Summarized by Leena Booth
Play About Black LDS Pioneer To Tour
Deseret News 17Jun00 A2
By Carrie A. Moore: Deseret News religion editor
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH -- "I realize my race and color and can't expect
my endowments as others who are white. . . And God promised Abraham
that in his seed all the nations of the earth should be blessed. As
this is the fullness of all dispensations - is there no blessing for
me?" - Letter from Jane Elizabeth Manning James to LDS Church
President John Taylor.
From her baptism until her death in 1908, the first free black woman
to join the LDS Church petitioned its leaders to allow her to access
to the temple.
Though her petitions were consistently denied, Jane Elizabeth Manning
James maintained her loyalty to The Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints to her grave. Now her example of devotion and faith
are celebrated in a new play based on her life.
"I Am Jane," written by Margaret Blair Young, chronicles the life one
of Utah's first black pioneers. During its March 5 debut for the
local Genesis group, composed of black Latter-day Saints and
organized by the church, the production drew a standing-room only
crowd. James is widely considered to be the matriarch of the LDS
black community almost a century after her death, Young said, because
her faith kept her anchored to a belief that God is just, even if
social conditions are not.
Genesis President Darius Gray said her involvement with the group had
divine origins. "I think she's with us for a reason." "I think so
often in the past it has been forgotten that there were black
pioneers and black members of the church from the early 1830s on, but
blacks have been members,contributed and been a part from its very
The production, which includes dialogue taken from letters, journals
and the transcript of an interview done with James shortly before her
death, shows "that blacks were there, that they were involved and
interacted with their white, Hispanic, Asian and European brothers
Currently, the vast majority of the well-researched early history of
the LDS Church involves white church members who either joined the
church in the East, or immigrated from European nations. In fact,
Gray said, many LDS Church members are surprised to learn that there
were black pioneers at all.
Once the play finishes its public debut in Springville, UT, Young
said the cast will travel to Chicago, where they have been invited to
perform for many with questions about the LDS Church's history
"Many people have heard about Jane's trip to Nauvoo, but the story
gets much more inspiring as you follow her life West. She was
relentless in her pursuit of temple blessings, and wrote at least
five letters (to LDS Church leaders) where she is begging to enter
the temple," Young said.
James and her family traveled 800 miles from Connecticut to Illinois
to join the LDS Church. There, she and several family members were
taken in by Joseph and Emma Smith.
Shortly thereafter, James made the walk from Illinois to Utah as a
member of one of the first Mormon pioneer companies to enter the Salt
Lake Valley in 1847.
James also lived in Brigham Young's household after the martyrdom of
Joseph Smith, during which time she met and married another free
black Mormon, Isaac James. At Winter Quarters, Nebraska, the couple
had baby son, Silas.
Her family suffered cold and hunger after arriving in the Salt Lake
Valley. But through hard work, they established a home and farm and
had six more children.
James lived a life of dedication to the Church, and though she was
never able to enter the temple during her lifetime, her temple work
was done in 1978, after the revelation that allowed temple privileges
and priesthood ordination to worthy members of all races.
Last summer, members of Genesis dedicated a stone marker in the Salt
Lake City Cemetery to honor her memory.