Celebrating Influential Latter-day Saints During Black History Month

With February being Black History Month, it is an important time to remember and celebrate the sacrifices and incredible achievements our fellow brothers and sisters. Here is a look at influential Latter-day Saints to remember in celebration of Black History Month.

Elijah Abel

Photo Courtesy of Margaret Blair Young

Elijah Abel was an early convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was born on July 25th, 1810. After escaping from slavery through the Underground Railroad, Elijah found his way to the first settlement of Latter-day Saints in Kirtland Ohio. He soon after joined the Church, and on March 3rd, 1836, he was ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood and subsequently ordained to the quorum of the Seventy, the first person of African ancestry to join the Quorum. Elijah was a skilled carpenter and helped build the Kirtland Temple, the Nauvoo Temple, and the Salt Lake Temple. He served as a missionary in New York and Canada and remained a faithful member of the Church throughout his entire life. More can be read about Elijah’s faithful life here.

Jane Manning James

Photo of Jane Manning
Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia.org

Jane Elizabeth Manning James was born in Wilton, Connecticut to Isaac and Eliza Manning. The Mannings were a free family and devoted to their Presbyterian faith. Jane met two LDS missionaries in 1842 and was soon after baptized a member of the Church.  Her mother, three brothers, two sisters, and a brother and sister in law as well joined due to Jane’s enthusiastic testimony and desire to share her faith. The family decided to move to Nauvoo to be amongst fellow members of the Church and lived with Joseph and Emma Smith in their home. After Joseph Smith’s assassination, Jane lived in Brigham Young’s home where she met her husband Isaac James.

Jane studied the Gospel diligently and began to feel concerned that she, as a woman of African descent, was not permitted to enter the Temple and receive her endowment. She petitioned Church leaders of this time for an exception to be allowed to receive this sacred ordinance, but sadly, she was denied. Jane’s account of her trial of faith can be found here in BYU’s online library. Despite these trials, Jane never renounced or doubted her faith. She found peace in knowing that her Father in Heaven would make all things right in the end. She was endowed and sealed to her family posthumously in 1979 upon revelation given that all of God’s children, no matter their race, be allowed to receive the saving ordinances of the Temple and Priesthood.

Alex Boyé

Image result for alex boye
Photo Courtesy of NPR

Alex Boyé was born August 16th, 1970 in London England to Nigerian parents. Alex’s mother moved to England while pregnant, and his father remained in Nigeria. Sadly, Alex never knew his father. His mother remarried and worked for the London Underground, and worked strenuously long hours. One day his mother told him she would be going home to Nigeria for a couple of weeks for a visit, and Alex did not hear from his mother for over eight years. During this time, Alex lived in a variety of foster homes and became infatuated with music and performing. He was deeply influenced by a variety of Motown artists such as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Kool and the Gang. While working at a McDonald’s in London, Alex was introduced to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter’day Saints by his manager. Soon after he was baptized, and served as a missionary for the Church in Bristol, England. Throughout his musical career, Alex has performed alongside artists such as George Michael, Gladys Knight, Simon and Garfunkel, and MC Hammer. In 2000, Alex moved to Salt Lake to pursue a career in Latter-day Saint music, and soon after met his wife Julie. They are now the proud parents of 7 children. Alex has gone on to have great success in the music industry, including having his cover of “Let it Go” from the Disney film Frozen, being YouTube’s Best Pop Cover of 2014.

Alex passionately lives his faith by combining his African heritage with his testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Here are some inspiring moments from his life, and his powerful testimony of God’s love for all of His children.

Gladys Maria Knight

Photo Courtesy of Teisha Wilson

Gladys Maria Knight is an American Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter, actress, and humanitarian. She was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 28th of 1944. Gladys joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 1997, and had a strong desire and passion to inject soulful music into traditional Church music. This led her to create and direct the Grammy Award-winning Latter-day Saint choir known as Saints Unified Voices. Gladys is well known for such classics as “Midnight Train to Georgia”, “On and On”, and “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination”. She has been a huge influence on soul music as well as a variety of modern artists. In an interview with Deseret News in 2014, Glady’s stated that her favorite hymn is “There is a Green Hill Far Away” as “it’s a reminder of how amazing he (the Lord) is. We get busy, we kind of take him for granted sometimes,” but “He loves all of us, and he’s got us.”

Ruffin Bridgeford, Darius Gray, and Eugene Orr and The Genesis Group

Genesis Group Members, 2012: Don Harwell, Eugene Orr, Eddie Gist (kneeling), Orin Howell, and Darius Gray
Photo Courtesy of Margaret Blair Young

In 1971 Ruffin Bridgeford, Darius Gray, and Eugene Orr, all African American members of the Church, met at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City to collaborate on a strategy to better help and support people of color with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During this point in history, the Church had continued its ban of all black from holding the Priesthood and participating in certain Temple ordinances, and the three young men saw a need for greater support within their community. Darius Gray approached then President of the Church, President Joseph F. Smith to voice their concerns. Uner President Smith’s direction, he assigned three (then) junior Apostles, Elders Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson. and Boyd K. Packer, to meet with the three young men in the hopes of establishing an organization that would help support members of the Church. This became known as the Genesis Group. The Genesis Group conducted activities to promote unity and understanding between black and white members of the Church. Summer picnics brought together many of Utah’s African American members and non-members alike in a spirit of love and community. When the restriction of the Priesthood was lifted in 1978, the Genesis Group was disbanded but returned in 1996 by President Hinckley when it became clear that the group was still very much needed and loved by many within the Church. Throughout its many years, the Genesis Group meetings became a safe haven for so many members and featured speakers such as Alex Boye and Thurl Bailey.

In 2003, the Genesis Group meeting was held in the historic Salt Lake Tabernacle, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Priesthood revelation announcement. Glady Knight performed alongside the interracial Saints Unified Voices Choir. The audience of the meeting exceeded the tabernacle’s capacity of seven thousand. Darius Grat was released as president in 2003, and Don Harwell became the new president. Genesis Groups have begun to spring up outside of Utah and have been formed in Oakland, California; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Arlington, Texas. More information on the Genesis Group can be found here.

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About Devin Justesen

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Devin is a graduate of Brigham Young University where he studied English and Business Management. He is a writer, photographer, movie-fanatic, and a lover of street tacos. He served his mission in Tokyo, Japan.
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