As Americans have been observing February as Black History Month, attendees at the Evenings at the Museum Lecture Feb. 23, remembered Jane Manning James, one of history’s first and most faithful African American members of the Church.
Jerri A. Harwell presented a one-woman theater vignette at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, portraying Sister James as she has done since 2003, when she began the performances at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City. Sister Harwell is a writer, editor and associate professor of English at Salt Lake Community College.
Jane Manning embraced the gospel as a free black woman living in Connecticut in 1841, having been born in Wilton in the early 1820s. With her family, she walked more than 800 miles to join the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo. She lived with and worked for Joseph and Emma Smith at the Mansion House. In 1847, she participated in the Mormon exodus from Nauvoo, and her family was the first African American family to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley.
Sister Harwell remained in character throughout the program, speaking in the first-person as Sister James, even as she responded to questions from the audience. In answer to the first question, she said that the words of her script were drawn about 95 percent from the remembrances of Sister James as transcribed by Elizabeth J. D. Roundy in 1893.
Here are some selections from Sister Harwell’s portrayal of Sister James:
“I had been a member of the Church about 18 months when I decided to join the Saints in Nauvoo. So I left with my family: my brothers and sisters and sister-in-law, my son Sylvester and me. We began in Wilton, Connecticut, and would have traveled by canal, by boat, to Nauvoo, at least as close as we could get, but when we got to Buffalo, they insisted on having our fares right then and there, because we were Negro.
“Well, we knew if we gave them the money, they would put us off the boat. So we began to walk and we walked the distance of over 800 miles to get to the Saints in Nauvoo. We walked until our shoes wore out, our feet became sore, cracked open and bled. Why you could see the whole print of our feet in blood as we walked.
“But we had faith. We stopped and we united in faith, and we asked Heavenly Father to heal our feet. And our feet were healed forthwith.”
“When we arrived at La Harpe, Illinois, about 30 miles from Nauvoo, we came across a child who was quite ill. We administered to it, and the child came well. I later learned the elders had given it up, as they did not think it could live.”
“When we arrived at [the Prophet Joseph Smith’s] mansion, Sister Smith kindly said, ‘Why, come in!’ And she went and got Brother Joseph. Brother Joseph came in and said to some white sisters that was present, ‘Sisters, I want you to share this room with some brothers and sisters who have just arrived.’
“ He sat down right next to me, and he said, ‘Now Jane, you’ve been the head of this little band, now haven’t you?’
“I said, ‘Well, yes sir.’
“He said, “Well, I want you to share some of the experiences of your travels.”
“Well, I told them all a great deal of what I’ve told you.
“Brother Joseph slapped Dr. Bernhisel on the knee and said, ‘Well, Dr., what do you think of that?’
“Dr. Bernhisel said, ‘I fear if it had been me, I would have turned back. I would have returned to my home.’
“Brother Joseph said, ‘Jane, you are among friends, and you will be protected.’
“All the others in my family had gone and got themselves homes, but I had none. One morning, I arose and looked at the only two pieces of clothing that I owned and I had to cry. Brother Joseph came through and he said, ‘Why, good morning, Jane. Not crying, are you?’
“And I said, ‘Well yes sir. I’ve lost two trunks full of clothes, mostly new. ’
“And he said, ‘Well, don’t cry, Jane. We dry up all tears around here. You shall have your clothes again.’”
“I saw Brother Smith and I asked him, ‘Shall I go to Burlington, take my sister, Angeline, with me?’ And he said, ‘Yes, go and be good girls, and remember your profession in the faith, the gospel of Jesus Christ.’
“So we went and we stayed three weeks. It was during this time that the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum, were martyred. And I shall never forget that time of agony, sorrow.
“I went to live with the family of Brother Brigham Young until he immigrated to this valley. After he left I stayed with another family. But it was while I lived with Brother Brigham that I married my husband, Isaac James.
“In the Spring, 1846, we decided to immigrate to this valley. So we went as far as Winter Quarters. There we spent the winter. My second son, Silas, was born at Hog Creek. All my children but two were born right here in this valley.
“We arrived here the 22nd day of September, 1847, without a single mishap. The only thing that did occur was that our cattle stampeded. Some of them we never did find.”
“Hardest thing I had to bear was to see my little ones want for bread and I had none to give them. But still, the Lord blessed us. And when I found out that Amasa Lyman had left for a mission to California in April 1849, he left his wife without means to make bread. So I went to Sister Lyman and I gave her two pounds of flour from my own bin. After all, I could spare it. I had four pounds in my own.”
“I try in my feeble way to be a good example. I keep the Word of Wisdom. I pay my tithes and offerings. I do my best to live the gospel. But my eyesight is failing. I pray the Lord will spare my eyesight that I may continue to read my scriptures; that I may continue to go to the temple and do baptisms for the dead for my family. In all the Lord has been good. The Lord has been kind. And I want to say right here and right now that my faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ is as strong today, nay, if it is possible, it is stronger than the day I was first baptized.