Juvenile Instructor » Southwestern States Mission: Interactions with African Americans, Part 2
 


Southwestern States Mission: Interactions with African Americans, Part 2

By: Edje Jeter - March 03, 2013

Note: This post contains racial epithets.

In my last three posts I have discussed aspects of Mormon missionaries’ interactions with and perceptions of African Americans in eastern Texas. In this post I will focus on the missionaries’ language and behavior.

Of the 4,500 or so diary entries in this study, ninety-one refer explicitly to African Americans, but only one by name. [1] A particularly striking instance comes from Mission President Duffin. In nine diary entries and two letters discussing efforts to purchase part of the “temple lot” in Independence, Missouri, “owned by a negro,” Duffin and the First Presidency always referred to “the colored people who own the property” or the “Negro property.” [2]

Of course, most people remain unnamed in the diaries and it is possible that some of the named individuals were African American and the missionaries did not record the race. However… ninety-one entries, one name. The one was Simon Green:

We walked about 6 miles when we came to Simon Green’s place, a nigger. He was a good friend of the elders. So we went into his place and had dinner. Good many of the white people could take lessons from him. [3]

“A good friend of the elders” is a stock phrase in the diaries and to be identified as such is strong praise, regardless of race. It is, I think, easily the nicest thing said about an African American in the diaries. [4] Note, however, the categorical presumption of inferiority: Green is so good as an African American that some Whites could take lessons.

Green also stands out in that the Elders ate with him. By my count, the missionaries in this study recorded six meals and four nights as guests of African Americans. [5] Many of those meals and lodgings were prompted by greater-than-normal need: “…wandered around until 9 p.m. when we concluded to stop at the first house we came to.” [6] In one case Jones had to persuade his companion to wait for the host’s breakfast; in another they left without eating. [7]

I do not know how to weight possible factors like the Elders’ racism or fear of local White objections or the African Americans’ unwillingness or poverty or whatever else, but clearly some thing or things kept the homeless, perpetually hungry Elders from eating with or lodging with the thousands and thousands of African Americans within their proselyting areas.

In a few instances the missionaries attended African American worship services and “enjoyed ourselves just the same as though we were at a circus.” Elder Brooks, however, was disappointed: “We expected they would get to shouting but they didn’t.” Note, of course, the otherizing and infantilizing suppositions. [8]

The missionaries used similar language in a few other instances. Folkman thought it “a great sight to see about 200 niggars running trucks. They are all singing, happy as larks, it seems.” [9] Cluff “was highly entertained with the antics of the negroes” at a graduation ceremony. [10] Other descriptions were more neutral, like Folkman’s observation of Juneteenth in Galveston: “This day is the day they were freed and they have a time every year.” [11]

The missionaries seem to have been more accepting when music was involved: “After eating supper we sang songs. The old nigger woman sang a couple that were quite nice.” “…I spent the eve in singing, etc. There was 6 Darkies come in and I played the organ and they sang. It was fine.” [12]

I count six instances when African Americans gave the missionaries a ride, for free, in a cart, for which the missionaries seemed grateful. [13]

 


The “Southwestern States Mission” series (homepage) examines mission life in (mostly) Texas around 1900.

[1] Brooks provides an example of the contrast between the named and the un-named: “It was very disagreeable to travel. So we stopped in at a Negro’s house to warm and stayed until a while before sundown. We stopped over night with a man by the name of Smith.” (Brooks, 1900 Jan 01 Mon). The total number of diary entries is about 4,500. Excluding Duffin, Carling, and Cluff, who either were not in Texas or did not “sample” the population like travelling Elders did, reduces the total to about 3,100. Counting entries is imprecise because sometimes the missionaries would not write for days and then go back and create dated entries for each day and sometimes they would make one entry that discussed multiple days.

[2] Duffin, 1904 Apr 27 Wed; Jul 27 Wed; (letter from First Presidency, dated Aug 01) Aug 5 Fri; Aug 15 Mon; (letter from First Presidency, dated Aug 19) Aug 24 Wed; Sep 20 Tue; Sep 26 Mon; Oct 3 Mon. The entries with letters contain both the letter and Duffin’s commentary on the “Negro property.” Whatever dehumanization drove Duffin’s unwillingness to name the family, when his agent suggested “that we buy up the tax bills against the property and then force them to sell or raise the money,” Duffin refused “as it would be an effort to take advantage of poor people” (1905 Aug 24, though I’m not clear if the date is 1904 or 1905).

[3] Jones, 1900 Mar 30 Fri.

[4] As noted earlier, Elder Jones seems to have used nigger and negro interchangeably, so I don’t think we can extract any information from Jones’s choice of epithet.

[5] The travelling Elders in Texas in this study left about 3,100 diary entries. If, as a conservative estimate, we say that there is one diary entry per day and two meals per day, the diaries represent about 6,200 meals. The six meals thus constitute 0.10% of meals. Two of the meals were “stand alone” meals, including the one with Green, and the remaining four were in connection with the four times the missionaries spent the night at an African American’s home. Two of the four nights were spent on the porch without a proper bed, though it isn’t clear if this was due to the Elders’ insistence or the hosts’ poverty (and the missionaries slept on the porch on multiple other occasions). The missionaries also noted three instances when they received food from African Americans but did not eat with them, one instance of asking for a drink, and two instances of stepping in to warm up. There are also a few instances where the missionaries ate or slept at a White person’s home with African Americans present and three instances when the missionaries note that an African American woman did the cooking and cleaning; in one case the missionaries arranged for the services themselves.

[6] Jones, 1901 Jul 25 Thu. “I again became very weak and couldn’t travel any farther…” (Forsha, 1900 Jun 18 Mon); Jones, 1900 Aug 30 Thu; Jones, 1900 Dec 18 Tue.

[7] Jones, 1900 Aug 31 Fri; Jones, 1901 Jul 26 Fri.

[8] “…we attended a Colored Folks protracted meeting where we enjoyed ourselves Just The same as though we were at a Circus stayed until 12 O’clock.” (Forsha, 1900 Jul 22 Sun); “At night, Elder Hoyt and Bro. Findley went to hear a niggar preach. They seen a show, shouting and dancing and singing and all kind of capers.” (Folkman, 1901 Oct 06 Sun; note Folkman’s use of “capers.” It appears in one other entry in the diaries, also by Folkman: “Went to the Catholic church. It was the gretest sight I ever saw to see the capers they cut. It is nothing like religion. I don’t see for the life of me how anyone can be sincere in such worship.” (Folkman, 1900 Jul 01 Sun)); “…I attended a meeting of the colored people. stayed until about 1/2 past 10 O clock….” (Forsha, 1900 Jul 01 Sun); “Bro. Findley said there was going to be a negro meeting at night about a mile from his place. So we all went and heard them preach. That was the first negro meeting I had ever attended. We expected they would get to shouting but they didn’t.” (Brooks, 1900 May 13 Sun). Findley was a local church member.

[9] Folkman, 1900 Jun 08 Fri. Folkman was at a wharf in Galveston; “running trucks” probably means “pushing wheelbarrows.” See also: “There were several hundred negroes there waiting for the train. Some were to go while others just come to see the train. They would walk five miles to hear and see a train come and go.” (Folkman, 1901 Jul 15 Mon).

[10] “A colored school across the way was holding their commencement exercises, so I went over, never before having the privilege of even seeing a school of that kind.  I was highly entertained with the antics of the negroes.  The principal gave me the seat of honor, I being the only white woman in the room, and in making his report, addressed  the greater part to me.  He said the negroes were coming to the front, shoulder to shoulder with the whites.  That his graduating class could wade into mensuration like a picaninny eating pie, and his speech was sublimely ridiculous in many ways.  Spoke of his own graduation from a Topeka College twenty years ago, and had taught all the time since [illegible] had [illegible] a wide experience of humanity, etc.  I stayed about half an hour when Mrs. M. sent for me to come to lunch.  On Thursday I visited the M.T. H.S. where they held their commencement exercises.  One hundred and seventy graduates were seated on the stage in two, solid square bodies, boy and girl alternately, like men on a checker-board.  They indeed looked very beautiful, the girls in white and boys in black.  Palms and flowers ornamented the stage and each one had a beautiful bouquet.  The program was very much as we have seen, the singing not nearly [illegible] or beautiful.  There was nothing whatever out of the ordinary, except the vastness of it all.  This brought back all my enthusiasm and I thought I was in school again.  It will be a great pleasure for me when I can go back to the school room again and my health remains good.” (Cluff, 1905 Jun 17 Sat).

[11] “Went to a niggar celebration. This day is the day they were freed and they have a time every year.” (Folkman, 1901 Jun 19 Wed). Jones also commented on an unspecified gathering: “We went into Meridian to meet Elders Craner and Madsen. Arrived there at 11 a.m. The niggers were having a great time.” (Jones, 1901 May 09 Thu).

[12] Jones, 1900 Apr 06 Fri; Forsha, 1900 May 15 Tue (note: the last word in “It was fine” is uncertain; I guessed “fine” but it could be “fun.”) “At night there was a collored band come there and give us some fine music and singing. Stayed until half past ten. This is the first of that kind I have heard since comeing to Texas.” (Folkman, 1900 Jul 07 Sat); “At night their was a band of collored people come and sang and played. They come nearly every Saturday night.” (Folkman, 1900 Jul 28 Sat).

[13] “Elder Pierce had improved considerably, so we decided to start on our way. One of the neighbor darkies told the folks when we got ready to go that they could have their team and haul us to the train 6 miles. They were very kind. The man stopped his plowing to let us have his team.” (Jones, 1901 Jul 31 Wed); “As I was about ready to start there was a nigger came along in a wagon and I got a ride in with him. Had a long gospel conversation with him.” (Jones, 1900 Jun 22 Fri); “we both went but I had to lay down quite often on the road and vomit while laying by the road there was a negro came along with a horse and cart brother Bond ask him if I could ride Some with him I get in the cart and took the grips Elder Bond walked behind when the negro turned off to go another road I got out and walked about a mile to a house” (Clark, 1900 Aug 30 Thu); “Went 3 miles and got a ride with a nigger. Rode 3 miles with him, walked about half mile and got a ride with a white man for 2 miles from their.” (Folkman, 1901 Oct 25 Fri); “We had about a three mile ride with a negro in a wagon.” (Brooks, 1900 May 01 Tue); “Started back for Palestine. Rode about half of the way with a nigger. Sold him a B.B.” (Jones, 1901 Sep 05 Thu).

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3 Comments

  1. Thanks, Edje. These last several entries in your SWSM series have been fascinating, if more than a bit cringe-inducing. These are obviously touchy issues, but I think your research into the diaries of these missionaries adds an important element to our understanding of Mormonism’s history of racism/racialism. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — March 5, 2013 @ 10:39 am

  2. It is so personally challenging for me to read an entry where a black person is noted as a “good friend” who “many of the white people could take lessons from” yet still be called the N word in the same breath. While I wince and want to be angry, obviously Elder Jones meant no harm in the label, as jarring as it may sound to us today.

    Comment by Connell O'Donovan — March 7, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

  3. Thanks, Christopher and Connell.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — March 8, 2013 @ 12:12 am