Tracing my Mormon pioneer roots because sometimes our story begins with those who came before.
Sometimes we want to excuse the racism of our ancestors regardless of whether they were born hundreds of years ago or within our lifetime. We tell ourselves we shouldn’t judge and explain away their actions with phrases like, “everyone thought that way back then.”
When we say, “everyone thought that way,” we mean every white person. Black people never thought the color of their skin meant they deserved to be stolen, tortured, and enslaved. They never said the discrimination and degradation they endured were justified because of their blackness.
“Everyone thought that way” is a cowardly way to circumvent our feelings of responsibility and guilt for benefits we receive off the backs of others.
It would be easy to absolve my grandfather of his choice to participate in a religion touting white supremacy by saying he was merely a man of his time. But that is a lie.
In addition to black people tirelessly championing their right to fair treatment, white men and women have fought beside them.
One such white man, John Brown, was born in 1800, like my grandfather Daniel.
Daniel and John were both into large families with ties to England. Both married in their early twenties and had many children. Both had more than one wife, though John only had one wife at a time.
Each felt called to action by their faith and recruited others to their beliefs. They were willing to break the law doing what they felt was right. Both experienced the trauma of having men they respected murdered. After they died, their families buried them in graves on the land they owned.
As much as Daniel and John had in common, their belief regarding God’s opinion on black people and slavery couldn’t have been more opposite.
John Brown’s God abhorred slavery and commanded him to do everything in his power to eradicate it. John’s scriptures told him to treat others as he hoped others would treat him. As a Puritan, John’s father offered fugitive enslaved people a safe house on the Underground Railroad. At least one of John’s teachers was an abolitionist who used his role as a teacher to educate against the evil practice of owning people.
John listened and learned from wise and courageous black people like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, John Anthony Copeland Jr, and Osborne Perry Anderson. John was a Sanford Street Free Church member in Springfield, Massachusetts, founded by African American abolitionists. Here black and white people worshipped, sang, and prayed together. The church, which exists today as St. John’s Congregational Church, aided runaway enslaved people on their passage toward freedom.
My great, great, great grandfather Daniel Wood chose a very different God to worship. Daniel’s God said the curse of black skin was a mark of those who were descendants of sinful and lazy ancestors.
Daniel’s holy scriptures called those with dark skin loathsome, filthy, full of idleness, and all manner of abominations. He did not choose a church where black and white worshippers might enter heaven’s gate as equals. Instead, Daniel’s church excluded black mothers, fathers, and children from enjoying everlasting eternity together.
Daniel’s God used the convenience of skin color to identify a person’s heart and character, circumventing the need to get to know them. His God had segregated the good from the bad, wrapping the most righteous souls in white skin. His God meant for black skin to be a deterrent, keeping whites from being enticed by them. If a person was lucky enough to have their dark skin lightened, it was his God’s reward for increased obedience and holiness.
A hundred and sixty years ago, while John Brown was fighting to abolish slave states, The Utah territory, which Daniel called home, voted “Yes,” to become a slave-holding territory.
My grandfather enjoyed a long life. He lived to age ninety-two, embracing ideologies and practices subjugating black people.
John Brown paid the ultimate price, his life as he fought against slavery to his dying breath at age fifty-nine. He was executed for attempting to prompt a slave freedom rebellion.
John did more in his shortened life to better humanity than Daniel did in his nearly hundred years.
When will we stop excusing the actions of family members and name behaviors for what they are? When will it become more important to be a decent human rather than a silent peacemaker? When will granddaughters like me stop seeking absolution for the actions of their grandfathers?