Black LDS leader Darius Gray makes, contributes to Mormon history

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

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."

Lifetime achievement

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.

Unknowing pioneer

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.

The foreman insisted, and he confronted the owner, asked him when he would pay Gray. "I'm not going to pay him," said the owner, who used a derogatory term.

The foreman and his friends immediately walked off the job, two cars full of 20-something men driving away after taking a stand against a bigoted businessman. They insisted on driving Gray north to Salt Lake City where he filed a claim. He eventually received back pay.

"That's when I first really understood — the negative side was bad," he said. "And the positive side was really good. The owner was representative of one mindset, and all of those men who walked off the job and supported me were representative of another mindset."

Gray had been staying in the Hotel Roberts on University Avenue. The now ex-foreman helped him find a space in a family's storage loft. It was unfurnished. He went to Albertsons and returned with cardboard boxes. He wrapped a blanket around one for his bedding.

Leader in making

In hindsight it's clear Gray was plowing an uncommon path as soon as he joined the LDS Church the day after Christmas in 1964. It was the middle of the Civil Rights era, and the church had a priesthood restriction — black men could not receive the priesthood, and black men and women could not enjoy the full blessings Latter-day Saints receive in the faith's temples.

Gray had many questions, but his testimony of his new faith was not in doubt. What Gray had received, the night before his baptism, was a spiritual witness that he was to join the church: "This is the restored gospel, and you are to join," he was told.

No mention was made of the priesthood restriction, he said, so he set out in search of answers.

"The question all along," he said, "since Dec. 26, 1964, was what is this priesthood restriction all about? Is it of God? Is it of man? Is there a way to find out?"

The research was painstaking. There was no Internet. A pack rat, Gray still has most of the documents he collected.

"I gathered enough information to suspect the priesthood restriction was likely of man and not of God, but it was a moving target. Some would say a revelation is coming (that would give black men the priesthood). Others said it wouldn't come until after the Second Coming. Others said it wouldn't be until the end of the Millennial period. No one had a firm grasp on it."

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Gray was moving in elevated circles in Salt Lake City. KSL president Arch Madsen offered Gray a job as a cub reporter in 1966, became a mentor and later asked Gray to commit to return to BYU and finish a degree.

Madsen also sent Gray and his wife as stand-ins to dinners and other events around town. Soon, the Grays were rubbing elbows with civic leaders and LDS Church leaders.

"Arch opened the world for me," Gray said. "I am and will be grateful."

In 1970, LDS Church President Joseph Fielding Smith and his counselor in the church's First Presidency, President Harold B. Lee, approached Gray at an event and asked him to convey personal greetings from them to any Latter-day Saints he met on his upcoming trip to Africa.

Gray found the idea ridiculous. Latter-day Saints in Africa?

Three things stand out about his first minutes in Ethiopia, his first stop. Each happened before he left the airport. One, he took malaria pills. Two, he scooped up the first African soil he stepped on and put it in a jar he still has today, and three, he met Mormons: "That taught me not to be so arrogant," Gray said, "and to have faith in the brethren."

Firm foundation

Gray experienced struggles, too. His marriage failed, the amount of racism he faced increased, and he became uneasy being the conspicuous "Negro Mormon" of the early 1970s. He also came to believe some of the folklore behind the priesthood restriction.

He was not an active member of the church on June 8, 1978, when LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball announced a revelation that extended the priesthood to all worthy men. That meant worthy black members also would have access to full temple blessings that Latter-day Saints consider necessary for exaltation: "I was as surprised as anyone when the revelation came," he said.

His firm foundation in the faith led to a return to full church activity in the early 1980s, and he was ordained to the priesthood. He told his colleague, Margaret Blair Young, with whom he has written books and made documentaries, that after he received the LDS temple endowment "he was hesitant to even touch anyone for fear that the power of the temple would shock them."

His experiences gave Gray added gravitas in counseling blacks throughout the church about their own concerns about the past priesthood restriction and the racism of some church members.

"There are kind, loving people in the church," Gray said, "but there are those who are less kind and those downright hostile to people of color, and even more so in those days."

As Gray aged, his looks added to his presence, with gray flecking his hair and beard, adding to the twinkle in his eye and framing a broad, generous smile.

Gray also has a deep, pleasant voice. He doesn't get it when people tell him that, though. To his own ears, his voice sounds high.

Terminal illness

Gray has bone cancer. It is slow-progressing, and it is incurable.

He doesn't want a big deal made of this: "The prognosis is I'm not going to be here one day shorter than or one day longer than God wants me to be," he said.

He's dealt with health issues for a couple of decades, at least, including a heart bypass, a new right hip and back surgery last year.

Of his body, he said, "It's been rode hard and put away wet, but it has a lot of miles on it."

Now he knows what it's like to have a doctor declare he has cancer.

"If what I profess to believe all these years is real in me, then what's the problem?" he said. "We are all going to get out of here some time. I just have an idea of what may be punching my card."

His major complaint is fatigue, and he deals with a "fair amount" of pain, but though retired he remains busy counseling people, doing research and contributing to Young's latest project, "Heart of Africa."

The beginning

Fifty years ago this month, Gray regularly walked through an alleyway in Colorado Springs, Colorado, through a backyard and up onto the porch of John and Barbara Felix, where the screen door was open.

He'd give it a quick rap and walk right in and watch the gospel being lived, he said.

The Felixes gave Gray a copy of the Book of Mormon.

"I think they cheated," he said. "They asked me questions pertaining to it. I didn't want to look stupid, so I felt I had to start reading. That began my journey. I've always been one with questions, and they told me I really needed to meet the missionaries."

The Felixes were genuine.

"Some people put on fronts, and appear to be," Gray said. "Others are real, and are."

What he was being taught fit his upbringing in interesting ways. The grandson of a slave born in Missouri just before the Civil War, Gray said his parents were "goodly" and introduced him to the community of Christ. They insisted he attend a black church on Sundays and a white Bible school in the summers.

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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