Few written accounts describing the lives of women of color in 19th century America have been created and even fewer of those survived to the modern day. Jane Manning, one of the few voices we have of this group, managed to do both. Jane was an early settler of Utah who migrated with the Latter- Day Saints from Connecticut to Nauvoo, to Salt Lake City. Jane, unlike other African American women from this time period, has her own writings. She dictated her own autobiography, was interviewed for magazines, and wrote letters that have since been preserved. In her lifetime, Jane had a profound and uplifting influence on those around her and expressed exemplary kindness and bravery. By her writings, she has also left a unique perspective on the book of history.

Jane was born in Connecticut in 1822. Though free, she worked as a paid servant for a local white family. When she was 19, Jane was the first in her family to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Connecticut. She led her mother and siblings in the move from Connecticut to Nauvoo. The family intended to take a boat to Ohio and then walk the rest of the way to Nauvoo. Unfortunately, the ferry collected their fares early and stranded the family in Buffalo. Determined, Jane walked with her family through frost and woodland from Buffalo, New York to the city of the saints in Nauvoo, Illinois. At one point in their journey, Jane and her family were mistaken for runaway slaves and almost were arrested for not having free papers (they didn’t have any because they were already born free.) It is not entirely clear why the family was allowed to continue on anyway, but it is miraculous they did. 

Jane described the hardships in her autobiography. She recalls the bitter cold and ice her little band encountered and how miserable they felt walking for hundreds of miles, many of those miles barefoot. Despite the perils, persecution, and pain, Jane writes how she and her party behaved on the journey. “We went on our way rejoicing, singing hymns, and thanking God for his infinite goodness and mercy to us in blessing us as he had, protecting us from all harm, answering our prayers and healing our feet.“ She is a grateful and joyful optimist. She writes about many of her life’s hardest moments as miraculous blessings. Jane’s writings have given us a window into her rare life experiences.

Upon her arrival in Nauvoo, she lived with and worked in the house of Joseph Smith, the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Jane became a dear friend to Joseph and Emma and remembers her time living with them fondly. Of the few writings we have from Jane, a majority of them center on the brief eight months that she lived in the Smith home. Emma and Joseph loved her so much that they offered to adopt her eternally into their family. She initially refused them on the offer, but later changed her mind.

In Nauvoo, there were other free people of color who were Church members. While in Nauvoo, Jane married Isaac James. In 1846, together they journeyed to the Salt Lake Valley. Jane recounts this migration as a miracle as well. Jane’s son, Silas, was born along the trail. Despite many inevitable hardships from crossing the plains with a newborn, Jane recalls the experience as “the Lord’s blessing was with us and protected us all the way, the only thing that did occur worth relating was when our cattle stampeded, some of them we never did find.”

Jane Manning

Life did not cease to be difficult for Jane in Utah. Like many early saints, she struggled to grow food and provide for her family, Jane’s, and the other saints were desperate for food. Crickets ravaged the saints’ crops. Jane and her young children suffered in their new home. Her youngest, Mary Ann, was only a year old by the Manning family’s second year in Utah. In her biography, Jane records “ Oh, I suffered of cold and hunger and the keenest of all was to hear my little ones cry for bread, and I had none to give them; but in all the Lord was with us and gave us grace and faith to stand it all.”

Jane personally suffered so much at this time, but her children’s pain hurt her more. Her motherly grief is yet another testament to her charity. Despite this economic hardship and despair, Jane’s character was unconquerable. She was determined to be generous and kind. Eliza Lyman, one of Jane’s neighbors, writes this story in her journal about Jane’s charity. At the time Eliza wrote this, her husband had left for missionary work in California.

“ We baked the last of our flour today, and have no prospect of getting more till after the harvest……. He (Eliza’s husband) left us without anything from which to make bread, it not being in his power to get it Not long after Amasa had gone, Jane James, the colored woman, let me have two pounds of flour, it being half of what she had.”

In such hard times, Jane was kind enough to help those around her. Surely there were times she must have felt different or isolated from the mostly white community, but she continued to express true charity.

Even though Jane exemplified every virtue a Church member ought to, she was denied some of the privileges associated with membership in the Church. Unfortunately, at this time, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints had rules that prevented people of color from fully participating in the Church, things like worship and eternal marriage within the temple. Jane was determined to be a part of these ceremonies in the temple. Despite the Church’s policies that prevented her from fully participating, Jane continued to petition Church leaders to allow her into the temple. Jane’s letters to church authorities are polite, but fiery. She writes using scriptural references and sound rhetoric. She was so persistent and convincing, that the church conceded a little bit and allowed her to participate in some of the temple ceremonies previously denied to her. Despite the exclusion, Jane was friends with some of the church leaders, such as Joseph F. Smith, who even spoke at her funeral.

Jane’s personality and actions are remarkable. Despite so much trouble and hardship, she always found a reason to be grateful and charitable. Her strength came from the joy she found even in dark and painful moments. Jane’s charity and tenacity began to break the barriers among the white community, despite the tension at this time period of Civil war and racism.

 We wouldn’t know about Jane’s joy, gratitude, and strength if not for her paper trail. There are some things written about her from the time period. Her friendship with Joseph Smith, first president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, made her the subject of some interviews for the occasional church publication. But it’s her own writings and narrative that make her truly unique. Her correspondence with church leaders over the temple issue has also been preserved. But her most important record is the one she dictated herself for the specific purpose of inspiring her children, grandchildren and beyond.

Jane called on Elizabeth Roundy to record her life history at the age of 80. She realized (at least a little bit) the remarkable and touching life that she’d had. She also asked for this brief life history to be read out loud at her funeral. Her last recorded words are:

“I want to say right here, that my faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ as taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is as strong today, nay, it is stronger than it was the day I was first baptized… I try in my feeble way to set a good example to all; I have had eighteen grandchildren eight of them are living also seven great grandchildren. I live in my little home. We are the last two of my mothers family. I want him to stay there after me. This is a concise but true sketch of my life and experience.”

Jane wants her family to remember her example and her experiences and to protect the bond and family heritage that she worked so hard to cultivate. She is one of very few African American women of this time period to write any kind of history for herself. She was very old at this time and losing her eyesight, but she realized how valuable her experiences could be for those who would come after her. Like a true pioneer woman, she prepared a way for those coming after by drawing them a map with her life experience. Her tenacity, faith and charity have been preserved for all to read and draw strength from; her legacy is one that we can all benefit from as we remember it. To learn more about women of color, visit our website, JohnHutchingsMuseum.org.

Bibliography

 Jane Manning James, Autobiography, circa 1902, MS 4225, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, https://dcms.lds.org/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=IE6369620.
Jane Manning James, Autobiography, circa 1902, MS 4225, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, https://dcms.lds.org/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=IE6369620.
Wolfinger, Henry J. 1973. A test of faith : Jane Elizabeth Manning and the Origins of the Utah black community. Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Service
Newell, Quincy D. 2019. Your sister in the gospel. Oxford University Press, New York, NY. Wolfinger, Henry J. A test of faith : Jane Elizabeth Manning and the origins of the Utah black community. Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Service.
Jane Manning James, Autobiography, circa 1902, MS 4225, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, https://dcms.lds.org/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=IE6369620.
Miscellaneous Portraits, circa 1862-1873. PH 5962, box 1, folder 25, image 37. Church History Library. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah