SALT LAKE CITY — With thousands packed into the Salt Palace Convention Center, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints kicked off the ninth annual RootsTech family history and technology conference by announcing a $2 million donation to the forthcoming International African American Museum Center for Family History.
Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles presented the church's donation to Michael B. Moore, president and CEO of the museum. Moore brought his hands to his face in an expression of joy, then with a big smile he gave the apostle a fist bump.
"We have such high hopes and aspirations for the work that we will do for lives we will touch," Moore said. "To be able to partner with the church and with FamilySearch in this very important work, it's just an amazing opportunity and it will fortify our capabilities and extend the reach of our ability to touch people. It's an amazing gift. We are so grateful."
Elder Bednar said the church is pleased to be part of an effort that will help connect Heavenly Father's children to a heavenly family, regardless of skin color, cultural background or language.
"We want to support the museum and the Center for Family History because we both value the strength that comes from learning about our families," Elder Bednar said. "The museum will not only educate its patrons on the important contributions of Africans who came through Gadsden’s Wharf and Charleston, it also will help all who visit to discover and connect with ancestors whose stories previously may not have been known."
Elder Bednar continued: "I've had the opportunity to oversee the work of the church in Africa for many years and it changes you. There is a spiritual quality to the African saints that gets into your mind, it gets into your heart. So to see something like this occurred today that can benefit so many in various parts of the world that have come from Africa and the people in Africa. That's a that's a highlight in my life."
Martin Luther King III, son of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was on hand for the announcement. His connection to the church goes back more than a decade to when the church offered humanitarian relief in Louisiana. King said he was "beyond impressed." A few years later he came to Utah and learned about the church's family history program. Again, he was impressed.
"When you talk about the church and genealogy, you're really talking about connections. When people understand how they're connected, ultimately, perhaps we all are connected. That's one of the major things that the church does. That is so so impressive and amazing," King said. "So of course, this museum is will be located in Charleston, South Carolina. It is a gift to this nation and the world because people will be coming from all over the world to visit this museum. There's a lot of history to be learned and appreciate and a lot of bridges that will be built."
In offering remarks, King said the museum will have a "tremendous impact" on the African-American community. He also noted that the partnership between the church and the museum is a reflection of the "beloved community" his father envisioned, according to a news release.
Joseph P. Riley, a lifetime board member of the museum, thanked the church for helping the Center for Family History to become one of the museum's "crown jewels."
"Because of this generous donation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the center will catapult into a level of excellence that simply would not be achievable,” said Riley in a news release.
Elder Bradley Foster, a General Authority Seventy and the executive director of the Family History Department, said this museum "will bless African-Americans for generations to come."
The church and IAAM came together thanks to a Latter-day Saint in the Charleston area who reached out to FamilySearch wanting access to more African American genealogy resources. Thom Reed, a deputy chief genealogical officer at FamilySearch, reached out to a contact at the museum. That connection led to a meeting between Elder Bednar and Moore when the apostle was visiting the area last October, Reed said.
"This is going to open some amazing doors," Reed said.
The museum will be built on the former Gadsden's Wharf in Charleston, South Carolina, where nearly half of all enslaved Africans disembarked after being forced to America through the transatlantic slave trade.
Construction on the museum, which will be long and thin (140 feet long and 80 feet wide) is expected to begin later this year with plans to open doors in 2021. It is located within a mile of the church where a nine worshippers in a black community church were shot in 2015, Moore said.
When completed, the International African American Museum Center for Family History will be one of the world's top centers for African-American genealogy.
Moore spoke of the historic significance of the Charleston site, where he believes one of his ancestors stepped off a ship.
"I often try to imagine what that site must have looked like with the emotions of the people who are captive there," he said. "We believe that my great-great-great-great grandmother was actually disembarked on that site. So this is a powerful project in general, but it becomes personal when those aspects sort of were interjected into the motivations."
Riley, a former mayor of Charleston, first announced plans to raise funds for the museum in 2000. Since then the project has raisedmore than $75 million with at least $10 million still to go.
In recent years the church has supported African-American genealogy and collaborated with organizations and leaders in the African-American community.
In 2015, Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was in Los Angeles as the church, FamilySearch.org and African-American history organizations announced a joint Freedmen's Bureau Project to digitize 1.5 million handwritten records of former slaves and make the records available for free online.
The following year, Elder Christofferson pulled a flash drive from a lantern and presented a database of those Freedmen Bureau records to the Smithsonian's new National African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Last May, President Russell M. Nelson stood with Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP and "called for an end to prejudice and greater racial and ethnic harmony" at Temple Square.
Two months later at the NAACP Annual Convention in San Antonio, the two organizations announced plans to launch a joint education and employment initiative on the East Coast.
RootsTech is considered to be the largest genealogy conference in the world and is organized by FamilySearch, which operates as a nonprofit company under the church.