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Honoring Jane Manning James: Courage on a Stage of Bigotry

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September 1, 2005 by Susan Easton Black

Jane Manning James was a black Mormon pioneer known for her faith, endurance, and charity. She joined the Church at age nineteen in Connecticut. She and her family walked 800 miles to Nauvoo, where they were taken in by Joseph and Emma Smith at the Mansion House. Failing to find employment as her family members did, Jane stayed on with the Smiths for several months. After the martyrdom, Jane lived with Brigham YoungÂ’’s family. She married Isaac James and together they made the journey west. They had eight children, although only two survived them. Their daughter Mary Ann was the first black child born in Utah.

On Friday, April 1, 2005 the Genesis Group (an official organization begun under Joseph Fielding Smith to support Latter-day Saints of African descent) along with the Missouri Mormon Frontier Foundation, dedicated the completed Jane Manning James monument in the Salt Lake Cemetery. For the event, the original monument depicting Jane’s gift of flour to Eliza Partridge Lyman was cleaned and sealed. Jane’s own words and significant events from her life were placed on the back of the monument on another bronze plaque. A headstone was also placed to memorialize the children and grandchildren of Jane and Isaac James, many of whom are buried just north of the monument in unmarked graves. Susan Easton Black was one of the featured speakers. With her permission, her remarks are printed here.

PERVASIVE IN THE TIMELINE of this world are notations of conflicts, nations rising and nations falling, and man’s inhumanity to man. But every now and then, the in the continuum of a vanishing civilization, the Lord places people that make a difference and cause us to pause from the conflicts of the day to remember that dotting the landscape of time are such noble and great ones as Beethoven, Handel, Rembrandt, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, and, yes, Jane Manning. These individuals from ages past help us remember the beautiful, the sublime, and the good about life.

Today, we honor the memory of Jane Manning James, who said to her biographer Elizabeth J. D. Roundy, “I try in my feeble way to set a good example to all.” None of us would describe her life as a “feeble example.” Her triumph, her determination, her faith to surmount the times in which she lived that were laced with prejudice, slavery, and worse, makes her a beacon in her time and an example for each of us. The work of Darius Gray, Margaret Young, Ronald Coleman, Bill Curtis, Genesis, and a host of others to bring her life story forward for generations yet unborn suggests that her contribution was laudatory and will be remembered throughout time.

What makes Jane so unforgettable is that she rose above the times in which she lived. She was born when James Monroe was president of these United States and Missouri had entered the union as the 24th state. The U.S. population had reached 9.2 million, about the size of Los Angeles.

Jane, never a slave, but surely a servant, must have known something of the egotistical white supremacy of her day, the underground railroads, and more. Did she know at age six that the Freedom’s journal was launched, or at age twelve that slavery was abolished in the British Empire—and within her life would be so in the United States? Freedom was beginning to be set in motion for Afro-Americans in her youth, and almost coinciding with that motion was the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In the spring of 1820, one year before Jane’s birth, Joseph Smith, Jr., saw “two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—’This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him!'” (Joseph Smith History 1:17, 21.) Joseph described the persecution—yes, prejudice— that followed his belief in this vision. “Though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true,” said Joseph. “I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it” (Joseph Smith History 1:22, 25).

These were difficult days for Joseph Smith, yet more soon followed. But Joseph was resolute and determined to remain faithful to what he knew to be true. Many of his followers shared that determination and ventured forth from the beginnings of the Church in New York to the swampland in Illinois called Nauvoo.

By 1843 at age twenty-two, when Jane Manning was being taught the gospel of Jesus Christ and making baptismal covenants, an estimated 23,000 people had joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The average age at that time was twenty-six years old. That paralleled Jane’s. Church membership was 51 percent men and 49 percent women. The name of the man was most typically a Bible or English name, and the name of the woman Elizabeth, and, yes, Jane. Jane’s name is typical. As most Saints came from the East, so it was her background. She appears to resonate in most ways with the young followers of Joseph Smith.

But not so in all respects. Jane and her family stood out in any and all Latter-day Saint meetings. The Church that Joseph led was composed of whites. Jane did not let the dominant racial variance interfere with her faith. That alone makes her life worth remembering. After joining the Church in the East, she walked to Nauvoo to be with the Saints. Why no steamboat passage for her? The only reason is prejudice.

Would she find the safe haven she had hoped for in Nauvoo as she journeyed rejoicing, singing hymns and thanking God for his infinite goodness? She faced disappointment, as not all of the Saints were immune to the social norms of the day. But there was one who embraced her that made all the difference to her. It was the Prophet Joseph Smith.

The Prophet knew much of prejudicial treatment. He had endured tarring and feathering, an extermination order, and imprisonment in Independence, Richmond, and Liberty Jail. Yet he knew that there was a God in heaven and that God in heaven had sent to him a choice daughter in the 1840s named Jane Manning.

For Jane, when she saw Joseph—she knew him. She said, “I knew him when I saw him in Old Connecticut in a vision, saw him plain and knew he was a prophet.” She was welcomed by him, and other Saints followed suit.

After the martyrdom when some of the Saints made the choice to remain in beautiful Nauvoo, Jane did not. She joined 80,000 adherents of Mormonism and followed Brigham Young to the Salt Lake Valley.

As a resident of the valley, she knew something of the California Gold Rush, the Dred Scott decision, Johnston’s army roaring down upon Utah, the Civil War, the assassination of Lincoln, and in 1870 Afro-American men being given the right to vote. Perhaps she even knew of the first Afro-American senator, Hiram Revels, and more.

Yet the continuum of her life, much life the life of Joseph Smith, focused on her faith. To me her life was one of courage on a large stage of bigotry.

I am grateful that Jane Manning was a friend of my pioneer ancestors. I express great gratitude to her. She was an example, a beacon in a world tossed with cruelty.

For a historical sketch of Jane’s life, read Becky Cardon Smith’s article, Remembering Jane Manning James, published online in Meridian Magazine.

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