From the beat of native Jimbe “talking” drums to the jazz of Duke Ellington, the theatre of the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors’ Center will resound with the rhythms of African and African-American music throughout February.   It’s all part of the Visitors’ Center’s third annual Black Heritage month that is rapidly becoming a highlight of the national celebration honouring the culture and contributions of the black community.  The wide-ranging performances, lectures, and workshops attract people of all ages, races, and faiths to learn more about their genealogical and spiritual roots.  All events are free and open to the public

Tonight at 7:30 p.m., dancers from the Coyaba African Dance Company of Washington, D.C. will take the stage to perform traditional and spiritual African dances.  As part of the program, they will discuss the meaning of the dances and also give the audience an opportunity to participate if they choose. 

 

 

An exhibit of loaned items from private collections and the Embassy of Ethiopia are also on display, featuring instruments, baskets, wood carvings, jewellery, and a large quilt made by the members of the African-American Historical and Genealogical Society.  It is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Yet when the Visitors’ Center first opened its doors for this celebration in February 2002, it was an event unprecedented in the history of the Church in Washington, D.C.   Chairperson Carol Petranek of Silver Spring, Maryland, explained that the Center wanted to “reach out to the community—all communities—with inspiring and enjoyable programs that celebrate cultural diversity while reinforcing the concept of the brotherhood of man.”  This community outreach becomes broader each year as the Visitors’ Center works with local interest groups and develops other programs for such groups as Asian-Americans and Latino-Americans. 

For this year’s Black Heritage month, the organizing committee worked with the African-American Historical and Genealogical Society, the Montgomery County Historical Society, the International Affairs Office of the Church, area teachers, performers, and collectors to help make the celebration both entertaining and educational.

Based on the nationwide celebration that started as Negro History Month in 1926 and which evolved into Black History Month in 1976, the Visitors’ Center programs also infuse Gospel messages of love and brotherhood.

“There is a special spirit that fills the Visitors’ Center in February,” said Sister Petranek, “which touches hearts and leaves a lasting impression on all who enter.”  Elder M. David Knight, director of the Visitors’ Center, agrees.  He also believes that because the Visitors’ Center is situated in the diversely populated nation’s capital, it has “a unique opportunity – and a special responsibility – to expose Heavenly Father’s children of all ‘nations, kindreds, tongues and people’ to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.”   Each year hundreds of visitors, members and non-members alike, come to the Visitors’ Center to pay tribute to the talents of Africans and African-Americans, and in the process many discover the spiritual roots that connect them.  “It’s a remarkably joyous and spiritual experience that is also a great missionary opportunity,” he adds.

In building bridges of mutual respect and appreciation to the community, both Sister Petranek and Elder Knight feel they are responding to the need for such outreach initiatives in the Washington area.  Sister Petranek recalled one African-American woman who said she had driven by the Temple for years but never dreamed of stopping because she felt Latter-day Saints were “off in a corner, unreachable, on your own.”   But now, she says she has “a reason to come in.”    

Many others felt the same way at this year’s African-American Genealogical Conference on Saturday, February 7.  Co-sponsored by the Visitors’ Center and the Montgomery County (Maryland) Historical Society, the event brought together professional genealogists who presented workshops and lectures.  Among the speakers, only Sister Damita Green, an African-American who gave a workshop on “Freedman Bank Records and Internet Research”.     The release of the Freedman Bank Records on CD-ROM in 2000 provided access to names for thousands of individuals with slave ancestry.  Other workshops offered the audience of both novice and advanced researchers information on the basics of genealogical research (Margo Williams), tracing a Virginia African-American Family (Char Bah), Black and Indian genealogical research (Angela Walton-Raji), and oral histories (Lisa Crawley)

Among the attendees was Richard E. Barnes, from Ft. Washington, Maryland, who has been actively working on his genealogy, and Dante Anderson, who has roots in North Carolina and has recently become interested in family research.  Anderson will be baptized into the Church on Valentine’s Day, February 14.

Presenter Lisa Crawley praised the dedication and generous spirit of the event’s organizers.  “Everyone was so nice and welcoming—very accommodating,” said Ms. Crawley.  “It’s apparent that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an institution that truly embraces diversity.”

In another notable event, Jim Lucas of Virginia presented “A Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King,” an outstanding dramatic portrayal of the civil rights leader.  Lucas has also performed this at the Clinton Inauguration and for Dr. King’s family.  His resemblance to Dr. King made his reading of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech particularly powerful.  Dr. James K. Moore, a professor of classical voice at Howard University in Washington, provided the music.  

A fireside on Sunday, September 8 featured Elder Ralph W. Hardy, Jr. of the Seventy; His Excellency Kassahun Ayele, the ambassador of Ethiopia; Brigadier General Hazel Johnson-Brown; and Senator Robert Bennett (R-Utah).   Elder Hardy told the guests that the Church loves Africa, and that because early church pioneers endured a cricket pestilence themselves, they were particularly anxious to provide humanitarian aid to their friends in Africa during that country’s infestation of the 1980s.

Ambassador Ayele pointed out that this year marks the centennial of formal diplomatic relations between his country and the U.S, and that Latter-day Saints are welcome in his country.

Dr. Johnson-Brown spoke of her experiences as Chief of the Army Nurse Corps and her own management style.  “Individuals must learn to manage themselves before they can lead others,” she said, adding that, “We who are seniors have the responsibility to teach young people to do their work well, and to do a job to be proud of.”

Senator Bennett highlighted some of the achievements of the Muslim world, suggesting that people need to pay attention to the history of Islam, as well as to understand what it is America has to offer as a superpower.  “America was built on an idea, rather than a tribe,” he said, “and it is America’s responsibility to export these ideas.”  He believes that America can help people honour their past while giving them optimism for the future, and that “to be tied to America is to be tied to freedom.”

Big Trees from Small Acorns Grow

But the beginnings of this missionary and cultural effort by the Visitors’ Center to honour the black community were inauspicious.  A confluence of events, which at the time seemed coincidental, now seem truly providential.

In a September 2001 conversation regarding outreach initiatives for the Visitors’ Center, Elder K.


Gary Garff (then Director of the Visitors’ Center) and Sister Petranek discussed the possibility of holding a series of events throughout the year that would commemorate nationally recognized cultural heritage months like Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month.  Elder Garff chose to begin immediately with a “Black Heritage” month, and a committee consisting of Sister Petranek; Cole Goodwin, then Publicity Director for the Visitors’ Center; and JaLynn Prince, then Chairperson of the Cultural Arts Committee, began the initial plans. 

One day Brother Goodwin was discussing ideas for this commemoration with Bishop Richard Patenaude, then Bishop in the Suitland, Maryland Stake, who mentioned that his associate Mark E. Mitchell had one of the largest private collections of African-American memorabilia.  So in December, the committee visited Mr. Mitchell at his home, a meeting that set in motion a far-reaching series of events that led not only to a one-time exhibit at the Visitors’ Center, but also to an ongoing relationship with the black community.  Walking into Mr. Mitchell’s townhouse, the group was stunned by what they saw—beautiful and priceless original lithographs, letters, sketches, records, and photographs in literally every part of his home.  He had plantation log books kept by slave overseers, naming the slaves and giving their age and other genealogical information.  On one table was the first book published by a black woman. For years, Mr. Mitchell has tried to find a permanent place for his collection because he wants others to share his interest in this part of the nation’s history.  He generously offered to display it for a month at the Visitors’ Center and the committee members were honoured to be entrusted with this rare and extensive collection.

When the collection opened at the Visitors’ Center with over 200 pieces, it was so popular that it was retained through August 2002.  Over 80,000 people, including school groups, came to see it, and the overwhelming public response revealed the great potential for such ventures. It has led to a continually growing series of cultural heritage celebrations—Black History Month in February, Hispanic Heritage Month in September, Women’s History Month in March.  This year, these commemorations will be expanded to include Asian-Pacific Heritage Month in April.

All of this is the outgrowth of that one evening in a Virginia townhouse, when the lives of people who lived at another time and place suddenly became real and meaningful.  Those who were there recognized they had been led by the spirit and that it was through the spirit they were able to create a fitting exhibit that would honor both a man’s diligence in preserving history as well as the people who lived that history.   Each year since, the Visitors’ Center continues to expand programs that honor the culture and history of the peoples of the world while also sharing the Gospel.  Those who serve there–from the missionaries, to the volunteers, to the employees—recognize that the Lord is the source of their inspiration, as revealed in the words of President Spencer W. Kimball who dedicated the Visitors’ Center.  On that day in July 3, 1976, he blessed those who served in the building to be “inspired beyond their experience and their training,” and “to touch the hearts of many people.”