A Black Mormon Family in Postwar Utah

Becky Bartholomew
History Blazer, September 1996

Until baptism numbers in Mormonism’s South American missions exploded during recent decades, the LDS church attracted few persons of color. Some African Americans converted during the Nauvoo period and migrated to the Great Basin with the body of the church. Green Flake drove Brigham Young’s wagon into Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Elijah Abel, Jane Manning James, Samuel Chambers, and the Bankhead family are well-known names among Utah’s black pioneers.

But between 1900 and 1960 apparently only one black Mormon couple immigrated to Utah. Len and Mary Pugh Hope arrived in 1947 against the advice of Mormon General Authority Marion D. Hanks, who had known them while serving a mission in Ohio. He was afraid they would have a mixed experience in Utah, then (and now) less than 1 percent black.

The Hopes came anyway and stayed five years. During that time they lived in Salt Lake City’s Millcreek Ward where they enjoyed attending priesthood and Relief Society meetings and associating with descendants of Green Flake who had settled in the area. How much these associations meant to the Hopes can be understood only in the context of their earlier experience.

Len, born in 1892 in Magnolia, Alabama, was said to have “found the [Mormon] gospel in a miraculous way,” although the circumstances are not retold. He was baptized at the age of 27, just before shipping out to France during World War I.

Upon his return, Len married 18-year-old Mary Pugh, who a few years later also converted to Mormonism. They encountered some resistance in the form of threats from people who resented the Hopes for belonging to a white church. This made it unwise for them to attend Sunday meetings.

Just before the Depression the Hopes moved with their small children to Cincinnati, where Len worked in a factory and peddled berries door to door. To future Mormon Apostle Mark E. Petersen, who met the family in 1936 while in Cincinnati on business, Len confided that he paid his $1.50 tithing every week and felt this was the reason he was able to keep employment throughout those lean years.

But in the North the Hopes did not entirely find the life they wanted. They had located a Mormon branch and at first attended its meetings, but eventually the branch president appeared at their door. A friend later recounted the story: “Brother Anderson was red-eyed; he was just crying. He told them that…he would rather give his right arm than to have to make this call.” Apparently having an African American family in the congregation offended some middle-class, white members’ sense of propriety, and Anderson requested that the Hopes not discomfit these people through further attendance.

For nearly two decades the branch leaders visited the family one Sunday each month to administer the sacrament and conduct testimony meeting. In addition the Hopes continued to befriend, house, and feed waves of young white missionaries.

During World War II, Len contracted black lung disease caused by his work with a “fiberizing machine” and had to retire. A pensioner at age 55, he was now able to take Mary on a visit to Utah. Their stay with Elder Hanks’s mother proved so positive that Len and Mary determined to settle in Utah despite warnings against it. At long last they were able to worship in a Mormon chapel with friends who welcomed and accepted them.

Len died in 1952. After that Mary returned to the East, this time settling in Philadelphia near one of her children. She continued to attend Mormon meetings as her health allowed, encountering little or no negative reaction from church members. When she died in 1971, her bishop arranged for her body to be flown to Salt Lake City and buried beside Len’s.

Sources: Jessie L. Embry, Black Saints in a White Church (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994); Kate B. Carter, The Story of the Negro Pioneer (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1965).