In the late 1960s, a black woman named Wynetta Martin joined the church in California, finding in Mormonism a loving God with whom she could identify. Martin moved to Utah at a time when the church was seeking to diversify its public face in response to boycotts of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and BYU. It was therefore a combination of her own tenacity as an individual (she drove all night from Los Angeles to make her audition) and the church’s need to adapt to changing circumstances that allowed Martin to become the first African American member of the Tabernacle Choir and the first black instructor at BYU (she taught classes on “Black Culture” in the Nursing department). In 1972, Martin published her autobiography, Black Mormon Tells Her Story: “The Truth Sang Louder Than My Position,” an insightful perspective on what it was like to be black in Utah in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Below are excerpts from the autobiography:
My name is Wynetta Martin. I am a Negro and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly called the Mormon Church. My story is not about Negroes, nor is it about Mormons or their church doctrine. It is about my life and how I became convinced to join the Mormon Church. I am now, happily, and willingly, a member of the Church. Many cannot understand why a Negro would want to join the Mormon Church. This too I will attempt to explain, at least from my personal experience.
Perhaps the fact that I quite eagerly, even greedily embraced, and still do, the promises of my church, a church that has been recently the target of many, who have accused of bigotry, segregation, and racism, and even in the most liberal of minds, my church has been cursed and despised, because it will not allow the people of my race the privileges, as yet, of the Priesthood, given to all other races. Perhaps this practice has instilled a great hatred and contempt for me in the eyes of my own people, and even in the eyes perhaps of many white people, both members and non-members, who learn of my conversion – I cannot know what is in all hearts, and I cannot know the thoughts of all I meet; I do not judge them, nor do I ever try to convert or convince anyone of my race, even my parents, that this is the “true” Church. It is right for me, but I cannot hope they will understand, and if they would not find peace in conversion to Mormonism, as I have done, I would not wish it for them. I think many times the acceptance has been more difficult on my part, acceptance of myself for what I am—obviously, colored; and accepting white people’s kindness and friendship inside the Church, as not a patronizing of me, but one of honestly accepting me, although, of course, this has not been universal with all members. The hurts of many, many small slights, both imagined and real, heal, but always I feel faced with new wounds opening, as I try to turn away from snubs, and from derision, from forced toleration that is suffocation and an insult to me on the part of some narrow-minded people both inside and outside the Mormon Church. Some people really believe that all Negroes are “hotel maids” or “Southern mammies” who have gone to their glory, but remain alive in the hearts and labels and breakfast tables on a syrup bottle! A real mammy with a kerchief wrapped around her head, and acres of impossibly white teeth, gleaming like a banner against a black sky of skin is the only image of the Negro race some people comprehend! (11-12)
I knew this gospel was true. In comparison to the other churches I had joined, the Mormon Church did not destroy and wear down hopes of salvation. Never was Sunday a scolding session in this religion. The Mormon Church always was to me and is still a renewal of strength, and through chiefly taking the Sacrament of blessed bread and water, I am able to again have courage to face the challenge of the covenants I had taken in the waters of baptism. Also through the gift of the Holy Ghost given to me after baptism my week was aided and I seemed to be able to better live in the fashion that left my heart and my conscience at rest.
Some of the things that impressed me the most about the Church was learning about the practice of the Mormons to have family home evenings with their families, where they study gospel teachings and have evenings of fun together. I was also attracted to their practice of family prayer. But the thing that really converted me was reading the Joseph Smith Story. . . . It brought back to my memory my own very personal experience with the evil powers and praying within for deliverance and feeling the Lord’s spirit of peace come over me. I didn’t really want any lessons, but the Church leaders said that I had to have them in order to be baptized. So I asked if I could have them every night; but they calmed me down to one a week. I was baptized about two months [later].
I felt the Mormon Church had something to offer that no other church had to offer and that was authority to act for God. My heart and my mind was open to the lessons they gave me and I believed them. It was not hard for me to understand them.
While I was taking the lessons from the missionaries I was very excited about the Godhead lesson, learning about the three personages in the Godhead and about the special mission of the Holy Ghost to lead people to truth and help them in their lives The Book of Mormon helped me understand and accept my position as a black person much better. The Plan of Salvation lesson also helped me to understand things much better. . . .These two things, baptism and the Holy Ghost are the only requirements, contrary to popular belief, for entering the Celestial Kingdom and being with God for eternity if one is worthy. Therefore, the Priesthood covenants of the Temple which we are not allowed at this point are not really so crucial as popular belief dictates.
But enough of theology. My life from the moment of my baptism, to state a gross understatement, was changed. I attended church faithfully, I restored a lost ego, I became a better mother, a better daughter, and I learned to truly love my mother. (55-56)
A new challenge presented itself as I began to dream of the possibility of becoming a member of the Tabernacle Choir. I knew I could sing, but I did know whether or not I could sing well enough for this magnificent choir. During this time I was working for the Genealogical Society and despite most people’s kindness, may race did present problems. Naturally I knew my race might be a handicap, especially because there were no Negroes in the Choir, nor were there any working with me at the Genealogical Society. My anxiety grew because despite many people’s obvious over-kindness, I knew many people were uneasy about me. One day a lady came up to me and asked in the most sincere innocence, “Are you from the West Indies, Dear?” I said, “No, why?” Well,” she said, “Your skin and hair are of the West Indian type.” I knew of course she wanted to know what nationality I was, for it was beyond her comprehension that a Mormon would be a Negro or vice versa. I told her in a quiet manner that I was a Negro. She said rather flustered, “Oh I’m so glad to see you working here, but are you a Mormon?” When I replied yes, she was close to collapse. Not a vicious woman, but a naïve one, she made it a point to go out of her way every morning and come to where I worked and say, “ Oh hello there, good morning.” (59)
I remember one person approached me [in the Choir] and said, “Sister Martin, we are happy to have you with us. What shall I call you—Black, Negro, or colored?” I thin said with a smile on my face and love in my heart, that they could call me anything as long as they spelled my name right!” (62)
A few months later, I received an invitation to the B.Y.U. staff Ball. My, was I excited! I was probably the first Black person to attend one of these balls. I had a marvelous time. I wore a long pink gown and danced with the young men who were there.
Dinner was served and what delicious food! I enjoyed every bit of what was served. I can remember a Black man who attended B.Y.U., who was one of the waiters. I had a chance to talk with him and found out that he was a very intelligent person in his early twenties, in his second year of schooling I believe. I could have talked with him all night, but he was too busy being a waiter. Up to this moment I have met at least four Blacks who have attended B.Y.U., and I must say that members of any race, color, or creed are eligible to attend B.Y.U. as long as they meet the general qualifications and are capable of handling the courses. No race is barred from B.Y.U., and I’m here as a material witness. (69-70)
The general reception I have received has been amazingly great. So many members have welcomed me with open arms, and I don’t find the general prejudice that so many think there is in the Mormon Church.
I can remember one fireside in 1969, during which someone asked me if I would change my skin to white if I had the chance. My, it’s a good thing when one is led by the spirit, because I was not confronted by this type of question before.
With a smile on my face I said that Mr. Clean, Ajax, and Comet serve the purpose for many things. I don’t care how much I rubbed with those chemicals, nothing would take my built-in tan away. I then said NO, I would not change my color from black to white because it wasn’t meant to be. Each race should be proud of their color. One thing sure, I have the advantage, since I don’t have to sit in the sun all day to get a tan. I have a built-in tan which cannot be removed unless our Father in Heaven takes a part in the transformation.
Many times I am asked if my own race gives me trouble for being a Mormon. My answer is that I have not been given any trouble by my own race. They will often ask me why I would join a church they think is prejudiced. My answer to them is that the Gospel is not prejudiced and I have met very few people in the Church which show any prejudice. There will always be some. No matter what church one attends or what race, creed or nationality we deal with, we will find good and bad people. We must not pin point one race or one religious groups as being prejudiced, or we are paradoxically “prejudiced” in so doing. I hope that I can remove any prejudice that may exist anywhere I go for my race or my church. (70-71)
I look forward now to the future, and I hold close to my cherished memories of the past, and I wait for the time, as there is a time for all things, when my family will be given the blessing of the Priesthood in our home. When it is time, God will know it, and that will be the right time. Still, it is difficult for me to imagine how I could possibly be more filled with happiness and how my life could be more saturated with blessings that at the present. I am so very glad that I AM A BLACK MORMON. (73)
Unfortunately, it is not known how Martin responded to the 1978 revelation that lifted the priesthood ban. After spending a brief time as the face of black Mormonism, she seems to have withdrawn from public life and passed away in Hawaii in 2000.