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Leading up to the June 1st LDS Church commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Revelation on the Priesthood, Meridian Magazine will run a series of articles celebrating the event. These will include profiles of the people deeply affected as well as a behind-the-scenes look at how this revelation came to be.
Today, Loren Marks shares his experiences with a woman who deeply influenced his perception of race and unity in the Gospel.
“If a couple of you white Mormon boys had shown up on my porch 20 years ago, I mighta’ chased you off with a shotgun.” Those are the first words that I can recall Annie Mae Denton speaking to me in inner-city Milwaukee in the Spring 1992. Memories are revised and edited, so I can’t swear these were the first words she said, but they are the first words I remember. Indeed, those are not easy words to forget. How could I have known that these words—part truth, part jest—marked the genesis of one of the deepest friendships of my life?
My call to serve an LDS mission took me to inner-city Milwaukee, “the Core” as we called it back in 1991-1993. Several areas in “the Core” were 90%+ Black. To say that white Mormon boys in white shirts stuck out like sore thumbs would be an understated simile. Suspicious eyes were on us like clothing as we walked up and down the inner-city streets. A police officer who cruised up next to us one day asked us what the h— we were doing. When we explained that we lived there and were just trying to teach the Gospel, he cursed under his breath and drove away shaking his head. It was dangerous place to be, particularly circa the Rodney King era.
The award-winning Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has written and spoken at length about what she calls “the danger of a single story.” There is wisdom in this observation. However, this is the danger that I embodied. When I met Annie Mae, I was a white, 19-year old missionary from a rural Oregon high school that had two Black kids. To that point in life, racial tension and bigotry were theoretical and outside of my myopic purview. I knew they existed, but the same way I knew the continent of Africa existed…somewhere out there. My single story was that the Gospel of Jesus was true and beautiful and that those who embraced the Gospel strived to live true and beautiful lives. The first part of that story has only deepened for me over the ensuing decades, but in the life story of Annie Mae Denton the second portion was confronted with challenges and contradictions.
Annie Mae studied and embraced The Book of Mormon and the LDS faith and was baptized by my mission companion, Michael Bruce Smith, in 1991. That, however, is also a “single story”, I would like to tell another one. Annie Mae Denton, at some point, transitioned from “Sister Denton” to “Mama” for me in the same subtle way that I passed from “Elder Marks” to “Marks” to “my fair-skinned boy” to “son” for her.
Such transitions are not uncommon for Mormon missionaries who, while teaching the Gospel, are being taught both the beauty and tragedy behind the true stories of others. We fall in love with people whose stories differ from our own. These stories are often uncomfortable, not clean, not neat and “single.” They hurt but sometimes they also heal. Always, however, they teach the young missionary that their brothers and sisters in the world have stories that are their own—but that those “other” stories are just as real as the story we have lived.
As I would learn later, there was a reason for Annie Mae’s relatively quick acceptance of The Book of Mormon and the Gospel message in the early 1990s, and it was not because the missionaries that introduced the Gospel to her were master teachers. In fact, we did not introduce anything to her except ourselves. In our adolescent arrogance and singleness of purpose, we young and well-intentioned LDS missionaries can believe that someone’s story “begins” when they meet us and the message we carry. This is part of the danger of “the single story.”
Annie Mae was born in rural Mississippi in the Jim Crow Era with not an inkling of Reverend Marin Luther King yet in sight. I have since been, several times, to Mama’s hometown. I was haunted by the cotton fields. It seemed that I could almost see the ghosts of 250 years of slaves bent in half, sharp cotton seeds stabbing their fingers, from dawn until dark, for a lifetime. The ghosts of sharecroppers, de facto slaves, like Annie Mae’s parents were there in my mind’s eye too. Annie Mae was “lucky” and got the job of a cleaning girl in the house of a wealthy, ostensibly God-fearing, white man.
Regrettably, his behavior fell far short of his religious claims and Annie, like Joseph in Egypt, “got herself out.” She married James Denton and, in hopes of a better life, headed for the promise of factory jobs in the North. It was, in some ways, much better than the South but, as Mama told me occasionally, “Son, it ain’t easy bein’ a Black man.” James ground it out for a couple of decades and Annie Mae would give James six children, but James eventually left her.
Annie Mae was no stranger to trial—or to deep faith in the face of trial. Already a lover of “the Word” and a believer in Jesus, she was delighted to come across another testament of Jesus Christ, The Book of Mormon, in the late 1960s. She read the book was powerfully drawn to its message and wanted to learn more. She tracked down a location for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and hungering for more of the Gospel she had read about, she wrenched up her courage to visit the “all White” church. She had read Book of Mormon passages where a loving God “inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female… [for] all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33).
Perhaps people who read and loved a book with such truths would welcome her and teach her more of this “marvelous work and a wonder.” As Annie Mae explained to me more than two decades after her initial 1969 visit to an LDS building, she did not make it past the foyer before a “sister” informed her that she was “in the wrong place” and was not welcome.
Annie Mae had a conviction that the sacred book with the angel on the cover was true. She had a desire to learn more. What she did not have was a shared place to worship—she did not even have a kind welcome. What was she to do? My beautiful Black Mama waited. In her words, “When it was time, I jus’ figured the Lord would send for me.” Well, He did send for her, but He waited until after the 1978 Revelation on Priesthood extended temple blessings to all worthy members.
When white elders showed up with naïve but sincere smiles, Annie Mae had her doubts and her reluctance. Her daughter Sarah would precede Annie Mae to visit what was then the Milwaukee City Branch, meeting downtown in a rented building. Sarah would also precede Annie Mae into the waters of baptism. But Annie Mae would follow, along with her daughter Annie Belle. Annie Mae’s third daughter, Lisa would join the LDS faith in the summer of 1992.
Life as a Mormon was not seamless for Annie Mae. When you start drinking coffee and smoking in childhood, those habits are exceptionally difficult to peel permanently away. This is not a fairy tale, it is a history and there were ups and downs. There were also ups and down at church. The challenges of blending Black and White members were real. Regrettably, there were some white members (perhaps out of ignorance more than malignance) who frequently used phrases like “you folks” and “you people” to refer to Black members.
I marveled at how Mama handled this. “Son, they don’t know any better. How they gonna learn what we like unless we show ‘em and love ‘em?” Mama’s solution to the race problem was to have the “you people” people (and everyone else) over for dinner. However, you need to understand that Mama’s slow-cooked pork ribs (Her secret: “If they sizzle, they ruined”) were not merely dinner, they were a transcendent experience. The Denton hospitality and warmth, the explosion of flavorful food, and the always large, generously-invited crowd seemed to magically transform preconceived and bigoted notions about race into a good-natured awe of cooking skill among an array of pale-faced guests.
Indeed, I believe that for a period of time, joining the LDS Church converted about a quarter of the Denton women’s meager income into barbeque. However, no member or missionary who attended a Denton barbeque was ever quite the same. As my dear friend and mission companion Michael Smith would often say, “I shudder to think what my mission would have been like without the Dentons.”
As a result of Mama’s kindness and “come to Jesus” cooking, did the racist comments at church stop entirely? No. But there was an occasion or two when I heard folks who formerly said “you people” correct others who made similar comments. Progress was being made. Years later, I asked Mama how she endured the insensitive remarks, the foolish statements, and the nonsense. Her reply was deep wisdom: “Son, don’t ever let somebody else’s bad moment get between you and the Lord.”
Near the end of my mission, I was again assigned to go back and serve in “the Core.” Mama’s faith still burned, but so did a few cigarettes—standing between her and her Temple blessings. After months of battling and winning a temporary victory over the old “cancer sticks,” on September 16, 1993, Annie Mae Denton, along with her daughters Sarah and Annie Belle, stepped inside the House of the Lord in Chicago, Illinois, to receive a sacred endowment, a heavenly blessing, and to be sealed together as a family for time and all eternity.
About a month previous, Mama asked me to serve as proxy for her husband James and to perform all his needed work so that she could be sealed to him for eternity. She was laconic in her explanation to me regarding why she wanted to be sealed forever to a man who was not faithful to her. “Yes, he left for awhile. But he came back to me when he got sick—and I cared for him.” And then a loving reminder, “You special to me. You my fair-skinned boy, but there’re still some things you don’t understand.”
For one day, “Denton Day,” September 16, 1993, I had the honor of standing in the stead of James Denton. In concordance with his wife’s wishes and sacred LDS ritual, I was baptized for him, confirmed for him—and, for him, I was ordained to the holy Melchizedek Priesthood. During the endowment ordinance, I sat near Mama, Sarah, and Annie Belle, whose white temple dresses contrasted strikingly with their ebony skin. Finally, we were led into a glorious sealing room where husband and wife, parents and children, are bound together forever by the Father of us all.
As I took Annie Mae’s hand across the altar, I experienced something unlike I have ever experienced before or since—I felt that someone was joining me inside me, that we were somehow sharing my physical temple for a holy moment. I intuitively understood that this sacred event was not about “me.” I was to be a witness, not a participant. James seemed to borrow my voice to offer a resounding “yes” to the question of whether he would receive this woman to be his wife for “time and all eternity.” Mama’s tears of joy flowed and continued as her beloved daughters were sealed to her and James a few minutes later, as I was literally surrounded by Denton women. I had a two-hour drive back to Milwaukee . . . and have since had twenty-five subsequent years to ponder the glorious and overwhelming events of that day. Mama was right, there’re still some things I don’t understand.
Three years later, Annie Mae’s son J.D. (“Bull”) and his wife Barbara (“Bootsie”) entered the fold of the LDS Church and were later sealed in the Chicago Temple for time and all eternity— like Annie Mae and James Denton, and like Barbara’s parents, Florence (“Flo”) and “Swede” Stolberg, also converts and now gone on to their reward. A few months ago, I had the pleasure of witnessing a shared grandson of the Denton and Stolberg families, Xavier, kneel at an altar in the Idaho Falls Temple. Having served an honorable mission, it was now his privilege to follow some of his predecessors into the new and everlasting covenant of temple marriage. During the four-hour drive back to BYU, I again had time to ponder the glory of what I had witnessed.
Like Flo and Swede Stolberg’s marriage, Xavier’s involved two races—Black and White. On my drive from the temple, I found myself praying that members of their ward family will never say unsupportive or ignorant things but that they will uniformly embrace and welcome this new couple and, heaven willing, their future children. I then chided myself for naïve idealism and instead I prayed that when the inappropriate and offensive comments come, that Xavier will hear Annie Mae’s voice say, “Don’t ever let somebody else’s bad moment get between you and the Lord.” I then prayed that Xavier will have the strength to live this advice out. Later, however, I went back and prayed my first prayer again—that none would offend and that all would support. Yes, it is a naïve and idealistic prayer—but it is a beautiful hope.
June 1, 2018, will mark the 40th anniversary of the Revelation on Priesthood extending sacred temple blessings to all of God’s children. June 8 marks the anniversary date of the announcement of that revelation to the world. I recently read a meticulously written BYU Studies article entitled “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood” authored by President Kimball’s late son, Ed, (excerpted on Meridian this week) and was reminded that my experiences with the Denton family were made possible by a faithful prophet, a true servant of the Lord.
It has been nearly 50 years since Annie Mae Denton was asked to leave an LDS building in southern Wisconsin. It has been 40 years since the 1978 Revelation. It has now been about 27 years since Annie Mae Denton made her “shotgun” comment to me but then had the faith to give the LDS faith a second chance. It has also been 27 years since she started feeding the “you people” people her transcendent ribs. It has been nearly 25 years since “Denton Day” in the Chicago Temple, an event of holiness unprecedented in my life to that point. It has been 13 years since my wife and I named our own son Denton.
It has been only a few years since Mama and I kissed and embraced one last time, and only a little less than that since her fair-skinned son struggled through his talk at her memorial and dedicated her grave “until the morning of the first resurrection,” for that will surely be when this faithful woman will be called forth again. It has been one week since I realized that Mama’s story was too precious to keep to myself.
Over nearly three decades, I came to love Annie Mae Denton with a strength made possible by the flowing Christ-like concern that she showed me. I still sometimes hear her voice: “You special to me, you my fair-skinned boy, but there’re still some things you don’t understand.” She’s right, of course. In spite of a lot of reading, I cannot “explain” the Blacks and the Priesthood issue, not to myself, not to anyone else. Nor can I explain why, in the post-Revelation era, we do not more fully live out our Savior’s charge to “love one another” . . . “black and white, bond and free, male and female.”
I do know this, however. One Sunday soon, a woman will walk through the doors of your Church building. She will have read a little bit out of a marvelous work and a wonder called The Book of Mormon and she will be wanting to know more. Her skin may not look like yours and she will be wondering if she is welcome in this mostly white church. You will think of my beautiful Black Mama, Annie Mae Denton, and you will rewrite history. You will do it right.
You will take that first-time guest by the hand, and you will sit by her. You will invite her to dinner—even though there is no conceivable way that your slow-cooked ribs are as good as Mama’s. Maybe she’ll visit once and never return, but maybe she will come back. Maybe she’ll share her story with you and save you from “the danger of (your own) single story.” Maybe she’ll teach you far more than you’ll ever teach her. And maybe, one day, you’ll see her in a white dress that contrasts sharply with her beautiful dark skin as she makes sacred covenants in a sacred place. And somewhere, not so very far off, my beautiful Black Mama will smile.
 Kimball, E. L. (2008). Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood. BYU Studies, 47, 3-78.