This year marks the 40th anniversary of the 1978 Revelation on Priethood given to late-Church President Spencer W. Kimball regarding priesthood availability to all worthy male members of the Church. And with the celebration of black history month in February, independent historian Amy Thiriot said it is “a joyous occasion and a fitting time to remember the earliest black members” in the Church.
During a lecture at the Church History Museum’s series, titled “Evening at the Museum,” on Feb. 15, Thiriot shared a glimpse of her new research on black pioneers to an over-capacity audience.
Paul Reeve, a professor from the University of Utah, introduced Thiriot as a “thorough and meticulous researcher.” He quoted Thiriot’s own description of her work as having been prompted by “the little-known black pioneers of the Utah territory” and said that “theirs are stories that have largely been forgotten, so researching their lives has been like a second emancipation; freeing these men and women from historical obscurity.”
And while Thiriot’s research can be looked at as an exciting new turn that brings to light truths lost or hidden by history, the quiet and somber manner with which she told the histories of 19 black pioneers who played various roles in settling the Utah territory created a memorial-like atmosphere during the presentation.
In her lecture, Thiriot detailed the commonalities of ancestry among these early black Saints, as well as how their names, families, freedoms and heritage were taken from them by slave traders.
She noted one exception to this common thread was the story of a member named Gobo Fango, a man who came directly from South Africa to Utah. She told of how he left a legacy of work and service as a businessman and philanthropist upon his death. Thiriot showed documentation of a $500 donation Fango left to the building of the Salt Lake Temple.
And although there is no record of his baptism, said Thiriot, Fango serves as an example of the dedication and honor of early black members of the Church.
“When you see the Salt Lake Temple,” Thiriot said, “you can remember that it was financed in part by the hard-won fortune of a war refugee from South Africa after he found himself among friends in Grantsville.”
Another story Thiriot shared connected President Kimball to a man named Bishop Edwin D. Woolley, who stepped in to stop the abuse of a young slave named Daniel Camp. Although records of Camp’s whereabouts after his interactions with Woolley are not recorded, Thiriot noted that 127 years after Woolley and Camp’s interactions, Woolley’s grandson, Spencer Woolley Kimball, “received revelation that all worthy members of the Church were eligible for priesthood and temple blessings.”
Focusing again on the anniversary of the 1978 Revelation on Priesthood, Thiriot encouraged her audience to seek out and read the Church’s Gospel Topics Essay titled “Race and the Priesthood.” She noted that the essay provides numerous links to resources and articles related to the history and questions behind the priesthood ban.
These stories, and other detailed examples of documents and records uncovered by Thiriot, are just part of what makes her research groundbreaking for the black Mormon community.
Expressing his surprise for the new research Thiriot revealed during her presentation, Robert Burch, president of the Utah chapter of the Afro-American Historical Society, said, “Amy finds stuff that nobody would even recognize. I guess she just has a nose for it.”
Although the evening’s presentation offered only a small summary of the research she has done into the lives of these early black pioneers, Thiriot explained how she is working to offer a more complete history for each of these early Saints.
In an interview with the Church News, Thiriot detailed that she has been researching three or four years for her upcoming book Slaves in Zion: African American Servitude in Utah Territory, and that the process of getting to the truth of these individuals’ stories is an “intense and emotional work.”
The spiritual and emotional connection Thiriot feels in connection to her research became clear when she described the inscription on the gravestone of early Church member Green Flake — one of the first members to enter the Salt Lake Valley ahead of Brigham Young. On his gravestone is carved the words, “In my father’s house are many mansions.” Thiriot said this scripture serves as “a reminder of the inclusivity and universality found in the doctrines of Mormonism and the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
At the end of her presentation, Thiriot expressed her gratitude for those in attendance and their willingness to honor the heritage of these early Saints. She pointed particularly to those with ancestral ties to the early Saints in her presentation. She said, “theirs are stories that remind us not only of our triumphs, but also of the need to remake ourselves again, and again, and again in accordance with our highest ideals.” And that highest ideal, as she stated it, is keeping in mind that “all are alike unto God.”