CULTURE Meet the famous football player who pioneered black Mormonism...

Meet the famous football player who pioneered black Mormonism in the 1950s

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The Mormon faith has had a racially difficult past; a church culture which restricted its priesthood from anyone of African lineage until 1965 when Abner Howell, an African-American was given a card naming him an “Honorary High Priest.”

Born on August 9, 1877, Howell was a standout football star though his achievements were largely ignored at the height of his career due to his race.

Howell parents were former slaves in Louisiana but in 1890, they moved north to Salt Lake City, Utah, where his father became a police officer and detective.

In high school, “Ab” Howell, as he was called, led his team to various victories as a gifted fullback.

Accounts state that after once beating a rival team, Howell and his colleagues went to celebrate at a local restaurant where he was told that he would need to eat in the kitchen while the rest of the team ate in the dining area.

His white teammates, particularly, Nicholas Groesbeck Smith, refused and offered to also eat in the kitchen till the restaurant was forced to allow Howell to eat in the main dining area.

After high school, he went on to study law at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and since he did not have adequate funding, he took on several jobs to pay for his education while playing football as a Wolverine from 1902 to 1904 under Coach Fielding Yost.

During that period, the Wolverines won the national collegiate football title thanks to Howell but he was sadly not listed among the black football players in a 1974 article about all the black athletes who had played for the university, according to accounts.

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In 1904, Howell and his wife, Nina Stevenson, whom he had married that same year, had to move to Utah since he could no longer afford his education.

Howell became a bricklayer and in the process, he reconnected with his former white teammate Nicholas Groesbeck Smith, who urged him to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). Howell and his wife became members of the Mormon faith.

Nina passed away in 1945 and Howell married Martha Perkins, the granddaughter of Green Flake, one of three “coloured servants” in the vanguard Mormon pioneer company.

The couple was later asked by LDS officials to go to the Southern states to look into the possibility of establishing segregated congregations.

Carrying a letter signed by Apostle LeGrand Richards, the couple travelled across the United States.

The letter, dated June 20, 1951, stated:

“To Whom It May Concern:

This will introduce to you Brother and Sister Abner L. Howell (coloured) who are good members of our Church, being members of the Evergreen Ward here in Salt Lake City. Brother and Sister Howell have been faithful throughout the years and are now enjoying what they have looked forward to for a long time, namely a trip through the Southern and Eastern parts of the United States.

We have invited them to call upon our people, the missionaries, and Saints wherever convenient. Any courtesies extended to them will be very much appreciated.

Sincerely yours,

LeGrand Richards.”

Abner would later return to Utah during the period of the Watts riots (1965) and would die in a rest home in 1966 at the age of 89.

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