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Black LDS leader Darius Gray makes, contributes to Mormon history

Published: Monday, June 16 2014 9:35 a.m. MDT

Without his parents, those church experiences and the Felixes, "I would not be the person I am today," he said.

Making history

One of Gray's contributions to church history is his own research and papers on the impact black railroad porters had on LDS Church leaders.

Prior to ubiquitous air travel, church leaders traveled by train. Long trips afforded opportunities for long conversations between those leaders and black porters, some of whom joined the church. One porter, Ruffin Bridgeforth, was the first president of Genesis.

"I know personally of conversations where these gentlemen, black and white, had opportunities to talk and get to know each other," Gray said. "These conversations in a relaxed travel setting afforded an opportunity for church leaders to get to know and become comfortable with some of these early black converts."

"Ruffin was married," Gray said. "Here he was with two sons, three daughters. Meeting him humanizes something that otherwise might be nebulous. That helps when you're no longer referring to a race but an individual, no longer a concept but a name."

Perhaps Gray's biggest contribution is his work on creating database of records from a bank chartered in 1865 for former slaves. The Freedman's Bank had 70,000 customers during its nine-year existence.

More than 10 million African-Americans living today have ancestors who deposited money in Freedman's Bank, making the records a treasure trove for black genealogy. They are available at FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com.

Gray's own grandfather was born a slave in 1859 in Missouri.

"A total of 484,083 (individuals) were uniquely identified in those records," Gray said two years ago. "I made a point of remembering the number because every soul matters to God."

Exercising priesthood

He also is part of LDS history. While he was in college, while the priesthood restriction was still in place, he attended a student ward.

A peer, another student, was passing the sacrament.

"I reached for the tray and he pulled it away," Gray said. "I could not even touch the tray for lack of the priesthood."

That changes the way he views the priesthood.

"It's not a casual thing for me, the priesthood or the temple," he said. "I don't mean to sound flippant, but I think the priesthood means more to me then to most priesthood holders. I'd been a member of the church for years and had not had those privileges and responsibilities. I'd not been whole in the family of the church. It's hard to explain."

So he tells a story.

One of Gray's cousins, Myrtle Jones, was raised by his parents as his oldest sister. She was a machinist, a Rosie the Riveter-type, tough and strong-willed.

She also was a Jehovah's Witness who suffered from cancer later in life. One day, Gray got a call she was failing. He was on the next plane for Portland, Oregon, and rushed straight from the airport to the hospital.

Gray and another sister, Sandra, an ordained minister, prayed together with Myrtle, who rallied and after a few days returned home. Once there, Gray, who usually waits for someone to ask for a priesthood blessing, asked Jones if she'd like one.

She said yes. Gray gave her a blessing. He then returned to Utah. Myrtle lived for an extended period of time. He later heard from his sisters that Sandra took Myrtle to visit her oncologist's office. The staff couldn't believe she was alive. What was her secret?

Gray's deep voice takes on its frequent tender tenor as he completes the story.

"My Jehovah's Witness sister said, 'I'm here because my brother gave me a priesthood blessing.'

"It doesn't get much more tender than that. She stood in that office and bore that testimony that she was alive and there because she had received a priesthood blessing from her brother."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com

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