Abner Leonard Howell (1877-1966)

Abner Leonard Howell
Courtesy Library of Congress, Fair use image
Image Ownership: Library of Congress

Abner Leonard Howell was a star athlete in Utah whose accomplishments went largely ignored during the peak of his football career because of his race.

Howell, born on August 9, 1877, moved with his family from Louisiana to Salt Lake City, Utah in 1890.  His father, Paul Cephas Howell, was appointed a police officer and detective. Both Paul Howell and Abner’s mother, Eliza Sharp, had been slaves.

Howell’s athletic talent was obvious during high school. After one of the most important high school games, attended by 5,000 fans, the Deseret News announced that “a colored fullback named Ab Howell was everything from the bandwagon to the steam calliope.” Howell led his team to a 32-0 victory against East Denver (Colorado) High. When the team went to a restaurant to celebrate, Abner was told that he would need to eat in the kitchen while the rest of the team enjoyed the dining area.  Teammate Nicholas Groesbeck Smith replied that they would all eat in the kitchen.  The restaurant relented and the full team was served in the dining room.

After high school, Howell studied law at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, though he had no money. He took on several jobs to pay for his schooling, and pursued legal studies while playing football as a Wolverine from 1902 to 1904 under Coach Fielding Yost.  The Wolverines won the national collegiate football title during each of those years.  Abner was a gifted fullback who contributed to those victories. He appears in the 1902 team photograph.  Howell, however, was not listed among the black football players in a 1974 article about all the black athletes who had played for the university.

In 1904, Howell and his bride, Nina, whom he had married on August 30 of that same year, could no longer afford his education. They moved to Utah, where Abner became a bricklayer.  His friendship with Nicholas Groesbeck Smith continued, and through it came many associations with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) church leaders. After he joined the church in 1921, he cultivated these associations.

Nina Stevenson Howell died in 1945. Several months later, Howell married Martha Perkins. She was the granddaughter of Green Flake, one of three “colored servants” in the vanguard Mormon pioneer company. The couple was asked by LDS officials to go to the Southern states to look into the possibility of establishing segregated congregations. They took a letter of introduction signed by a church apostle.  Although the LDS Church restricted its priesthood from anyone of African lineage, Howell was given a card in 1965 naming him an “Honorary High Priest.”

Abner Howell died in Salt Lake City on September 6, 1966.  He was 89.