WASHINGTON, D.C. — There is something bittersweet about discovering the name of one of your relatives listed on a bill of sale as a piece of property, said researchers of African-American history during the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors Center's annual observance of Black History month.
Held each weekend during February, the event featured varied musical performances, lectures and exhibits. Many participants, largely people of other faiths, expressed a sense of being "at home" on the beautiful grounds near the temple.
More than 1,600 people, including ambassadors and other dignitaries, attended the evening events that kicked off with a fireside featuring Darius Gray, past president of the Genesis Group, and Margaret Young, a BYU professor of creative writing who collaborated with Brother Gray on a trilogy about black Mormon pioneers, "Standing On the Promises."
Among those attending Black History Month events were Sen. Robert Bennett who introduced Fritz K. Poku, ambassador of Ghana, who discussed ways that African-Americans have enlightened the world. Others in the audience were Simbi Mubako, ambassador of the Republic of Zimbabwe; Kassahun Ayele, ambassador of Ethiopia; and Ivor Agyeman-Duah, Minister-Counselor from the Embassy of Ghana.
When visitors and newspaper reporters ask why Mormons are celebrating black history, it opens the door for missionaries to affirm that the Church celebrates the history of all races and people, said Elder Jess Christensen, director of the visitors center.
"Our goal is to bring as many people as we can into the visitors center so they can feel the spirit here," Elder Christensen continued. "If they want to know more about the Church, the sister missionaries are here to teach. If they just enjoy bringing their family to an evening of wholesome entertainment or want to sit quietly before the beautiful Christus statue, then we are happy to make sure they are welcome and loved. We know the Lord will touch them."
Artists such as Lou Stovall welcomed the opportunity to exhibit 68 of his silk-screen prints and drawings.
"The space is gorgeous and quiet," said Mr. Stovall, "and the missionaries were so enthusiastic, loving the color of my art around them. The sisters had good thoughts and a sense of joy about themselves. It was wonderful to have people of that discipline love my work. It just felt good to share with people who are like-minded."
Carol Petranek, a member of the Visitors Center Cultural Arts Committee and chairwoman of the event, believes that people who came found "culturally familiar sights and sounds within a spiritual setting and are exposed to the Church in a unique way."
Archivist Chris Haley, nephew of Roots author Alex Haley and a descendant of Kunta Kinte, encouraged his listeners to find their ancestors. He said people should consider the kind of legacy they will leave for their children and suggested that everyone find one thing to do or to change that will affect it.
Anthony Cohen, another presenter, talked about the legacy of the Underground Railroad and how he walked in the footsteps of his ancestors by retracing the actual route of slaves escaping from Maryland to Canada.
For many area teenagers, the main attraction was 6-foot 11-inch Thurl Bailey who spoke of family and legacy. A former professional basketball player, he told how his love for his family led him to the Church in 1995. He humorously described the disappointments of his youth as he kept trying out for the basketball team but was repeatedly cut. When one of his coaches finally told him that he had "potential," he said he worked hard to transform that potential into reality.
The Alfred Street Baptist Church Choir, after members said they enjoyed their visit and asked if they could perform again, was promptly scheduled for the Christmas program.
Presenters from the Montgomery County Historical Society were impressed with the support and hospitality of Church members. Many in the group hope to hold a future meeting of the African-American Historical and Genealogical Society in Salt Lake City.
"But what really matters in the end," said Elder Christensen, "is that people felt invited and wanted. We've made friends with people from all around the world. Many are touched by the Spirit here and are changed. If this happened to only one person, these missionary and outreach efforts were worthwhile."
The Embassy of Ghana loaned an exhibit of colorful textiles and art. Other displays came from the Alexandria Black History Museum, the Maryland Historical Society, the Menare Foundation (Underground Railroad), and Margaret Young, who developed a photographic time line paralleling general U.S. historical events with those in black history. Sister missionaries showed visitors a copy of "Standing on the Promises," a trilogy about black Mormon pioneers that Young co-authored with Darius Gray. Visitors could also watch a video about the rise of the Church in Africa and take home a CD on African-American Family History Resources, which provides a wealth of genealogical data.
People should consider the kind of legacy they will leave for their children and find one thing to do or to change that will affect it.