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The Making of Jane Manning James: Your Sister In the Gospel

By Margaret Blair Young

THREE YEARS AGO, film maker Scott Freebairn began filming tributes to black pioneers Jane Manning James, Green Flake, and Elijah Abel. Most of the footage was devoted to Jane James. Scott filmed Lita Giddins, Denise Cutliff and Tamu Smith—all of whom have portrayed that great pioneer—at “This is the Place Heritage Park” in Salt Lake City. Each woman talked about what Jane’s example had meant in her own life, and read portions of Jane’s life history (which she had dictated to be read at her funeral) as well as selections from her letters to LDS Church leaders. Finally, I asked Lita (a gifted singer) to sing “I Am A Child of God.” Scott had her sit next to a window, and the light framed her in a buttery gold. Lita began singing, her voice moving effortlessly into its naturally rich tones. Only after the filming was finished did she reveal that she had been very ill and had not been able to sing for months. “I had no idea what kind of sound was going to come out of my mouth,” she said, near tears. (Lita lived in Michigan at the time we filmed, and only happened to be in Utah the week we were shooting. We had no idea she had been sick.)

As I talked to Scott about the project, I kept asking him if it was going smoothly. He answered that it was indeed. And that was when I got nervous. My experience with anything related to our telling the neglected stories of the Black pioneers is that opposition is constant. I told Scott to not be surprised if he encountered problems in the future. Brigham Young had talked about the “bells of Hell” which always accompany an important spiritual effort, and I had become quite familiar with their clanging.

A month after I warned Scott that there might be some barriers to his finishing the work, he phoned to let me know that the entire project had been halted. We were not told why. Apparently, that beautiful footage would never be shown.

I remember two simultaneous feelings: Validation of my suspicion that this work was important enough for the “bells” to ring fiercely, and tremendous disappointment. This footage was to have been the main advertising support for the release of the third volume of the Standing On the Promises trilogy, which Darius Gray and I had written. Now that book would have virtually no publicity.

The copyright was turned over to Darius and me. For two years, the film sat in Scott’s office, unused. The fact that he had an unfinished project weighed heavily on him. He had never left a project prematurely.

In February 2005, Darius and I were scheduled to do a presentation at the Washington DC Visitors’ Center. I asked Scott for the unedited Jane James film, intending to use it as part of a Power Point.

But the moment I viewed the footage—which was so beautiful and evocative—I realized that we had much more than a power point accessory; we had a short but powerful documentary which simply needed to be puzzled together and linked with good transitions.

What I then proposed to Scott might be considered unthinkable in a marketplace mentality, but I knew he wanted to finish the project as much as I did. Since we had no funds, I asked him to donate his time, as I would donate mine. I viewed the footage over and over, structuring the various segments into a cohesive whole, then wrote the transitions, collected photographs (including one from a generous descendant of Jane James named Louis Duffy) and finally recorded the narration myself at my cousin’s studio. Scott did his professional editing. With Darius’s blessing, Scott and I completed the project at last and debuted it over Pioneer Day weekend (July 22-25), 2005 in the very place where we had filmed it: “This is the Place Heritage Park.”

Deseret Book agreed to distribute the DVD.

As I look back on this project, I certainly remember the frustration of the day when I learned that the last book of our trilogy would not receive the support we had anticipated, but I must admit that that glitch in our advertising schedule has proved a blessing. At the time the film was scheduled to come out, I had not yet met Louis Duffy, nor had I found several other important photographs of Jane. What a wonderful thing it is to be able to show images of Jane Elizabeth Manning James which most people have never seen! And might it be that my focus on publicity was wrong-headed? Surely there was a lesson in this for me. It was Jane who mattered, her life which deserved a tribute. Had the footage been used as originally intended, it would not have been nearly as complete as it is now, and its distribution would likely have been very limited. Now we can offer the DVD to anyone in the world, in Jane’s own spirit. Could it be that this is precisely the right time for the short documentary to be released?

If I follow the pattern of faith which Jane exemplified in her life, I acknowledge that God’s mercies and purposes are present in the most trying circumstances, revealed as we keep our feet—even when bloodied—firmly on the path. Jane wrote of her 800-mile trek to Nauvoo:

“The frost fell on us so heavy, it was like a light fall of snow. We arose early and started on our way walking through that frost with our bare feet, until the sun rose and melted it away. But 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.”[1]

Jane’s example of “rejoicing, singing hymns, and thanking God” in the most difficult times calls me from across the years, urging me to be more patient and more believing, and to know that all will be well.

[1] Jane E. Manning James, “My Life Story,” as dictated to Elizabeth J. D. Roundy. Wilford Woodruff Papers. Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

About Margaret Blair Young

Margaret Blair Young teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University. Her ancestors Ira and Angeline Noble Hinckley were in Jane Manning James’s ward (the First Ward) in Salt Lake City.

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