned a well-deserved reputation for her family history skills. Several photos of Bessie feature her standing next to the multiple volumes of bound family histories she produced, a testament to what became a fulfilling life mission for her.
Bessie, the daughter of a formerly enslaved father, died in 1970 in Salt Lake City at the age of 85, an indication of how far into the twentieth century slavery cast a shadow. Prior to her death Bessie left a handwritten note to her children with funeral instructions: “My burrial [sic] cloth you will find in the big blue suit case in the colset [sic]. Please pin up my stockings to my garments [Latter-day Saint religious underclothing] so they will not fall down when I get up. My love to you all and fair well to you all. Mother Bessie R. Rogers.” It was a final message to her children which indicated her love for them and her belief in a promised resurrection, one in which she dreaded the thought of droopy stockings. Following her funeral, Bessie’s body was returned to Blanding, Utah, to be buried. There she would await a promised resurrection, stockings pinned high, while lying next to her husband Willis.
By W. Paul Reeve
 Elizabeth Bessie Ritchie (KWC5-S63), ordinance records on FamilySearch.org; Utah, Salt Lake County, Marriage License 13983, Willis Rogers and Bessie Ritchie, 13 January 1904, microfilm 4,705,935, Family History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.
 William C. Mann, mission journal, MS 26229, 99-100, 158-159, Church History Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.
 Rogers, “History of Bessie Ritchie Rogers.”
 Rogers, “History of Bessie Ritchie Rogers.”
 Elizabeth Bessie Ritchie (KWC5-S63), ordinance records on FamilySearch.org; Utah, Salt Lake County, Marriage License 13983, Willis Rogers and Bessie Ritchie, 13 January 1904, microfilm 4,705,935, Family History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah; “Rogers,” Presiding Bishopric stake and mission census (1914-1935, CR 4 311), (1940, CR 4 313), (1955 and 1960, CR 4 316) Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah; Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Salt Lake 30th Ward, Microfilm 26,877, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.
 Kansas State, 1885 Census, Barton County, Ellinwood; United States, 1900 Census, Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City; United States, 1910 Census, Utah, San Juan County, Grayson; United States, 1920 Census, Utah, San Juan County, Blanding; United States, 1930 Census, Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City; United States, 1940 Census, Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City.
 John Mills Whitaker, Memorandum from the daily journal of John M. Whitaker (December 1906 to March 1912), typescript of transcripts from John M. Whitaker journal, 150, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah.
 “Rogers,” Presiding Bishopric stake and mission census (1914-1935, CR 4 311), (1940, CR 4 313), (1955 and 1960, CR 4 316) Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah; Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Grayson and Blanding Ward, Microfilm 25,831, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah; Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Salt Lake 17th Ward, Microfilm 26,702, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah; Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Salt Lake 16th Ward, Microfilm 26,682, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.
 W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), chapter 7.
 “Rogers,” Presiding Bishopric stake and mission census (1914-1935, CR 4 311), (1940, CR 4 313), (1955 and 1960, CR 4 316) Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah; United States, 1910 Census, Utah, San Juan County, Grayson; United States, 1920 Census, Utah, San Juan County, Blanding.
 Ruth Ann Lewis, “Voice in the West: A Humble, Helping Hand,” Deseret News, (Salt Lake City, Utah) 19 August 1963; Utah, San Juan County, State Board of Health, Death Certificate, File No. 16, Arlo Rogers, 21 September 1920; Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Grayson Ward, Microfilm 25,831, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.
 Lewis, “Voice in the West.”
 Lewis, “Voice in the West”; “Bessie R. Rogers,” Salt Lake Tribune, 11 February 1970, 28; “Death Claims Former Resident,” San Juan Record, 12 February 1970, 2; “Mother of Local Woman Dies,” American Fork Citizen, 12 February 1970, 13.
 Genealogical Society of Utah, Certificate of Life Membership, No. 4973, Bessie Ritchie Rogers, 14 June 1929.
 Photos courtesy Deena Porcaro Hill.
 Bessie R. Rogers, burial note, courtesy Deena Porcaro Hill.
 “Death Claims Former Resident,” San Juan Record, 12 February 1970, 2.
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