How art, music and faith played a role in BYU’s commemoration of Black History Month

The purpose of all events and activities is to help students know and understand ‘that we are all children of God,’ says Carl Hernandez, a vice president at BYU

Susan Gray Reed Leggroan was born a slave in Mississippi but died a Latter-day Saint in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Her story includes widowhood and remarriage, emancipation and pioneering in harsh frontier conditions, the birth of 13 children and the young death of five of them, her conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the love and respect of her posterity and community.

Susan Gray Reed Leggroan is just one of many Black Latter-day Saints featured in a gallery outside Brigham Young University’s Office of Belonging, and the gallery is just one of many activities, events and tributes BYU has sponsored this February in honor of Black History Month.

Ned and Susan Leggroan, early Black Latter-day Saints, were baptized in Utah in 1873. | J. Willard Marriott Library, “Century of Black Mormons” exhibit

‘Connected to Each Other’

In the United States, February is designated as Black History Month, which honors the triumphs and struggles of African Americans throughout U.S. history.

The Office of Belonging centered its commemoration efforts for the month on the theme “A Legacy of Faith: Connected to Each Other Through the Family of God.” 

The theme was inspired by the “Century of Black Mormons” exhibit of the J. Willard Marriott Library, which includes biographical sketches of individuals of Black African descent baptized into the Church between 1830 and 1930.

The Office of Belonging uses gospel-centered methods in its efforts to create a community of belonging, said Carl Hernandez, BYU vice president of belonging. As such, it was a natural step to focus on the triumphs, faith and struggles of Black Latter-day Saints. “Sharing the stories about Black Latter-day Saints who gathered, who served and sacrificed, and who stayed true to the gospel of Jesus Christ inspires our students and helps to increase their faith in Jesus Christ,” he said.

More broadly, all of the events and activities sponsored by the Office of Belonging through the month were meant to help students know and understand “that we are all children of God and that our faith in Jesus Christ is increased as we share personal and family history stories,” Hernandez said.

Connecting the human family

Students look through a gallery of Black Latter-day Saints hanging outside the Office of Belonging in the Wilkinson Center on BYU campus in Provo, Utah. The gallery is one of many ways BYU has commemorated Black History Month in February 2023. | Christi Norris/BYU

On Feb. 15, the Office of Belonging hosted its gallery-style showing of 20 Black Latter-day Saints from the “Century of Black Mormons” database. It showcased photos and included a small placard next to each photo with a snapshot of the individual’s life and faith. 

The gallery presented more well-known figures like Green Flake and Jane Manning James as well as lesser-known individuals like Leggroan and like Elijah Able, who joined the Church in 1832 and served three proselyting missions.

Vice President of Belonging Carl Hernandez III and Associate Vice President of Belonging Lita Little Giddins looks through a gallery of 20 Black Latter-day Saints hanging outside the Office of Belonging in the Wilkinson Center in honor of Black History Month. | Christi Norris, BYU

In addition, the BYU Record Linking Lab found each of those individuals on the FamilyTree and set up a Relative Finder group for them. This allowed people visiting the gallery to scan a QR code and discover if they were related to any of the early Black members being honored.

“It was a great way to make the connection to the gallery more personal, and tie it to family history, which is an important component of our objectives and goals in the Office of Belonging,” explained Shana Clemence, who works in the office of the vice president for belonging.

Some of the information used in the gallery also came from the Record Linking Lab. The lab has developed a tool that links families and individuals across records and combines the efforts of FamilySearch, BYU students and academic researchers, Clemence explained. The automated tool has added over 6 million African Americans to the FamilyTree, using data from the 1900 and 1910 U.S. censuses.

Joe Price, center, director of BYU’s Record Linking Lab, and students pose for a photo at the BYU Record Linking Lab. They work to grow FamilySearch’s genealogical tree through record attachment, the development of auto-indexing technology and other projects. | Provided by Joe Price

Roughly 7,000 volunteers helped attach additional census records and expand the coverage for African American families with children, said Joseph Price, the director of the Record Linking Lab. Due to their efforts, the coverage rate for these families in the 1910 census went from 5% to 99.8%. “This has been one of the most meaningful projects that I’ve worked on,” Price commented. 

The overall reaction to the gallery has been “one of respect and a desire to learn about these amazing Saints,” Clemence said.

The gallery will soon be moved to the Joseph Smith Building for a permanent home, with the possibility of expansion.

‘A Legacy of Faith’

On Feb. 8, the Office of Belonging hosted a lecture with Lita Little Giddins, the new associate vice president of belonging, and Associate Athletic Director Whitney Johnson, speaking about “A Legacy of Faith: Connected to Each Other Through the Family of God.”

Johnson related her feeling of connection to Black Latter-day Saint Esther Jane “Nettie” Scott Kirchhoff, who was baptized in September 1898 with her husband, German immigrant Richard Kirchhoff. 

BYU Associate Athletic Director Whitney Johnson speaks during a lecture sponsored by the Office of Belonging on the theme, “A Legacy of Faith: Connected to Each Other Through the Family of God,” on Feb. 8, 2023. | Brooklynn Kelson, BYU

In some censuses Nettie is described as “white,” while the 1905 census lists her as “black,” and the 1910 census lists her and her three sons as “mulatto.”

“When I think about Nettie and when I first read her story, I wondered what she endured throughout her life,” Johnson said. “Was she a lot like me — one white parent, one black, always caught in the middle between two cultures, two stereotypes?”

Nettie remained a stabilizing force and a pillar of faith throughout her life despite all of her challenges, Johnson shared. How? “Nettie knew that God loved her. She loved God, and she loved her neighbor, and that was enough for her.”

Those who are willing to let hope and love be their guiding force will discover that they too can be stabilizing forces, pillars of light, Johnson said.

Lita Little Giddins, BYU associate vice president of belonging, speaks during a lecture sponsored by the Office of Belonging in honor of Black History Month on the theme “A Legacy of Faith: Connected to Each Other Through the Family of God,” on Feb. 8, 2023. | Brooklynn Kelson, BYU

Jane Manning James was a Black Latter-day Saint pioneer “whose story and spirit I have embraced from the moment I learned about her,” said Little Giddins, whose post as associate vice president of belonging began on the day of her remarks. 

James, fondly known as “Aunt Jane,” walked 800 miles to Nauvoo, Illinois, and lived with Joseph Smith and his family for a time. She traveled with her family to Utah and was among the first of the pioneers to enter the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.

James was stalwart in her love for the Prophet Joseph Smith and Emma, the temple and the Lord. “She left us a legacy of faith that was unrelenting,” Little Giddins said.

Intertwining some of her own life experiences with those of “Sister Jane,” Little Giddins expressed her sincere desire that “the diverse legacies of faith of our Savior, among our Black pioneer brothers and sisters and among each other, will get us closer to a Zion community of belonging, a community where we value and embrace each other, a community where we not only know what the words are in the Statement of Belonging, but we embody them and become human vessels of the principles of belonging, shaping and reshaping the way we think and the way we interact and treat one another.”

Social media outreach

Throughout February, the Office of Belonging Instagram account also featured several Black BYU alumni and students answering the questions: “How did your BYU experience prepare you to go out into the world to serve? What did you bring from your own life experience to strengthen the faith of others at BYU?”

For example, Derwin “Dewey” Gray shares in an Instagram story how he played football for BYU from 1989 to 1992 and is now a pastor at Transformation Church. He explained how going to a Latter-day Saint school like BYU as an African American without a faith base was unique. “That experience for me taught me how to get along with other people, how to be curious about what other people believe, and why they believe that. The BYU experience taught me about hard work. It taught me about service.”

BYU’s Office of Belonging Instagram account features Derwin Gray talking about his time at BYU from 1989 to 1992. | Screenshot, Instagram

Now as a New Testament theologian, scholar and pastor, Gray said he is able to give back to BYU by offering another perspective. “I’m able to build bridges so we can have mutual conversation, mutual exchange.”

Other contributors included Zion Smiley, a second-year master’s student in the Marriott School of Business; Marsha Baird, BYU alumnus who is a track and field Olympian; Dr. Robert Foster, who served as president of the BYU Student Association; and Jamal Willis, a BYU alumnus, former NFL running back and now assistant director of multicultural student services at BYU.

Current BYU students Jozi Budenbender and Issa McKnight also shared on BYU’s Instagram account how they have found a sense of belonging at BYU. For Budenbender, participation in on-campus activities has helped her find a sense of belonging. McKnight, on the other hand, shared she feels a sense of belonging through her major and by finding mentors.

Mini concerts at the library

Myrna Layton, the performing arts librarian at the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU, believes deeply in the power of music. 

Music has been an expressive vehicle for Black people, and their rhythms and melodies form the backbone of American music, she explained. “Jazz, blues, ragtime, rock and roll — these musical styles would not exist without the contributions of Black composers.”

With that in mind, Layton and her colleague and fellow librarian Brian Champion collaborated to create a concert series for Black History Month featuring the music of Black composers. 

They’ve sponsored three to four concerts each February from 2016 through 2020. “We missed 2021 and 2022 due to pandemic considerations, and resumed this year without Brian Champion due to his retirement,” Layton said.

An ensemble plays blues music as part of a mini concert on Feb. 7, 2018, at the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU in honor of Black History Month. The ensemble includes Jeff Turley on piano, Erik Larson on bass, Rex Wilkins on drums and Samuel López and Brian Price on guitars. | Roger Layton

The concerts typically take place Wednesdays at noon in the auditorium of the library. When librarian organizers can, they get African American students or employees to perform. Through the years they have featured the music of Black artists like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Erroll Garner or the Queens of Soul. Other concerts have been dedicated to the Blues, ragtime, gospel, classical or Latin or Brazilian jazz.

“[Music] is deeply connected to all that we feel, to all that we are. It is how we store our memories, how we make connections, how we experience and express our relationship with God. I think this is true of people across different countries and races and life experiences,” Layton said.

“How could music, then, not be important to Black History Month?”

Multicultural Perspectives

The cultures of the Black/African diaspora are diverse. An event sponsored by BYU’s Multicultural Student Services titled “Perspectives” allows students to celebrate and showcase the richness of their varied cultures through music, dance, poetry and other forms with the entire BYU community.

This year’s event held on Feb. 17 featured a student gospel choir, original poems, a fashion show, the BYU Hip Hop Club, a saxophone cover of “A Change is Gonna Come,” and other instrumental and vocal performances.

For both the student performers and audience, “Perspectives” fosters “cultural exposure and understanding, leadership skills, connecting with other students from different backgrounds, and an increased sense of belonging at BYU,” said Moises Aguirre, director of multicultural student services.

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