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Harkers Island Mormons: How symbols alter history

More than thirty years ago, while serving as Bishop of the Harkers Island (NC) ward, I had one of those proverbial “fire-bell in the night” moments. But for me, and on that occasion, it was not proverbial. Indeed, it was all too real. To understand why I bring it up now, and how that relates to more current topics, I will offer some background.

The first LDS missionaries, fresh out of Bountiful and Logan, Utah, arrived on Harkers Island, where I grew up and still live, in 1898. By 1904, they and their successors had enough converts to construct a small wooden meetinghouse. In January of 1906 that building was burned by an anti-Mormon mob. After the initial burning, a private home used for meetings also was destroyed. The members were warned that any building used for future Mormon gatherings would meet a similar fate. Within six months, the missionaries themselves were forcibly evicted from the Island, and it was not deemed safe for them to return until 1909. But even with their return, stories of what had happened remained a part of the consciousness of local members, even though a new chapel was built in 1936 and that one was replaced with a full-sized modern meetinghouse in 1960. The facility is now home to a ward of over 400 members.

Now, jump ahead from 1906 to 1985 and my “fire-bell” moment. Late that summer, just before midnight, I got a phone call from the county sheriff letting me know the classroom section of our chapel was engulfed in flames. It was later determined that a contractor doing repairs had left behind a welding torch that caused the fire.

After getting the call, I hurried to the chapel, a little more than a mile from my home. As I pulled into the parking lot, the building was surrounded by fire trucks and emergency lights lit up the night. At almost the same moment I arrived, an older member of the church, who had been inactive for most of her life, came running along the road toward me and the others to watch as the fire was brought under control. Recognizing me as her Bishop, the sister rushed up to me and wrapped her arms around my neck, and began to shout so everyone could hear her heart-felt sentiments.

“They’ve done it again. They’ve burned our church again!”

As noted, we soon learned they hadn’t done it again. But even after more than three generations, the collective memory and resentment of something that happened seventy-nine years earlier came to the forefront of the emotions for someone who had only a fading connection with what happened in 1906.

What I have described so far is what really happened that night. A freak accident started a fire causing moderate damage. The damage was immediately repaired and life for our ward and its members went on as usual. To parallel this story closer with current events, let’s move a step further using a “what if” scenario going all the way back to the original burning.

Just suppose the mob that torched our first meetinghouse and evicted the Mormon elders in 1906 was so proud of their accomplishments that they decided to make certain their message was never forgotten by their descendants, and especially by their victims. Let’s imagine they agreed to adopt an emblem for what they had done, say the image of a chapel surrounded by flames, and from that time onward they used this symbol on flags, decals, t-shirts, and bumper stickers. Further, what if they sought to immortalize the leader of the mob, a local minister, by building a statue to his memory that was strategically placed on the very spot where the small wooden church once stood?

I trust you see the analogy I am offering, and how it relates to events in recent headlines. If what really happened, as well as what I supposed could have happened, were combined in the consciousness and memory of the current members of the LDS church on Harkers Island, it is reasonable to assume that every time we saw one of the symbols we would be offended.  Every time we passed by the statue, we would be repulsed at having to pay visual homage to an event and a person whose name is an anathema to us. Every time something unexpected happened to our beautifully maintained chapel and grounds, no matter how benign, we might have to struggle to suppress old memories of what our ancestors endured.

For the Mormons of Harkers Island, our period of intense and direct persecution lasted less than a generation. Today, ours is the largest congregation on the Island, and almost every extended family on the Island includes someone who is affiliated with our church. But after more than a century of “healing,” the remembrance of 1906-1909 remains a part of our consciousness — even without the flags on neighborhood houses, the decals on blue jeans, the stickers on windshields and bumpers, and the statues in prominent locations.

With that in mind, I marvel how so many of my African-American friends in and out of the church, have come as far as they have in overcoming their collective memories. Memories of more than three hundred years of chattel slavery, and another century and more of being treated as second-class citizens. It’s no wonder some of them are offended by the symbols and dog-whistles that remind them their long journey “Up from Slavery” is not over.

Happily, for the Mormons of Harkers Island, those what-if scenarios I proposed never happened, and as a result, what played out here in the first decade of the 20th century is seldom remembered. When and if it is, there is never a hint that old prejudices and injuries still are simmering beneath the surface.

For the descendants of African slaves, history has not been so kind. Even now, more than a century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, and sixty-plus years after the symbolic end of legalized segregation, there are monuments and emblems to remind them of all the injustices that did happen. For them, a “fire-bell in the night” is often all too real. For them, it announces the old mob carrying torches may be gathered once more. For them, “they’ve done it again” is not always a mistaken assumption. Think of all the monuments and memorials still present today that, intended or not, are there to remind them as much.

About the author:

Joel Hancock lives on Harkers Island, a small island-community located near the base of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse on North Carolina’s lower outer-banks. He is a lifelong, 4th-generation Latter-day Saint, who has served as a Bishop, Stake President’s Counselor, and for eleven years as President of the Kinston NC Stake. He is a life-long Democrat and has served in both elective and appointive offices. He and his wife, Susan, are the parents of six children and seventeen grandchildren (so far).

Cover photo credit: Jill Bazeley (Photopin.com)

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