Black LDS leader Darius Gray makes, contributes to Mormon history
PROVO — Like many BYU students new to Provo in 1965, Darius Gray stepped down out of a Trailways bus, stowed his luggage in a locker and stepped out onto University Avenue to get his bearings.
The biggest lesson he learned on his walk through downtown took a few minutes to sink in, but it was stark.
"I was the darkest thing walking down the street," Gray said recently as he remembered that June day 49 years ago and the faces of the people who stopped and stared.
After some wandering, he stood on the corner of 500 West and Center Street. A car headed east on Center Street pulled up to a red light, and Gray saw a black couple inside. He rushed to the car and tapped on the window.
It was June, but the car had air conditioning. The woman rolled down her window part way.
"Excuse me," Gray said. "I'm new here in town. I've been walking around for hours, and you're the first black people I've seen. It's so good to see you."
The man and woman looked at each other, then the woman turned back to Gray.
She said, "We're just passing through."
This is Gray's 50th year as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is treasured by many Latter-day Saints for the strength he's displayed and the example he's set during a half-century navigating race relations in the church.
The past year has been a whirlwind for him. He consulted on an essay about race and the priesthood published by church leadership on LDS.org in December. The essay was cheered by church members — black and white — and historians for its honesty about church history and clear-cut disavowal of past teachings and theories about blacks that had been used to justify a ban on black men receiving the priesthood.
Soon afterward, the Times and Seasons blog named Gray its 2013 Mormon of the Year.
"While events of the year may not have attracted attention personally to Gray," Kent Larsen wrote, "his quiet and consistent effort over decades has clearly led to a changed attitude among both leaders and members of the church."
On June 6, the Mormon History Association gave Gray its highest honor, a special citation for outstanding contributions to Mormon history.
“Contributions to history generally take one of two genres: writing history or being history,” association executive director Ronald O. Barney said. “Darius Aidan Gray is one of the very few personalities within the Latter-day Saint tradition who has achieved excellence in both genres.”
Gray has been an LDS pioneer among black members. In 1971, he was one of two counselors in the founding presidency of Genesis, a support group for black Latter-day Saints, and from 1997 to 2003 he served as the group's president.
Gray certainly didn't feel much like a pioneer on that first day in Provo, or at any time during that first year at BYU.
"I was alone, poor, trying to survive," he said.
His first job in Provo was on a work crew that tore down old buildings. The owner wouldn't pay him, though he'd slip Gray a $10 or $20 bill here and there.
One day, the crew's foreman, a returned missionary, asked Gray if he'd been paid yet. Gray said no. "Let's go talk to him," the foreman said.
Gray didn't like that idea one bit. "I was a young man who was very isolated, who felt vulnerable," he says now.
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