The Mormon faith isn’t known for its diversity, as just six percent of its membership are of African-American or of African descent worldwide. Abner Howell, a pioneer of Black Mormonism and a standout football star, was born on this day in 1877.
Howell was born to former slaves in Louisiana, who then moved north to Salt Lake City, Utah. Howell’s father became a police officer and detective. In high school “Ab” Howell as he was known carried his football team on his sturdy shoulders as a fullback. One account shares that after beating a rival team, the squad celebrated at a local restaurant but Howell was ordered to eat in the kitchen. His white teammates reportedly sided with him, forcing the restaurant to allow him to eat in the main dining area.
Racism visited Howell as he went on to college at the University of Michigan. As a football player, Howell contributed to the team’s three national championship wins between 1902 and 1904. However, the law student had to leave the school, got married, and then returned to Utah to become a bricklayer. In a 1974 article, Howell’s name was notably absent from the list of Black players for the Michigan Wolverines football team despite his photo in a team picture.
Returning home also led to reconnecting with his high school teammate, Nicholas Groesbeck Smith, who urged him to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Smith was one of the many players who stood in solidarity with Howell during their playing days. Howell and his wife, Nina Stevenson Howell became members of the Mormon faith. After his first wife died, Howell remarried and traveled to southern states to established segregated LDS churches.
The LDS church forbade priesthood to people of African descent, but Howell earned the title of “Honorary High Priest” from the church. A letter from an apostle legitimized his status.
PHOTO: Public Domain
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