If you're looking for an inside line on Black History Month events in Montgomery County, call the Mormons.
That's right, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, whose local outpost -- the Washington Temple -- looms fortress-like over the Beltway's Kensington exit, is prepping for an opening Saturday. The temple's visitor center will host a month-long series of exhibits and community events to highlight African-American culture, and put a kinder, gentler face on the church's history of racial discrimination.
Now in its fourth year, the program is the brainchild of Carol Petranek, 57, of Silver Spring, who said the goal of the program is primarily outreach.
The church wants "to join with the greater Washington, D.C., community to celebrate the heritage and acknowledge the contributions of African Americans in society," she said.
The path to such inclusive attitudes is still a sensitive topic for many Mormons. The church does not keep racial statistics, and while overall membership in the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore area is estimated at 65,000, some black Mormons in Montgomery County report low turnout at their services.
Virginia Wills, 54, a former Jehovah's Witness who joined the church in 1986, said her Olney congregation of 400 has about 20 black members, half of whom are from Africa.
"It breaks my heart," said Wills, who credits low black membership to "misperceptions" about church history.
African Americans have always been welcome to join the Mormon church, but were excluded from the priesthood. This ban meant they could not enter any of the religion's temples, where its most important ceremonies take place.
Then in 1978, citing a "new revelation," church leaders overturned the policy, which led to a new look at African Americans' role in the founding of the faith.
"There's been a continual black [Mormon] presence since 1832," said Darius Gray, a leading advocate for racial equality in the church, who will be at the visitor center to kick off the program on Saturday.
Gray, an African American, and his co-presenter Margaret Young, who is white, are the authors of a trilogy of meticulously researched historical novels, collectively titled "Standing on the Promises." The books recount the stories of the handful of African-American pioneers -- some of them slaves -- who played a small but vital role in the Mormon migration to Utah in 1847.
In this revised version of the church's history, Brigham Young's historic comment upon the pioneers' arrival -- "This is the right place"-- was made to a slave named Green Flake, who was driving the lead wagon. Another early African-American convert, Elijah Abel, had been admitted to the priesthood by church founder Joseph Smith, who, Young said, ran for president in 1844 on an anti-slavery platform.
It was Brigham Young, not Smith, who established the black exclusion policy, Young said.
Following Gray and Young, the rest of the line-up is also appealing. Program highlights include an exhibit of silk screens by noted African-American artist Lou Stovall, continuing through April 3; a conference on African-American genealogy on Feb. 12; and a presentation by Chris Haley, nephew of "Roots" author Alex Haley, on Feb. 19.
Most participants seem undisturbed by the Mormons' past association with discrimination. Lisa Crawley, of the Montgomery County Historical Society, will be one of the African-American speakers at the genealogy conference. She noted that the Mormons have developed some of best resources for black Americans tracing their family trees.
Historian Anthony Cohen, who will be talking about his research on the Underground Railroad on Feb. 26, said he "had no reservations at all" about working with the Mormon church.
"Slavery is an important story in American history," he said. "My only concern is if people are interested in learning about it. If anyone asks me about the Mormons and slavery, I'll be glad to talk about it."