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Novels to focus on black pioneers

Trilogy to offer view ‘through an entirely different set of eyes’

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As Utahns prepare to celebrate yet another Pioneer Day, a new book about a largely unknown group of Mormon pioneers will be making its way through the printer for release next month.

"One More River to Cross," the first in a scheduled trilogy of historical fiction novels, "Standing on the Promises," by Margaret Young and Darius Gray, is based on actual people and events documented in early LDS Church history. It chronicles the conversion and struggle to the Rocky Mountains of two free black pioneers — Elijah Abel and Jane Elizabeth Manning James — interwoven with the story of three black slaves that were among the first settlers in Utah: Green Flake, Hark Lay and Oscar Crosby.

The novels, to be published by Bookcraft, provide a look at early pioneer life "through an entirely different set of eyes," according to Young, who teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University. In a unique twist, end notes follow each chapter citing reference works for many of the instances chronicled, as well as for some of the actual dialogue.

"For the Mormon reader steeped in church history, this is a completely different view of it. We've tried to provide as accurate and full a picture of what it was like to choose Mormonism as a black person, move west to Salt Lake and not be allowed to have all the privileges" that white Saints enjoyed.

"It's truly remarkable that a good many of them remained faithful. We're not just talking about the Martin Handcart Company coming across and having those several months of privation. We're talking about people who suffered years and years and years of denial and still chose to be strong," Young said.

Because white slave-owners were among the early pioneers, and they brought their slaves along, the territorial legislature was forced to deal with the issue and legalized slavery in the Great Basin in 1852. As was the social norm at the time, black members were most often referred to by their first names, rather than as "brother" or "sister," which was common among white members, Young said, adding that "Black Jane" was a common reference in pioneer journals.

Attitudes brought from the East persisted throughout the settlement of the territory, and at one point, Green Flake was himself paid as tithing to the church, Young said. "Brigham Young (then) had him work two years and said he had earned his freedom."

The story does not appear in Volume 1, though it is planned for use in a subsequent volume, she said.

While Elijah Abel and a few other black men received LDS priesthood ordinances in the Kirtland Temple and were ordained to priesthood offices before the death of church founder Joseph Smith in 1844, official LDS views on race "became less forward-thinking" after Smith's martyrdom, Gray said. Black members were subsequently denied priesthood ordination and the chance to participate in temple ordinances, despite repeated petitions to early church leaders.

It wasn't until 1978 that LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball announced that he had received a revelation from God extending priesthood privileges to all worthy men, regardless of race.

Gray, who was one of the first black LDS men to be ordained following Kimball's announcement, believes God's hand is at work among Mormons of all races, who seem better prepared than ever to hear the histories of Saints of all races and ethnic backgrounds. "People's hearts and minds are opened to it. I would venture to say they are hungry for it — as though a piece (of LDS history) has been missing, and they've known that. Now that it's (being) presented, it's readily accepted."

A play written by Young on the life of one of the book's main characters, Jane James, was recently produced in Utah County, and cast members are preparing to perform it in Chicago at the request of a large black LDS contingent there.

Interest in the history of black Mormons continues to grow, according to Gray, who is president of the local "Genesis" group, organized decades ago by leaders of the LDS Church for black Latter-day Saints and their friends. It was through her own interest in that history that Young, who is white, met Gray and told him of her plans to write a novel based on the history of early black Latter-day Saints. After much "nagging," Young said she convinced Gray to help her write the series.

"As we grew in working as a team, he would become the characters as we were working on the computer. He would actually give me the lines, and I would write them in. When we moved into the end of final draft, I would read it out loud. At points, he would stop me and say, 'No, that's not what he (the character) would say.' The details about black and Mormon culture just worked miraculously together," Young said.

"I'm giving the Lord the credit," Gray said, "because I feel very strongly that this partnership is no coincidence. . . . It just appears that now is the Lord's time. Too many things have occurred, and too many pieces of information have just dropped into our laps out of the blue for it to be otherwise."

The duo hopes the series will not only shed a different light on LDS history but will also provide the beginning of a groundswell that will eliminate attitudes they say persist despite the church's current stand on the issue.

"Sadly, we still have the vestiges of racism," Young said. "Sometimes they are very subtle and sometimes not, but they are with us. We cannot do what God wants us to do if we are a divided people, harboring prejudice toward others."

"We know it's being taught still," Gray said. "Though it has been officially denounced by the church, it is still being taught through church institutions" in some areas. "We just can't have one group considering itself 'better than' and the other group 'less than,' " he said.

"Through the years, (Mormons) have used stories of our white pioneer ancestors as motivation for us to continue" with life despite its challenges, Young said. "These people faced the same challenges plus a whole flock of new ones."

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com