Most Mormons believe that President Kimball’s revelation in 1978 was the first time black church members were able to hold the priesthood. However, in 1836, Elijah Abel was ordained an elder, probably by Joseph Smith himself. Elijah helped build the Nauvoo Temple, tried to rescue Joseph from jail, and served several missions for the church. His sons and grandsons also received the priesthood as late as 1934.
Darius Gray makes the case that there have always been a few black members holding the priesthood since Elijah Abel was first ordained. He granted an interview on Mormon Stories podcast that I think many will find interesting. He documents early black church members including Green Flake, and Jane Manning James. To me, these stories are very inspiring.
Also of interest is the role of slavery in the early days of the church. Historian Darron Smith details some of these issues. It is interesting to note that Joseph Smith proposed the abolition of slavery as an issue when he ran for president of the US.
Darius Gray recently presented a film of the history of black mormon called “The Untold Story of Black Mormons” , and a DVD is coming out. I must say that some of the camera and sound work is not as professional as a one would hope, but the message is outstanding. I know the subject of racism is hard for some members to deal with, but I personally find these stories inspiring. Why do you think these facts are not more publicized in the church? Is it just easier to pretend they don’t exist?
The film is really interesting. I learned that Darius and a few other black Mormons were asked in 1971 by Thomas Monson, Gordon B Hinckley, and Boyd K Packer to start a group called the Genesis Group “supporting new converts of African descent.” President Monson has said the Genesis Group was “one of my most pleasant assignments.”
If you’re interested in some other links, here are a few good ones.