Jane Manning James: An Independent Mind
Editor's Note: This is the first in a series telling the stories of significant black Mormons in history. Read the introduction to the series here.
Jane Elizabeth Manning James is arguably the most famous black LDS pioneer. The first part of her story—walking 800 miles with her family to get from Buffalo, New York to Nauvoo, Illinois, their shoes wearing out until "you could see the whole print of our feet in blood on the ground"—is familiar (all quotations from Jane James's life story are found in Church Archives, Wilford Woodruff Collection). The rest of her story is not so frequently told. The most delicate part involves her relentless petitions to Church leaders for her temple blessings.
Even before the famous journey, Jane's independence was clear. Despite her Presbyterian pastor "forbidding" her to listen to the Mormon missionaries, she not only listened but was baptized, and then prepared to leave her employers and her state and join with the Latter-day Saints.
Jane describes the trials she and her family (her mother and siblings) endured as they walked to Illinois. At La Harpe, near Nauvoo, they "came to a place where there was a very sick child, we administered to it, and the child was healed. . . . [T]he elders had before this given it up as they did not think it could live." She does not say who pronounced the healing blessing, but the "we" certainly indicates that Manning family members participated. Nobody in the family had been ordained to the priesthood, and Jane was quickly identified by Joseph Smith as "the leader of this little band," so it's easy to imagine that Jane herself voiced the blessing.
The picture of the Manning family uniting their faith on behalf of this white child is surely a reflection of the kind of familial and religious unity that Jane hoped would be magnified in Nauvoo. Sadly, once there, the Mannings met "all kinds of hardship, trial and rebuff." But they also quickly met Joseph and Emma Smith in the Mansion House. According to Jane, "Brother Joseph said to some white sisters that was present, Sisters I want you to occupy this room this evening with some brothers and sisters that have just arrived."
Jane's word choice here is significant, as blacks were usually identified by race before relationship. Patty Sessions calls Jane "Black Jane" when talking about delivering her baby, and Eliza Partridge Lyman refers to her as "Jane James the colored woman" in describing the gift of flour Jane gave her. (See Donna Smart's Mormon Midwife: The 1846-1848 Journals of Patty Sessions and the journal of Eliza Maria Partridge Lyman.)
Though we know that Jane's memory might not have been exact, her claim that Joseph, speaking to "white sisters," referred to the Mannings as "brothers and sisters" shows her perception of him as egalitarian. This is reinforced later in her history as Jane claims that Mother Smith often talked to her and even confided in her. Most significantly, Mother Smith allowed her to handle a mysterious "bundle," and then announced that it contained the Urim and Thumim. "You are not permitted to see it," she told Jane, "but you have been permitted to handle it. You will live long after I am dead and gone and you can tell the Latter-day Saints that you was permitted to handle the Urim and Thumim." This privilege must have made Jane feel that she was more than a sister but a sort of disciple, charged with bearing testimony to other Mormons, who were almost entirely Caucasian. It is not surprising that Emma subsequently asked Jane if she "would like to be adopted to [the Smiths] as a child." This was at a time where adoption of the Saints to Church leaders was a practice solidifying church membership in expansive families.
Margaret Blair Young teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University. Her best known novels include the Standing on the Promises trilogy, co-authored with Darius Gray. These three books give the history, with some fictional liberties taken, of Black Mormon pioneers. The updated and revised versions will soon be available through Zarahemla Press and at Amazon.com. Gray and Young also made the documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, now available wherever LDS books are sold, and shown monthly on the Documentary Channel. Young is currently working on a film about Mormon missionaries in Africa, titled Heart of Africa.