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The Black Woman Who Served an Unprecedented Church Mission to Help Reduce Segregation, Prejudice in the Church

Martha Ann Jane Stevens Perkins Howell stood with dignity and determination as an African-American member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints between the slave years and the beginning of the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Through her example of seeking education, demonstrating a firm commitment to morality, and readily offering her friendship, she raised her family to be Latter-day Saints even under race-based disadvantages, and she herself rose to some prominence when she accompanied her second husband on an unprecedented mission for the Church. Although most of her posterity left the faith, all were affected for good by Martha Ann’s strength in her beliefs.

Martha Ann Jane Stevens was born in Union, Utah, on January 20, 1875, the second of the thirteen children of George Washington and Lucinda Flake Stevens.1 Martha Ann was born into a well-respected family of some fame. Her grandfather Green Flake, a slave of James Madison and Agnes Love Flake, was one of three “colored servants” in the vanguard Mormon pioneer company who reached the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847.2 . . .

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Martha Ann Jane Stevens (left) with her mother, Lucinda Flake Stevens (center), and sister Mary Belle Stevens Oglesby, ca. 1900.

Though Martha Ann Perkins was the granddaughter of a vanguard pioneer, she received more direct prejudice than reflected glory. In fact, Martha Ann’s mother, Lucinda Flake Stevens, ceased activity in the Church after the family moved to Idaho when Martha Ann was a child.

According to a friend of Martha’s sister, “When a few white members [in the Idaho Falls Fourth Ward] spoke up and said, ‘We will not go to Church when a d-mn n-gger is there!’ she [Lucinda] spoke up and said, ‘If the color of my skin offends anyone in the congregation, I will not show my face. I don’t want anyone to stay away from church because of me and my color.’”8 Lucinda nonetheless remained loyal to the faith, even though she did not attend church meetings. She was quoted as saying, “Once you are Mormon, nothing else will do!”9

Martha Ann, however, remained active in the Church and saw her mother become highly regarded as a midwife. . . . And despite the paradoxes and difficulties of society and of her chosen faith, Martha, along with a handful of other descendants of black pioneers, stayed firm in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though only one of her children, Mary Lucile, continued in it. . . .

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Four generations: Martha Ann, her daughter Mary Lucile Perkins Bankhead, granddaughter Ruth L. Bankhead Jackson, and great-granddaughter Betty Juanita Jackson, ca. 1944.

Abner Howell [Martha Ann's second husband] seemed to recognize the unique position he and Martha Ann held as black Latter-day Saints. They were a rarity, perhaps somewhat exotic. And they were important to the Church, even when they could merely fill the role of “the black Mormons.”

The possibility of segregated congregations was being considered by Church leaders, who were concerned that few descendants of the black pioneers had stayed in the faith, and they simultaneously observed the success of several churches that had established black branches.19 The Howells were invited to investigate possibilities and to assess the needs of African-American Latter-day Saints in southern and eastern states.20 This was an extraordinary mission call, one never duplicated.

Carrying a letter signed by Presiding Bishop LeGrand Richards, the Howells set out across the United States. The letter, dated June 20, 1951, stated:

"To Whom It May Concern:

"This will introduce to you Brother and Sister Abner L. Howell (colored) who are good members of our Church, being members of the Evergreen Ward here in Salt Lake City. Brother and Sister Howell have been faithful throughout the years and are now enjoying what they have looked forward to for a long time, namely a trip through the Southern and Eastern parts of the United States. We have invited them to call upon our people, the missionaries, and Saints wherever convenient. Any courtesies extended to them will be very much appreciated.

"Sincerely yours,

"LeGrand Richards"21

The first stop on the journey was in Boston, Massachusetts, where the Howells found a “homesick girl” at the mission home. Upon learning that the Howells were from Utah, the girl hugged Martha Ann and was made “a happy, well girl.”22

Later, Mr. and Mrs. Howell went to an address provided by apostle Mark E. Peterson. It was the home of Len and Mary Hope in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Hope family, having been forbidden by their local branch presidency to attend otherwise all-white Church meetings in Cincinnati, met with missionaries monthly in their home and attended branch meetings once every three months to pay their tithing. Reflecting on the Hopes’ situation, Abner Howell said, “We found that society had creeped into religion. Most of the members lived across the river on the Kentucky side, and some of them did not want the Negro family to come to church.”23

We can only imagine what meeting each other meant for Martha Ann Howell and Mary Hope—two women near the same age, both black Mormons. They knew what it was like to be black in 1951 America and also what it was like to be a black Mormon. Martha Ann’s gift for making friends found a welcome use.

That Sunday, Abner and Martha Ann attended sacrament meeting with the Hopes, the letter from Bishop Richards giving both families an implicit invitation to do so. Abner, after presenting the letter, was invited to speak. Abner described his sermon as follows:

"Somehow that last verse in the 26th chapter of 2nd Nephi said, 'Read me': 'He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.' As I had expected, those people came to shake my hand and greeted me as a good Latter-day Saint. One man said, 'I did not know there were such things in the Book of Mormon.'"24

The best part of the journey was the last. Martha Ann and Abner Howell traveled to Nauvoo, Illinois, where her grandfather Green Flake himself had spent a short time before the Mormon migration. Green had carried his master’s son William Jordan Flake to the top of the Nauvoo Temple in 1844, only days before the death of Joseph Smith.

The temple whose steps her grandfather had climbed had been reduced to only a few stone markers by 1951. The city of Nauvoo, once a place of beauty, was being claimed by surrounding swamps and cattails. Only a few of the original buildings still stood, and they were abandoned. But Martha Ann walked the weathered road Green Flake had walked. She knew how that early pioneer journey—with Green in the vanguard—had ended and where the continuing journey toward freedom led, though the final destination of full equality was not yet visible. All of them, the progenitor and the posterity being on the same journey—Green, Lucinda, Sylvester, and the rest—were still decades away from the goal of full equality under the law, the opportunity of full education for all, and unencumbered hope. Surely it was a gratifying and inspiring but also a solemn visit.

The Howells returned shortly thereafter to Utah, having concluded that segregated branches could not be sustained at the time, given the small numbers of black Mormons or blacks interested in the Church. The priesthood restriction was a factor, as race issues were beginning to come to the forefront in the United States.25 . . .

What is the legacy of this woman who lived her life between the slave years and the free ones? She was ten years old when her grandmother, for whom she was named, died, and Martha Ann surely remembered her. She knew well her formerly enslaved grandfather Green Flake. Martha Ann had chosen to remain a Latter-day Saint even after her mother was mistreated at church, and she had raised her children in the faith. Though only one child, Mary Lucile, remained active later in life, Martha Ann’s hopes were certainly realized in her. Mary Lucile Bankhead became the first Relief Society president of the Genesis Group, a social organization established by the Church in 1971 to support Saints of African descent who were then living under the priesthood restriction.29 Martha Ann and Abner Howell had seen that segregated branches would not be viable in the southern states, but the Genesis Group was a fitting solution for black Saints in Utah, and the group eventually reached into the Deep South—into Jacksonville, Florida, and Arlington, Texas.30

The story of the life of Martha Ann Jane Stevens Perkins Howell exemplifies those of blacks in the Church and in the United States during times of turmoil and nearly imperceptible societal progress toward real freedom and racial equality. She stands as a transition figure between the reality of slavery and the hope of equality, secure in her heritage, in her faith, and in her great expectations for the future.


Get more inspiring stories in Women of Faith in the Latter Days: Volume 4: 1871-1900.

This groundbreaking series recounts the lives of women of faith and dedication in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Often in their own words, they share their trials, triumphs, and testimonies.

This fourth volume features women born between 1872 and 1900 whose stories explore a comparatively untapped era in Mormon history. This generation of Latter-day Saint women experienced firsthand the challenges of the Mexican Revolution, World War I, and World War II. They also witnessed the unprecedented global expansion of the Church and the first young women to serve as proselytizing missionaries.

You will become reacquainted not only with such well-known figures as general Relief Society president Belle S. Spafford and Camilla Eyring Kimball, wife of President Spencer W. Kimball, but will also meet Kasimira Viktoria Cwiklinski Wurscher, who led the Relief Society in communist East Germany for more than twenty years; Edith Papworth Weenig Tanner, a British spy during World War I; and Maria Guadalupe Monroy Mera, who endured deep persecution, including the martyrdom of her brother, for her family's acceptance of the restored gospel in Mexico.

The faith these women exhibited as they rejoiced in blessings and dealt with struggles provides a model for us today in facing our own challenges as we too strive to build lives of faith.


Notes

1.    Three of the Stevens children died in infancy. Martha Ann’s siblings were Abraham Stevens (1873–1890), Daniel Stevens (1877–1955), Mary Belle Stevens (1879–1938), George W. Stevens (1881–1952), Ernest Stevens (1883–deceased), John Francis Stevens (1885–1942), Andrew Lavel Stevens (1887–deceased), Lucretia Stevens (1888–deceased), Willie Stevens (1889–deceased), Blanch Stevens (1890–deceased), William Stevens (1891–1901), Bertha Marie Stevens (1896–1994).

2.    The other two “colored servants” were Hark Lay and Oscar Crosby, half-brothers to Green Flake’s wife, Martha Vilate Crosby Flake. All had been enslaved in Mississippi, where, according to Bertha Stevens Udell, a sister of Martha Ann, their great-grandmother Vilate Crosby was “one of the women chosen to be in the ‘Crosby’s Breeding Farm.’ The Crosby master practiced selective breeding on his plantation so that healthy and strong slaves could be produced, so he could sell them for profit. A strong, healthy slave fetched a good price.” Quoted in John Fretwell, “Faithful John: Greater Love Hath No Man,” unpublished manuscript, private possession, p. 9. John Fretwell, grandson of the Flake family’s Idaho bishop, Bishop Simmons, did extensive research on the Flake family, including interviews with Bertha Udell (now deceased) and other Flake descendants.

3.    Martha’s middle name, Vilate, was from her grandmother, a well-known midwife whose arm was reportedly shriveled due to her mistreatment as a child during slave years. Marie Taylor and Darius Gray, interview by Margaret Blair Young, April 12, 2001, Salt Lake City, Utah.

4.    The name Morris was the given name of Martha Vilate’s father, Morris Wales Crosby. Martha Flake’s maiden name is listed as Morris on the December 9, 1928, baptism certificate of her daughter Lucinda (Fretwell, Miscellaneous Family Papers on Green Flake, private possession) and on the Idaho death certificates of two of her children: Abraham (certificate number 96944) and Lucinda (certificate number 102074); both death certificates available at https://familysearch.org.

5.    Jane Manning James is arguably the best known of the black Mormon pioneers. See Margaret Blair Young, “‘The Lord’s Blessing Was with Us’: Jane Elizabeth Manning James,” in Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Volume 2, 1821–1845, ed. Richard E. Turley Jr. and Brittany A. Chapman (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2012), 120–48; “Jane Manning James,” accessed November 18, 2016, http://www.blacklds.org/manning.

6.    Nettie James was Sylvester Perkins’s niece. She was the daughter of Mary Ann Perkins and Sylvester James (son of Jane Manning James). Louis Leggroan was the son of Ned and Susan Leggroan. See also https://www.lds.org/new-era/1974/06/samuel-d-chambers, which mentions the Leggroans, family of Amanda Leggroan Chambers, wife of Samuel Chambers.

7.    Mary Lucile [Perkins] Bankhead (daughter of Sylvester and Martha Ann Jane Stevens Perkins), interview by Alan Cherry, April 11, 1985, transcript, p. 7, LDS African American Oral History Project, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, hereafter cited as BYU Special Collections. See also https://www.lds.org/new-era/1974/06/samuel-d-chambers, which mentions the Leggroans, family of Samuel Chambers’s wife, Amanda.

8.    John Fretwell, “Faithful John: Greater Love Hath No Man,” n.d., unpublished manuscript, [p. 12], private possession.

9.    Fretwell, “Faithful John,” [12].

10.    Bankhead, interview by Cherry, 6.

11.    Bankhead, interview by Cherry, 7.

12.    The 1910 U.S. Census taken on May 2, 1910 (eight months before Nettie’s death), indicates that Louis, Nettie, Thelma, and Frances Leggroan were living together in the Wilford Ward, Salt Lake City (the same ward in which Martha and Sylvester Perkins’s family lived). However, Frances Leggroan was baptized four years later in Milo, Idaho, on October 10, 1914. Record of Members Collection, 1907–1941, Milo Ward, Bingham Stake, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah. It may be that the Leggroan family considered Milo to be their primary residence, though they spent much time in Salt Lake City.

13.    Bankhead, interview by Cherry, 11–12.

14.    Sylvester Perkins was born on July 4, 1868, and died on March 9, 1934. His death certificate says he died of carcinoma of prostate with metastasis. “Sylvester Perkins,” 1934, State of Utah Death Certificate, file no. 420.

15.    “Abner Leonard Howell,” Department of Law, Calendar of the University of Michigan, 1903–1904 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1904), 351.

16.    “Fielding H. Yost,” University of Michigan Football Coaches, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, accessed November 18, 2016, http://bentley.umich.edu/athdept/football/coaches/fhyost.htm; Laura M. Calkins, “Howell, Abner Leonard,” Oxford African American Studies Center, Oxford University Press, accessed November 18, 2016, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t0001/e2951.

17.    Howell’s own account, published in Kate B. Carter, The Story of the Negro Pioneer (Salt Lake City, UT: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1965), 58, says that his marriage took place in 1903, but the official Michigan state record says it was August 30, 1904. The Howells’ first child, according to birth records and Abner’s account in Carter’s book, was born in November 1904, meaning that Nina was five or six months pregnant when they were married, thus increasing the pressure for Abner to drop out of school and make a living that could sustain his family. “Michigan, Marriages, 1868–1925,” Department of Vital Records, Lansing, FamilySearch, accessed November 18, 2016, https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/N3F5-QWH.

18.    Abner L. Howell, interview by Boyd Burbidge, October 26, 1958, Los Angeles, California, audio recording, private possession. Burbidge was a close friend to whom Abner left many of his possessions, including the letter to southern congregations signed by LeGrand Richards, Abner’s patriarchal blessing, and a book given to him by Heber J. Grant. Howell, interview by Burbridge.

19.    Although not directly correlative, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) had its roots in Methodism and was established in 1816 by black members who wanted to meet separately from white Methodists. Baptists also had segregated congregations.

20.    The account of Abner and Martha Howell’s visit to the southern and eastern states, and all of the related material, is extracted from Abner Howell’s own report, given to Kate Carter and published in Negro Pioneer, 57–58. According to Boyd Burbidge, Abner told him that they (the Howells) were not merely vacationing but on assignment to seek out the black members in the South and investigate the possibility of establishing black branches. Boyd Burbidge, interview by Margaret Blair Young, 2002, audio recording, private possession.

21.    LeGrand Richards, Letter, June 20, 1951, holograph on loan to BYU Special Collections from Margaret Blair Young and Darius Gray. LeGrand Richards served as Presiding Bishop of the Church from 1938 to 1952. In April 1952 he was sustained a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and served in that capacity until his death on January 11, 1983.

22.    Carter, Negro Pioneer, 59.

23.    Quoted in Carter, Negro Pioneer, 19.

24.    Howell, audio recording.

25.    “For much of its history—from the mid-1800s until 1978—the Church did not ordain men of black African descent to its priesthood or allow black men or women to participate in temple endowment or sealing ordinances.” “Race and the Priesthood,” Gospel Topics Essays, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, accessed February 18, 2017, https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood.

26.    Jessie L. Embry, Black Saints in a White Church: Contemporary African American Mormons (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1994), 26.

27.    Marion Duff Hanks, interview by Margaret Blair Young and Darius Gray, May 21, 2002, audio recording, Salt Lake City, Utah, private possession.

28.    Quoted in Craig R. Ducat, Constitutional Interpretation, Vol. II: Rights of the Individual, 10th ed. (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2013), 1152.

29.    Members of the Genesis Group belong to a variety of home wards and meet together monthly to worship, sing, socialize, and support active and less active black Latter-day Saints. Meetings of the Genesis Group are supplemental, not a substitute for other Church meetings. When the priesthood restriction was lifted in 1978, the Genesis Group was dissolved, but it was revived in 1996 and continues to thrive. On the history of the Genesis Group, see Margaret Blair Young, “The Genesis Group: Support for Black Latter-day Saints,” Meridian Magazine, August 17, 2012, accessed February 16, 2016, http://ldsmag.com/article-1-11298

30.    At the time of this writing, the Genesis Group in Jacksonville, Florida, is headed by Wiley Darden and the one in Arlington, Texas, by Rameses Stewart-Johnson

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