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Posted 24 Feb 2001   For week ended June 18, 2000
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Sent on Mormon-News: 22Jun00

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 beginnings."

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 and sisters."

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 regarding blacks.

"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.


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