Do Mormon genealogy records include black people?

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freed-family-on-plantation_thumb-e4fc1a2387fdcb3e7652c2d0a22dc8e0I read with interest this morning on The Root that a question has surfaced about whether the LDS Church has excluded African Americans from its sweeping database of genealogical records because of racial bias.

A reader named Chris wrote in with some details about immediate family members and asked for help in tracing the family’s history farther back:

I would like some pointers on how to find my ancestors. I have tried on my own on, and I have heard that the Mormons kept meticulous records, yet I am an African American, so I don’t know if they would have records on my kin.

Historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (whom you may be familiar with if you’ve ever watched the excellent TV series Finding Your Roots, which he hosts) and genealogical researcher Anna L. Todd started their response by giving some particular information they were able to dig up on Chris’s grandparents and great-grandparents. After providing the fruits of this research, they noted:

Don’t discount searching the records that have been collected by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to which Mormons belong. It is true that prior to 1978 the church denied priesthood status to black men. However, Professor Gates has visited the Family History Library, operated by FamilySearch, the genealogical branch of the LDS Church, many times since 1992 to pursue genealogical research. He has been warmly greeted and aided generously by the staff there, most of whom, presumably, are practitioners of the Mormon faith.

In fact, it’s fair to say that the success of the research done for his PBS series Finding Your Roots is both a direct and indirect result of the marvelous record keeping and indexing of those records by the Family History Library. Professor Gates often tells the audiences who attend his lectures around the country, “Every African American searching for her or his roots owes a deep debt to the meticulous record keeping and record gathering of the Mormon church. Their goal seems to be nothing less than documenting the family trees of as much of the human community as possible, regardless of race, religion or national origin, and thank God for their efforts!”

I’d also note that on June 19 of this year, the LDS Church helped to launch an ambitious effort to index the records of four million freed slaves with volunteer labor. When this project is finished, the records that the Freedmen’s Bureau collected after the Civil War on marriages, education, land distribution, and other life events will be completely searchable and available to the public.

Is it enough? No. But it is an excellent beginning.

  • Cary Martinez

    Oh Jana. . . Sigh…
    Even when you write one of your few positive articles about the LDS Church, you just can´t help dirtying the water a bit with comments like, “Is it enough? No. But it is an excellent beginning.” You really don´t recognize your own bias against the religion in which you claim activity, do you? When RNS gets a real LDS writer, whose writings actually represent main stream Mormonism, maybe they will gain a little more credibility with readers like me.

  • Omoikane

    Why isn’t it enough in your opinion? I am a little confused by that statement. What else are they supposed to do? The lack of documentation of slaves, indentured servants, and the poor are not the LDS Church’s problem. Research is the best they can do, and aren’t they doing it? Before Mormon-oriented companies like existed, African-Americans had no relatively easy way to document their ancestry at all.

  • A Happy Hubby

    Oh Cary … Sigh …
    Just checking if you could start your reply with a bit more condescension? You did a reasonable job and a good start, but more is needed.

    You may not agree with much of what Jana blogs about or her style, but you can catch more fly’s with honey than vinegar.

    I think it is very easy to assume intent from some written words that might not be what was intended. I took her statement more to be, “This is a great start and I sure hope we continue and do even more”. I didn’t see any negativity in it at all.

    But to be fair – maybe I misread your starting statement. Maybe it wasn’t an attempt to show pity on poor Jana that is just so blind to her failings.

    We are all blind to a lot of things we do. Forgiveness and dialog of wanting to better understand. So forgive me my snarky response to what I perceived as your stnarky response to what you perceived as Jana’s snarky response.

  • Tim Jones

    “When RNS gets a real LDS writer…”
    Let’s just hope that any writer RNS gets doesn’t call active, church-attending, calling-and-temple-recommend-holding LDS members “not real LDS” just because the writer’s too narrow-minded to accept that not all members of the church think exactly like the writer does.

  • I am a historian under contract with an academic press to write a book about the approximately 100 African American slaves who lived in Utah Territory before slavery was outlawed in 1862, and I also have on-the-ground experience helping African American families trace their genealogy.

    Professor Gates is correct, but as kindly as I can say it, the closing statement to this article is not correct. There’s no “enough” and never will be in the search for African American genealogy — no amount of effort from any genealogical organization will be able to heal the wounds of slavery and racism or create records that don’t exist — and the “excellent beginning” happened well over a century ago when FamilySearch (Genealogical Society of Utah) started collecting American family and legal records.

    The Freedmen’s Bureau Project is not a beginning; it is an important chapter in a long and fascinating story, and it will be a historic day when the entire collection is indexed and…

  • Me

    Of course they keep records on black people. How else would all the colour blind people have known who to keep out of their temples until 1978? (For 14 years after the 1964 civil rights act which banned racial discrimination). What a silly question.

  • Robert Versluis

    Right on! Excellent comment to “A Happy Husband”!

    Jana is brilliant because she believes, preaches and studies for herself.

    Sometimes the Church gets it wrong “Cary”. Please read the Church’s official essay on why they denied black folks the Priesthood for so long. It wasn’t because the Lord told them to, it was because many were bigots. It’s just an ugly reality we learn to live with, make changes now and be better people.

    Here you go:

  • Joseph

    Almost half a million Freedman Bank records were indexed and made available on Family Search 14 years ago. The Launch of the Bureau indexing isn’t a beginning at all- that is of course, unless you were unaware it has been going on for quiet some time:)

  • Omoikane

    I couldn’t agree more with you.

  • Mike

    So does the church keep records of black people or not? Did they before 1978?

  • Amy T

    Yes and yes.

    Can you explain what you mean by “records” and “black people,” so I know how to address your concerns?

    Are you talking about doing African American genealogy research? If so, see a book like Black Roots (Burroughs). That summarizes the records including those in the Mormon genealogical collections, but only goes back to 1870. There are specialized books including Slave Genealogy (Streets), but authors would want to wait until the Freedmen’s Bureau records went online before updating research guides, so your best bet right now is to google the African American Genealogy Group (AAGG).

    If you are asking whether the Mormons had something like the Ahnenpaß to make sure no one of black ancestry had access to the priesthood and to keep their records in FamilySearch, I can’t help you. The question doesn’t make sense in terms of genealogy record collections. Yes, black genealogy was kept with white genealogy. It’s impossible to separate the two!

  • Amy T

    Also, if you’re interested in a historical rather than a genealogical approach, I would suggest Russell Stevenson’s “For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism” (2014). It was awarded the Mormon History Association Best Book Award. I take issue with a few of his interpretations, but he did a good and detailed job pulling together the data and telling the story, and it is the best comprehensive history on the topic.

  • Amy T

    That should say “…and to keep their records out of FamilySearch…”

    I am only addressing American records here; international records are another story altogether. Basically, records only exist when governments or churches created and preserved them, and they are only in the LDS collections when governments or churches or historical societies have given permission to copy them. The efforts to microfilm and now digitize record collections is a huge, expensive, time-intensive effort and relies heavily on the great sacrifices of senior missionaries and others who have toiled to create and preserve the records.

  • Mormonism keeps good records on genealogical history, but on the history of Jesus they have it wrong:

  • Richard

    I too thought that the author expressed the sentiment that the Church had not done enough in making records of blacks available–as if the Church had something for which it needed to apologize in this regard when there is no particular evidence to support. This struck me as odd, especially when juxtaposed with the very positive comments of Professor Gates.