This is part of the DR Book Collection.
As I’ve shared before, a few years ago my manager came up to me and asked, “Walker, you’re Mormon, right?” Living in Texas, this always sets off an alarm inside my head. I had never told him I was Mormon, so he had obviously heard it elsewhere. “Yes…,” I replied. Then, the sledgehammer: “Do Mormons have a problem with black people?” It’s important to note that my manager is African-American. He explained that we had gotten along so well and that he was surprised to hear some of the things said about Mormons and blacks and to learn that I was a Mormon. He couldn’t square the supposed racist ideology of Mormonism with his personal interactions with me. This led to a 15-20 minute discussion about the history of the priesthood ban. I ended with my personal view: “The priesthood ban was a mistake, the result of racist folklore, which was allowed to continue for an excruciatingly long time. Thankfully, that policy no longer exists today.” My manager enjoyed the conversation and seemed to understand the complexities surrounding the issue.
The history of Mormonism and race is both sad and fascinating. W. Paul Reeve’s Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness is the book for understanding the history of the priesthood ban. Yet, it is much more than that. It is also an illuminating tale of race relations and the very concept of race in 19th-century America. Despite being predominantly white Yankees or Northern Europeans, Mormons were seen as racially degenerate. Not only did they supposedly associate with blacks and reds (Native Americans), but they also practiced the degrading, foreign barbarism of polygamy. The Mormon response to reclaim this seemingly withheld status of “whiteness” was to eventually distance themselves from non-whites, finally leading to the barring of blacks from both the priesthood and the temple.
An important and needed book in Mormon history. You can see a presentation by Reeve at Benchmark Books below: