The One We Forgot: Quaku Walker Lewis

Freedom and equality seemed to run in the blood of Dinah and Mingo's descendants. Some of their female descendants became activists in women's issues and in abolitionism, which were often linked. Q. Walker Lewis became a founding member of the MCGA—the Massachusetts General Colored Association—in 1826, the first all-black abolitionist society in the United States.

David Walker Plaque in Boston

Alongside Lewis was David Walker, who had written a radical book on abolition, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Though David Walker died in 1830—possibly murdered—his words had a profound effect on his colleagues and readers: "There is great work for you to do. You have to prove to the Americans and the world that we are MEN, and not brutes."

When I was in Boston seven years ago, I visited the places marked with tributes to David Walker and the MCGA. One of the guides was thrilled that I had heard about this unsung hero, and graciously led me to other important sites where David Walker had been. I looked in the indexes of books about him and consistently found references to Walker Lewis, though his first name, Quaku, was not used. I told the guide that Walker Lewis had been a Mormon convert, that he was a member of the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge (a lodge specifically for blacks), and that he had been ordained an elder in the Church. This was all new information for the guide.

Prince Hall Masonic Lodge

Though there is some confusion as to who baptized Quaku Walker Lewis and who ordained him to the priesthood, Connell O'Donovan provides compelling evidence that Parley P. Pratt baptized him and William Smith ordained him an elder. We know that Lewis was well aware of his ordination and the authority that came with it. When he finally came to Utah in September 1851, he met Jane James, and apparently proposed that the two of them be sealed in marriage, inasmuch as Jane's husband did not have the priesthood and Walker Lewis did.

Jane did not report this to anyone for another forty years; long after Walker Lewis's death, she used it in one of many her many efforts to receive her temple endowment. In a letter written on February 7, 1890 to Apostle Joseph F. Smith, Jane wrote:

As Brother James has left me 21 years and a coloured brother, Brother Lewis, wished me to be sealed to him (he has been dead 35 or 36 years) can I be sealed to him? Parley P. Pratt ordained him an elder. When or how can I ever be sealed to him? (Joseph F. Smith Papers, CHD; punctuation standardized)

We know of no response to this request.

Sadly, Quaku Walker Lewis did not remain long in Utah. O'Donovan suggests that he likely expected some welcome, inasmuch as he had entertained many church leaders during his days in Lowell, and received no reciprocal treatment. By the time he was in Utah, slavery was accepted. Within a few months of his arrival, Brigham Young as governor of the state made his famous speech to the Territorial Legislature (February 5, 1852), declaring the priesthood restriction, as written verbatim by his scribe, George Watt: "If there never was a prophet or apostle of Jesus Christ [that] spoke it before, I tell you, this people that are commonly called Negroes are the children of old Cain. I know they are; I know that they cannot bear rule in the Priesthood."

When Wilford Woodruff summarized Young's speech, he added a phrase, which has survived in many if not most historical accounts: "Any man having one drop of the seed of Cain in him cannot hold the Priesthood, and if no other prophet ever spake it before, I will say it now, in the name of Jesus Christ, I know it is true, and others know it!" This version of Young's words, including the "one drop" rule may be the reason anyone with the slightest indication of African features/ancestry was denied the priesthood until President David O. McKay started making exceptions to the rule.

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9/30/2012 4:00:00 AM