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Where, When, & Why Did the One-Drop Rule Originate?

In our next conversation, we’re going to talk to Dr. Matt Harris of Colorado State University-Pueblo.  We will talk about the “one-drop rule.”  How is it that Mormons determined blackness, especially if they were biracial families? We’ll also talk about a Supreme Court decision in the 1960s that legalized interracial marriage.

Matt:  What is interesting about this is that depending on the state, these laws are very fluid in the early 20th century.  I tell my students, we teach civil rights and we talk about this.  In fact, we discuss the book Loving vs. Virginia, which is the Supreme Court case that strikes down these miscegenation laws, declares them unconstitutional.  This is 1967.

But anyway, what’s interesting is that in the early 20th century these miscegenation laws are very fluid.  One state might say it’s one-quarter.  Another state might say it’s one-eighth, or one-sixteenth.  I joke with my students sometimes that on Monday, a black man can marry a white woman because they fit within the parameters of the law, but then they change the law on Wednesday and now it’s no longer constitutional.

Don’t forget to check out our previous conversation with Matt, and you might want to check out our interview with Dr. Paul Reeve, where we talk about where Woodruff incorrectly quotes Brigham Young referring to anyone with “one-drop” of African blood not being eligible for the priesthood.  (The quote is NOT accurate.)  Check out our conversation…..

How do you determine blackness? Is one-drop enough?
How do you determine blackness? Is one-drop enough?

 

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Before 1978: LDS Policies for Bi-racial Families in Brazil & South Africa

I’d like to introduce Dr. Matt Harris in our next conversation.  He has done a lot of Mormon history work and he’s not very well-known, but I think he will be, especially after he finishes his upcoming books.  We will talk about some of these books that he has published, as well as his future books.  We’re also going to talk about the history of the ban.  With the 40th anniversary of the removal of the ban coming up here in just a few weeks, this will be a very timely interview.  Dr. Matt Harris has some really interesting insights and it is going to reveal some really cool, historical information.  It’s one of my favorite interviews yet.  Now, let’s ask a little bit about how he is going to talk about Brazil.  What did the church do with missionaries there?

Matt:  In Brazil, they were kind of trendsetters, if you will.  They did what are called lineage lessons.  The mission president instructed the missionaries, and the mission president I should say got approval from Salt Lake to do this lineage lesson.  But it really was just mostly practiced in Brazil, rather than other places with African populations.  But anyway, these lineage lessons stipulated that if missionaries were out proselytizing and they came across somebody who had African ancestry, who had a parent that they felt would be a prime candidate for the restriction.  They were supposed to come to the door, knock on the door, recognize that they were under the ban and they would just say, “Can you tell us we’re in the neighborhood; we are trying to find this general store or other church. Can you tell us where it is?”

If they weren’t sure if this couple had African ancestry, then they would come in and ask questions about their genealogy, trying to determine through discussion if they had African roots.  Sometimes they would even ask to look at their photo album.  They were discrete about it.  They weren’t going to tell people this is what we are looking for, but this shows you how difficult the burden was in determining the bloodline.  J. Reuben Clark recognized this as early as 1938 and expressed skepticism that the church could confer the priesthood on Brazilians without violating this policy.

There were similar issues in South Africa.  What happened there?

Dr. Matt Harris talks about how LDS Church dealt with racial issues in Brazil & South Africa before the 1978 revelation.
Dr. Matt Harris talks about how LDS Church dealt with racial issues in Brazil & South Africa before the 1978 revelation.

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Check out our conversation…..

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Walker Lewis: Faithful Black Elder

We’re winding down our Black History Month conversations with Dr. Newell Bringhurst.  In our next conversation, we’ll talk about Walker Lewis, a black elder in Boston, Massachusetts.  In fact Wilford Woodruff once described this faithful black elder as “an example to our more whiter brethren.”

Newell:  He was based in Lowell, Massachusetts and he was a barber.  He also belonged to a black Masonic lodge.  There was kind of an interesting Masonic connection there with him.  Connell O’Donovan has done a lot more research on him than I have and shown that he had interaction with a number of apostles that were coming through, so he was well known amongst the apostles that were coming through.  It was William Smith, the younger brother of Joseph Smith that ordained him an elder.

It’s William Appleby who expresses shock when he comes upon him and he finds out Walker Lewis is an elder in the church and this is after the death of Joseph Smith, and [Appleby] writes back, “Is it right that this man should hold the priesthood?  If it is so I have yet to learn it.”

So that’s caused some people to say the ban maybe was in place even earlier but there isn’t other evidence to support that.  Maybe it was just because whatever was going through Walker Lewis’s mind.  There just weren’t that many blacks in the church.  Maybe this was kind of an unusual situation for him.

Ultimately as I say he becomes kind of a well-known figure.  They don’t seem to question his priesthood.  That kind of supports the argument and is one more indication that there was no ban on black ordination.  Even in later church leaders, all the way down into the 20th century when Bennion is doing his study in [19]54, church leaders acknowledged that Walker Lewis had been ordained.  That was acknowledged by even J. Reuben Clark.  I discuss this in an article that is going to be forthcoming, the ’54 recollections and the church struggling with whether blacks could be ordained and what could be the historical justifications were.

But getting back to Walker Lewis himself, he eventually makes his way out to Utah thinking that maybe he can get his endowments but they deny him so he makes his way back to Boston or to Lowell and resumes his barber practice.  There are suggestions that later on, Jane James wants to be sealed to Walker Lewis because she is aware of who Walker Lewis was and that he was indeed a priesthood holder.  To bolster the legitimacy of her request for endowments, she says “Can I be sealed to Walker Lewis?”  Of course that is denied.  That is a poignant story in and of itself.

Had you heard of Walker Lewis before?