Following his ordination in June 1978, Joseph Freeman became an instant celebrity. He was asked to be interviewed on prominent news networks and was a much sought-after speaker in Utah. What was it like to be such a sought after speaker?
Joseph: Well, one of the things that, for me, having been a young minister, I was used to speaking. So, people began asking me to speak more and more. I was speaking no more than anybody else in the Church, in the beginning. But suddenly, I was speaking at least three times a week, and sometimes three times a day. My wife and I and the children, we were just traveling every weekend. We would spend all day Sunday going someplace speaking. In those days, the church, you had a morning meeting, and then you’d come back in the afternoon. Then you might have a fireside after that. So, most Sundays would be that way. I would speak somewhere in the morning, or speak at a sacrament meeting, and then do a fireside. [I would speak] at least two firesides almost every weekend. Then sometimes in the middle of the week, I would speak to a youth group. Our life was just busy like that. Then, my Bishop called me. He had been put in the stake presidency. Later, he became the patriarch in the stake. He said that the general authority, and I don’t know which one that had set him apart, said to him, he asked him, somebody told the general authority that Bishop Swain was my Bishop, and he had ordained the first black that received the priesthood. Then, that general authority said, “Well, how is Brother Freeman doing?” The bishop says, “Well, I don’t know. He’s so busy speaking and traveling.” He said, “Well tell him to slow down and become busy in his own ward, and just be like everybody else, so that he can grow in the Church and the Church then can utilize him.” So, the bishop called me up immediately and told me. I then immediately called. I had appointments six months ahead. So I called all of these people and told them, I needed to slow down and only speak once a month. So, that’s what the calendar became. Even today, I try not to do more than that. But I’m not speaking as much like I used to.
GT: It finally calmed down.
Joseph: Yes, that’s right. But it was an exciting time, and not something to brag about, but to rejoice about. I rejoice in knowing that God had saw me, a little nobody and that he’d blessed me to receive the priesthood. It didn’t matter whether I was the first or 151st, it just mattered that I had the priesthood. It’s the same way today, I’m just grateful to hold the priesthood.
The Genesis Group was founded in the early 1970s to help keep black members active even though they couldn’t hold the priesthood. Joseph became a member of that group. He wasn’t one of the original founders, but he will talk about some of his earliest remembrances of that group and will talk about an amazing member, Monroe Fleming. Monroe almost became the first black member ordained a decade earlier in 1969. You won’t want to miss this.
Joseph: By the time I came here in 1976, I didn’t know where the group was located. People had told me about the group, even when I was in Hawaii.
GT: Oh, really?
Joseph: But, how do you contact the group? There was no phone number in a phone book or anything like that. When I moved into this stake, Bishop Swain knew Ruffin Bridgeforth personally. When he first sat down with me, I met with him in his office. He then said, “Are you interested in meeting members of the group?” I said, “Yes, I’ve heard of it, and I don’t know anything how to find them. So, he says, I’ve got the number. He dialed Ruffin right then, called him up and then Ruffin invited me, gave me the address to where they were meeting. They met once a month on the first Sunday of the month. I think, maybe about seven o’clock in the evening. I took my family. We went to our first meeting, had a great time. From that time on, I was a member of the group. Every first Sunday, we were there.
GT: Is Ruffin still around here?
Joseph: Ruffin has passed away.
GT: Oh, bummer.
Joseph: Yeah, I think had sugar diabetes. I believe that that was probably one of the things that took him away. But Ruffin was such a wonderful man. The general authorities loved him a great deal. He became more like a father to me. I don’t remember now how old Ruffin was. But in those years that I moved here, I was about 25 when I received the priesthood. I met him before receiving a priesthood. So, I was either 24 or 25 when I met him, and he was probably, in his early 50s, about that time. He just kind of took me under his wing. He was just such a wonderful guy. He was great speaker. Ruffin shared with me a story. I think I told you some years ago that Brother Fleming had been asked by President Monson if he would write his testimony down.
GT: You’re talking about Monroe Fleming.
GT: I definitely want to talk about Monroe Fleming. Now for those who don’t know Monroe Fleming, I did an interview with Matt Harris about a year ago. Monroe was almost in your shoes. He was almost the first guy, back in 1969.
Joseph: That’s right. Yeah.
GT: Tell us more about Monroe Fleming.
Joseph: When people were going on missions years ago, they would go to the mission home, and it was at the Joseph Smith Building, which is [the old] Hotel Utah. I never went to the Hotel Utah. It was just a big, marvelous building. I didn’t have anything to do with it. Well, Monroe worked there. So, when the missionaries would be trained, and they get to the end of their training, they would bring in Brother Fleming, and have him share his testimony. I’ve met many, many missionaries today, that are perhaps my age and that told me that they saw and met Brother Fleming years ago when they first finished the mission training, before leaving for their mission. They would just share with me how excited they were meeting a black man who had a great testimony and shared that testimony with them. After the priesthood was given, Brother Fleming contacted me. He said, “I’d like to hear your testimony.” So, a couple of times, we went out together and went to firesides where I was the speaker. He got to share and talk over the conversation of me receiving the priesthood, how I felt and everything, and how he felt. I didn’t get a chance to hear him speak before I left Salt Lake and moved away, though. But he was a wonderful guy. I didn’t know him personally. It’s been a long time, but I just love the guy. He’s just a really nice man. He had a beautiful testimony.
I wish I had been able to meet Monroe Fleming. (He passed away in 1982.) What do you know about the Genesis Group? What do you remember about the 1978 revelation?
What I will never forget – there was a young couple in our ward who we were friends with – he was white and she was black. My husband was the elders quorum president so we were asked to do temple preparation with them. I’m pretty sure it was the night before we were going to go to the temple with them that we decided to go see a movie together. It was a Sherlock Holmes movie called ‘Murder By Decree’ starring Christopher Plummer. All of the Jack the Ripper type murders were based on old Masonic ritualistic deaths – similar to what was played out in the penalties in the earlier endowment version. My husband and I were having forty fits sitting through it and felt we needed to gently explain to them on the drive down to the temple that during the endowment they would be reminded of some of the things from the movie 😳 It was so awkward but they didn’t seem to be thrown by anything that we could tell.
Beautiful interview and a beautiful soul.
I can only imagine what is was like to be a church member as a small minority, especially not being able to participate fully prior to 1978.
I appreciate hearing about this from an early participant.
Rick: I discuss the Genesis Group in great detail in my forthcoming book on blacks and Mormons. Glad you interviewed Freeman. His story is so valuable.
The pain of the Black exclusion policy went beyond Blacks. On my mission (some 55 years ago, so I hope my memory is accurate), there was a Canadian member who married a member from Eastern Europe. Neither were Black. She had a Black child. They requested permission to have the child sealed to them. The request was denied. This further killed my testimony.
Looking forward to your next book Matt!
As I’ve mentioned before, our youngest is Black. When she was two, her hairdresser told us about the Genesis group and we started attending the monthly firesides in January 2007.
I really don’t have the words to express how meaningful Genesis was to our family. We went hoping to get some pointers on raising a Black child in the church and society at large. What we found is the closest thing to pure religion I have ever known. No preening or pretending. After the gospel choir – oh my – and the congregational song of praise there were wonderful speakers.
My favorite part was the testimonies for the last half hour. Very real, heartfelt testimonies. Sometimes painful and sometimes exalting – always inspiring .
Our 15 year old son died February 2007. I don’t know how we would have survived without Genesis. Two months later our 11 year old son was diagnosed with cancer. When he wasn’t immunocompromised we went to Genesis – IV pumps and all. Genesis was our rock. A contingent of the Genesis choir sang at his funeral in January 2008.
I was asked to be the speaker at the March 2016 fireside. Terryl and Fiona Givens spoke the month before and Alex Boye the month after. So that is as close to fame as I’m ever likely to get – 30 days either way.
As I write this, I thought I would look at a draft of the talk before going on. I turns out that this was a real pivotal time in my relationship with the church. I had never had a period of inactivity. Fully engaged.
I spoke of the church narratives for the communities to which our family belongs: converts, special needs, severe health issues, adoption, multi-racial, grief, and LGBT. The love we have felt as we have served in and been blessed by these communities. And frankly, some of the ways in which the church and we as members fall short in opening our hearts and doors to these communities.
In this group, I felt I could speak that which was unspeakable at Sunday ward meetings (probably a good thing for my membership that the general authority 70 that supervises Genesis wasn’t in attendance that evening). This was just a few months after the November 2015 POX was announced. I said that I was not criticizing the brethren, but that I just couldn’t get my head around it. The then president of Genesis followed up by saying that he didn’t agree with the policy.
After the closing prayer, I was surrounded by people that wanted to talk about their own questions and doubts. This continued for almost two hours. I spoke from a position of vulnerability and thinking I might be pretty much alone in my balancing act between a lifelong testimony and the things that were testing it.
I left feeling that I was a member or yet another community – those that were struggling with dissonance. For what it’s worth, Peggy Fletcher Stack, the Salt Lake Tribune columnist, came up and enthusiastically said that I should give that talk in the next general conference.
I haven’t been to Genesis for a couple of years, though I still maintain several friendships. The current president and one of his counselors work for the church so I don’t know if that has had any affect on the tenor of the meetings.