Latter-day Saint Life

The Bonner Family talks about their African American heritage in gospel music

Courtesy of The Bonner Family

Anyone who watches The Bonner Family can see straightaway that the performers have natural talent. The gospel singers, who were recently featured in Christmas With the Chosen and who performed at the June 2018 “Be One” celebration for the Church, have also produced four music albums. But what listeners may not know is that the Bonner’s talent doesn’t begin with their generation—it’s a part of their family’s legacy.

Gospel music has always been a part of the Bonner family as a tradition that has been passed down from one generation to the next. But their ties to gospel music are even stronger than many people realize: the Bonner family’s great-aunt Grace Louise Bonner was a trailblazer in gospel music.

While this knowledge is meaningful in and of itself for the Bonners and gives them a deeper understanding of who they are, they hope their story is just the beginning and will inspire others who are seeking to know more about their family history.

“Praising with Us”

Born in Tallapoosa, Georgia, on June 18, 1909, Grace Louise Bonner was the sixth of 10 children who moved with her family to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1916. At the time, her family’s favorite form of entertainment was to play piano, which they used to learn to harmonize as they sang with each other. Grace, her brother, and her sister formed a group called the Bonner Family Singers, which eventually became a quintet, and the group sang at the People’s Missionary Baptist Church on Sundays where their father was the head deacon.

Grace Louise Bonner, bottom right, formed a group called the Bonner Family Singers.
Courtesy of The Bonner Family.

Having a deeper understanding of how their ancestors shared faith through song, just like their family does today, connects generations past and present, says Yahosh Bonner.

“Knowing that our great aunts and uncles sang gospel music together—that's something that we share in connection with them. So it gives us a sense of pride and honor,” says Yahosh. “And I'm humbled to do it in a very similar way. And I like to think that they’re … rooting us on and praising with us who [are] singing, ‘We are more than what you see because of the generations before us.’”

Gospel music is also a reminder, says Yahosh Bonner, of the strength of his ancestors, which strengthens him in return.

“What I find so unique about the faith of our family and Black culture is singing songs of praise [in] the hardest of times, in the worst circumstances imaginable,” he says. “Gospel music is a big part of that celebration of Christ—it's a spin-off of those Negro spirituals that they would rejoice in and find comfort in. So I draw strength from their faith and ability to praise and worship, not just when it's good, but when it's the hardest.”

Back to Their Roots

The Bonner family was able to travel to Cincinatti and see the church where their great-aunt Grace performed and talk to people who knew her and were uplifted by her and her family’s gift of music. The Bonners were also able to visit the neighborhood where Grace grew up and see her gravesite. Their experience was filmed and produced by videographer Kevin Mitchell of KinTv, and the video was shown at RootsTech last year. See a short clip of the video below.

In their research, the Bonners learned that Grace also had connections with Thomas Dorsey, who is considered to be the father of gospel music. Grace’s name even appears in university archives as having sung Dorsey’s composition “I’m Talking about Jesus.”

Yahosh and Mauli say Grace’s attributes remind them of their sisters and even their mother (who is not related by blood to Grace) because of how they look after their family and are natural leaders.

The search to understand more about their ancestors doesn’t stop with Grace, though. Mauli, who helped share the story of an enslaved pioneer in his movie His Name Is Green Flake, has recently learned about another Black pioneer on the Saints’ trek out west: Biddy Mason. Enslaved by members of the Church, Biddy traveled to San Bernardino with her family. But since California was a free state, Biddy, now free, went on to be a midwife and ultimately started the first African Methodist Episcopal Church. The Bonners’ grandfather would later be a pastor of that church in Waco, Texas.

But it isn’t easy for the Bonners to do their family history—Mauli says his family came from the Bonner plantation, so even their name isn’t their own. So the steps they’ve taken are just the beginning of learning more. But the Bonners hope that by sharing the discoveries they’ve made with their family history, African Americans who are struggling to finding their ancestors will be inspired in their search.

“There’s a whole lot of African Americans that think that it’s impossible to find family,” Mauli says. “You know, it's very difficult to find family if you come from enslaved ancestry, but hopefully showing our journey of discovery will invite and empower others to do the same. When we find our ancestors we feel things that we never knew we needed to feel.”

An Empowering Knowledge

Just as gospel music has been passed down to them, Yahosh and Mauli are sharing that same tradition with their children. They find that music is a way for their families to be connected to God, their faith, and their ancestors.

The Bonner family's history in gospel music goes back generations.
Courtesy of The Bonner Family

“Every night before we go to bed, we have a song of praise,” says Yahosh. “The praise can be a gospel song. It could be a song from Primary, but we sing together. Music is a huge way for us to not only praise God, but to learn the gospel and to stay connected to what our family has done for generations.”

Mauli adds that appreciating the past makes him and his family better people today.

“It’s almost like [my children are] honoring more than just a mother and their father because they know that there were people that came before them before us,” he says. “But it’s even more motivation to be good and to overcome anything that’s difficult because they know stories of people who are like them. … And I think those stories are important. I think it’s important to tell the truths of the struggle, and the successes and endurance that they’ve had through those hardships. And so I find that it only empowers my children in the same way that it empowers me to be the best of me.”

You can watch more songs the Bonner family has recorded below.

Stay in the loop!
Enter your email to receive updates on our LDS Living content