I am so white I can’t even tan. Yet it was more than the idea that “This book will sell” which led me to begin a historical novel on Black pioneers. There was a need in me to approach this subject and all the problems it raised for a Mormon author–problems which had beset me from my youth. I was aware that I had been raised in a racist world, by a very good family, but one which subtly included racism in its traditions. As a Mormon, I had been raised to accept the notion that God did not intend Black men to hold the priesthood-at least not until 1978. Even as a teenager (I was born in 1955), the policy troubled me deeply. So I came to my subject with curiosity, some urgency, and a little sense of guilt that I, with my red-hair and white, untanable skin, should presume to tell the story of Blacks, whose culture I did not know except through literature. But anyone who knows me knows I leap into projects on the assumption that I’ll figure it out as I go—or get help as needed.
I began my research and my writing in 1998. I was the Relief Society music director at the time, and decided to take some liberty with my calling: Once a month, rather than teach the Relief Society sisters a song, I would tell them a story of a Black pioneer in preparation for June 8, 1998 (the anniversary of the policy change). I did this for five months, concluding my presentations the first Sunday of June with the testimony of a man I had not met: Darius Gray. I had his story on a tape I had purchased from KUER Radio.
The next week, as I was leading the singing, a black woman in a wheelchair was brought into Relief Society. My arm nearly stopped its beat-keeping. It was not just that this was the first Black woman I had EVER seen in a Utah ward; she and I instantly connected. I knew she was in my ward for a purpose, and that I was to become her friend. I introduced myself to her afterwards. Her name was Susie Thomas. She had suffered a stroke some two years back which had paralyzed her right side and left her unable to speak more than three or four words.
As I knew I was being led to do, I went with some frequency to the care center where Suzie was staying-not in our ward boundaries, incidentally, though she had chosen to come to our ward. Often, I would sing to her, either alone or with my husband and children. We came to love her. She was scheduled to be endowed in the ProvoTemple on Saturday, August 1, 1998.
I was a temple worker in the ProvoTemple’s Saturday Spanish session, and planned on doing my work there, and then attending Susie’s endowment.
On July 29, I was scheduled (with Gene England) to give a presentation at Sunstone, a retrospective of the twenty years since the priesthood policy change. As I took my seat at the session’s beginning, a mostly white-haired, Black man approached Gene and me and introduced himself: “Hello. I’m Darius Gray.”
The tape I had played for my June Relief Society presentation was still in my purse. I fished it out and showed it to him. “I’ve got you on this tape!” I said. He looked at the title-”Alike Unto God” and nodded, then took his seat.
I wanted desperately to talk to him after the session. It was something like the feeling I had had with Susie: This man was to be my friend. I exchanged comments with those who had attended the session, but kept my eye on Darius. I didn’t want him to leave before we had had a chance to talk. When I went up to him, he put his arm around me. We left together, and he said, “Let’s write a book.” It took some negotiation, but I agreed to co-author the book I had started on my own.
I knew that members of the Genesis Group would be at Susie’s endowment on Saturday, and asked Darius if he had anything to do with the group. He did not tell me he was its president, but said he did have “something to do with it” and that indeed, he was planning on being at Susie’s endowment.
The next day, I went to Susie’s care center to measure her for her garments. Susie’s grand-daughter, Tamu Smith, was already there. I told her I had met Darius Gray and she was pleased. It was clear she loved him dearly. She said he was the closest thing to a father she had.
Things were set for Susie’s endowment-except that we had not secured permission for her to be sealed to her late husband and two deceased children. Those in my ward who had helped her with the necessary data sheets had done the best they could, but the information was still incomplete. I felt we should not give up on it, and took all the data sheets we had, changed from my jeans to a dress, and went up to the temple. I was instructed to wait for the Assistant Recorder. When he arrived, I recognized him. I knew him when he was a missionary in Guatemala. I had known for twenty-five years. I explained Susie’s physical condition-that she couldn’t speak-and that this was all the information we had for now, but that she wanted so much to be sealed to her deceased family members. My friend simply began writing in the names of Susie’s family for the sealing. We had permission.
I called Tamu, told her the sealings would be done, and asked if I should call Darius to see if he could be the proxy for Susie’s late husband. For Tamu, Darius Gray was the obvious choice. And so I phoned him, saying, “I don’t know if you remember me…” He did remember me. I asked him how busy he would be the next day. He answered, “Swamped.” Then I told him we needed him to serve as proxy for Susie’s husband. He said simply, “Done.”
When I arrived at the temple, I went directly to the baptismal font. Susie wanted to witness the proxy baptisms of her sons, both of whom had died violent deaths. The Genesis representatives had not yet arrived, and I had a birthday party scheduled for my son. It was clear her endowment would be delayed, and very clear that I would miss it. I explained that I needed to do my son’s birthday party, but that I would be waiting for her in the Celestial Room after her session. I went home and put on a birthday party for a gaggle of seven-year-old boys, and then returned to the temple.
I had no idea if I had missed Susie’s session or not. I put on my Worker’s name tag and went directly to the Celestial Room. I waited, feeling that perhaps I should ask to help at the veil, but decided that since this wasn’t my shift, I shouldn’t presume. I kept waiting. Again, I felt I should ask to help at the veil, and again decided against it. At that point, another temple worker entered the Celestial Room, came directly to me and said, “We need help at the veil. Can you help us?” I asked if this session included a live endowment.
“Yes,” she said.
“Is it a woman in a wheelchair?”
“She’s why I’m here,” I said.
As I went to the veil, I noticed Darius. We exchanged a brief smile. I helped a number of sisters, and waited for Susie to be wheeled forward. The person assigned to help her was ready to act as full proxy, having understood that Susie couldn’t speak. I asked if I might help out, then lowered myself to be on Susie’s level, took her face in my hands, looked her directly in the eyes, and led her word by word through the ceremony. Susie spoke. She wept as she did, for she was saying words she knew she could not say. We all were weeping as we entered the Celestial Room.
Again, Darius put his arm around me. He pointed to my teary eyes. I whispered, “I didn’t know I would get to do that.” Darius pointed heavenward. Indeed, God had opened the way for me to be at Susie’s side.
The next day, Sunday, I attended my first Genesis meeting. Soon after, Darius and I were co-authors. When I gave him what I had written, he said, “Yes, I can help.” There were aspects of Black culture which were simply part of his life, but quite foreign to me. He knew Black Mormon history far better than I did, and had connections with excellent historians and with the Church which I did not have. I, on the other hand, had years of writing experience, and was raised by a linguist who would sometimes send me into some foreign land and instruct me to figure out how the natives said particular words. Thus, I had been trained to listen for the intricacies of pronunciation and syntax. So when Darius and I worked on the novel (after he had pointed out a number of errors I had made through my cultural ignorance), he would simply read the words I had written, automatically move them into the correct vernacular-the “language of his childhood” and I would type what I heard, then verify the revisions with him.
In 1998, I knew only the most superficial facts about Jane Manning James. I had the barest acquaintance with Elijah Abel’s place in LDS history.
That all changed. In the subsequent parts of this Pioneer Day series, I will write about these remarkable pioneers as I have come to know them over the past fourteen years.