Able Jr., Elijah

Biography

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Elijah Able, Jr. was the child and namesake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint’s most prominent Black priesthood holder. Unlike his father who was consistently defined in public records as having Black-African ancestry, Elijah Jr. eventually passed as white. His life thus represents the difficulties that some people of mixed racial ancestry faced in an American society and church that so heavily privileged whiteness.

Able was born December 25, 1859 in Salt Lake City, Utah. His parents, Elijah and Mary Ann Adams both resided in Salt Lake City at the time. He is listed on the 1860 census as one of five children living in the Able home in Salt Lake City’s Thirteenth Ward. The census taker indicated Able was a one-year-old boy, born in Utah, and labeled him mulatto with the rest of his family.[1] Both his mother and father were of mixed racial ancestry, hence the family’s designation as mulatto, a racial classification that would follow Elijah Jr. at least until 1900 when he began to pass as white. The senior Able had financial struggles that by 1870 appear to have forced the family to move to Ogden, Utah. The now ten-year-old Able, still labeled a mulatto by the census taker, lived with his family in Ogden that year. His birthplace was again listed as Utah, something that Elijah Jr. eventually changed as he transitioned to white.[2]

In 1877, Able’s mother Mary Ann died and his father rented a room in Salt Lake City’s Eighth Ward, indicating on the 1880 Census that he had been unemployed for six months out of the previous year.[3] The family’s financial reversals may have forced the younger Able to rely on other family for support. He, along with his 27-year-old brother Enoch Able, were listed as living together in Salt Lake City’s Thirteenth Ward with his sister Annie and her husband, John Burns. The household had a lot of occupants: John and Annie Burns, their three children, the two Able brothers, and two other women—eight people in all. All but one of the single women, a seventeen-year-old white woman named Alice who was listed as a servant, were labeled mulatto. Able listed his occupation as laborer and indicated that he had been employed a full twelve months out of the year.[4]

Elijah Jr.’s brother Enoch had been getting into minor legal trouble, often theft charges, for some time and it appears that the younger Elijah also had some difficulties with the law. In May 1880, according to a newspaper report, a man named Hank Graves showed up at the police station, his face and head cut up and his clothing covered with blood. Graves told police Able assaulted him and Able landed in jail.[5]

Able managed to distance himself from this lifestyle over the next fifteen years. On April 8, 1895, a Presbyterian minister married 35-year-old Elijah to 23-year-old Francilda Coulter Harwood. One year and one day later the couple had a son together, Leo Earl Able, the only child born to their marriage. The marriage certificate listed Elijah’s age as 31—reflecting a birthyear of 1864, a claim that he made for the remainder of his life. It was five years later than his actual birthdate.[6] Able’s motivations for the change are unclear. Perhaps he wanted his new bride to think he was younger than he was—an eight-year difference instead of a thirteen-year difference between their ages. It is also possible that Able manufactured a new birthdate to distance himself from his father and family of origin in order to pass as white. His new wife, often called Frances, was a white woman born in 1871 in Glasgow, Scotland who then immigrated to the United States in 1882. Utah had passed an anti-miscegenation law in 1888 which prohibited marriages between white and Black people, a fact that may have motivated Able to pass.[7] While he had been labeled a mulatto through at least the 1880 Census with a birthdate of 1859, by the 1900 Census and in each census after that, he was consistently labeled white and used an 1864 birthdate.[8]

Historians have described the first few decades of the twentieth century as a period of Jim Crow segregation. For black people, the “threat of white violence was the everyday reality, and it induced a widespread state of fear in the African American community.” Able’s own racial transition took place at the turn of the twentieth century when he married Frances and continued over the next two decades. In the 1920 census, Able indicated for the first time that he had been born in California, a claim that he maintained in the 1930 and 1940 censuses and for the rest of his life. His obituary indicated that he was born in Shasta County, California and that he “had been in Salt Lake since 1893.” [9]

Historical documents, however, tell a different story. There is no evidence that his parents left Utah in the 1850s or 1860s. Critically, he is listed on the 1860 census as a one-year-old boy who was born to Elijah and Mary Ann Able in Utah. Additionally, there is no evidence that Able ever left Northern Utah. It seems likely that by adopting a new birth year and birthplace and positioning himself as a Utah transplant from California, Able publicly distanced himself from his mixed-race namesake and was thus able to quell any suspicion over his Black ancestry. As the United States passed through a period of heightened racial animus in which some states adopted “one drop” policies to legally indicate a person’s race, Able forged and solidified a white identity for himself.

A few years after his marriage, Able managed to become a witness in a highly publicized murder trial. A woman named Leda Stromberg was engaged to be married to Burton Morris, a florist. Morris discovered Stromberg having drinks and dinner with a married man, John Benbrook, at the Merchants’ Café in Salt Lake City. The two men argued and Benbrook shot and killed Morris, beating him in the head with his revolver.[10]

At the trial on March 4, 1900, Able testified he was walking into Leyson’s store across the street from the Merchants’ Café when he heard two gunshots. He turned to see a man backing to the window, presumably Benbrook, and a dark object, presumably Morris, behind him. Able heard another shot and saw a flash, then saw the man “raising his arm and lowering it.”

Even though Able was a critical witness, the attorneys and the judge grew frustrated with him because he consistently tried to explain his testimony rather than simply answering yes or no. The exasperated judge, commenting on Able’s inability to fully answer the questions, said, “We all have our peculiarities, our idiosyncrasies, and we must have patience with each other in this vale of tears.” When Able later testified that he could not remember aspects of his testimony that he had given at an earlier preliminary hearing, the judge asked “if his recollection was better then than yesterday or if it improved with age.” Able replied that he did not know if it did, which prompted the judge to allow the parties to substitute Able’s preliminary hearing testimony in place of keeping him on the witness stand. He was thereafter no longer mentioned in news coverage of the case but not before the Salt Lake Tribune's sketch artist drew a picture of him.[11]

In the summer of 1901, Able found himself again in legal trouble. Apparently Able’s young son Leo exchanged toys with the son of a neighbor named Emily Phelps. When Able learned of the trade, he felt his son had made a bad deal. Late on July 13, a Saturday evening, Able made his way to the home of William Covington on Third South in Salt Lake City, where Phelps was a resident, to cancel the trade. In the front yard, Able, his wife Frances, and Mrs. Covington got into a heated argument. Covington, who later claimed Able was intoxicated, suggested they notify the police. At this request, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, Frances became upset and “start[ed] a lively hair-pulling match.” Elijah ended the fight between the women, according to the paper, by striking Covington in the back of the head and in the chest, knocking her to the ground. Covington’s husband stood idly by and “made no effort to act in his wife’s defense,” later claiming it was “because he wanted no trouble with Able.” Mrs. Covington “lay in a dazed condition” until her husband and others carried her into the house and to bed. Police went to the Able home, but were told the family “had retired for the night and would not get up for the purpose of submitting to arrest.”[12]

The following Tuesday, Able’s case went before police magistrate Judge John B. Timmony, who after he heard the evidence, dismissed the charges, concluding the whole fracas “was the effect of the hot weather.” According to the paper, Mrs. Covington, full of fire, “raised her portly form before the magistrate’s bench and, shaking her fists so vigorously that the court expected to see them come at him, declared that he had turned a guilty man loose.” Judge Timmony had a sprained ankle and could not quickly retreat, so he “took refuge behind his desk” from Mrs. Covington’s attack as the audience “went into convulsions of laughter.” The angry woman left and Judge Timmony was “congratulating himself” when Covington came back, shouting “she was not through.” Court officers managed to persuade her to leave “before being fined for contempt of court.”[13]

Able spent most of his career working as a teamster—one who drove a team of animals. Salt Lake City directories list various teamster or driver jobs for Able and multiple residences in the city. In 1899, the American Federation of Labor chartered the Teamsters Union, which would eventually become the nation’s largest. The Teamsters helped Americans negotiate a transportation revolution as the nation transitioned from horse-drawn wagons to trucking and highways. As one historian noted, “the union addressed real needs for members, winning shorter hours, better wages, and improved working conditions.”[14] Able embraced the Teamsters and was elected vice-president of its first Salt Lake City chapter in1904; the new union enrolled twenty-five members at its first meeting.[15]

Although he primarily remained a teamster, Able changed employers frequently. By 1910, he and his family had moved to Lark, Utah, a small mining town at the mouth of Butterfield Canyon next to the Oquirrh Mountains on Salt Lake City’s west side. The tiny town had a few lumber houses and a brick schoolhouse. The small Latter-day Saint branch that was there became a ward in 1918, and by 1930, the ward counted 234 members. If the Able family attended the Lark Ward during their time in the community, their names do not appear on the congregation’s membership records. Able worked as a teamster for the Ohio Copper Company during the family’s stay at Lark.[16]

For an unknown reason, but likely because of work, sometime around 1914, the Ables left Lark and returned to Salt Lake City where Elijah worked as a teamster for the Alex Pickering Transfer Company. In 1914, Elijah, Frances, and their son Leo were counted in Salt Lake City’s Sixteenth Ward LDS Census. While evidence of the family’s activity in the LDS church is scant, the couple maintained some inclinations toward Mormonism. In 1896, they had their son Leo blessed in the Salt Lake Fourteenth Ward just three months after his birth.[17] Now the Sixteenth Ward listed all three of the Ables as church members, an indication that they must have been baptized, although no baptismal records have been found. Elijah’s older brother Moroni was baptized at age eight and his sisters were blessed at birth in the Salt Lake Tenth Ward, but that ward’s membership records for the late 1860s, when Elijah would have turned eight, are not extant. Because of the pattern his parents followed with his older siblings, it is likely Elijah was baptized in early 1868, sometime after his eighth birthday.

Church records most likely indicated Able’s ancestry and correct birthdate since the LDS census taker, Richard Reid, listed Able’s age as 53 (he was 54), much closer to his 1859 birthyear than Able declared in other public documents. The clerk noted that Elijah and his 19-year-old son Leo did not hold any priesthood offices, likely because of the church’s policies against ordaining those with Black ancestry to the priesthood. Alternatively, if Able had successfully passed as white, his lack of priesthood may have indicated a certain level of detachment from the church. In either case, the Ables did not live long in Salt Lake City. After only a few years, they returned to Lark. The 1916 Salt Lake City directory listed Leo as having “moved to Lark” and his parents followed by at least 1920.[18]

On February 19, 1919, Leo enlisted in the United States Navy where he worked as a machinist on the U.S.S. Alert. He had suffered from Bright’s disease or a form of kidney disease such as chronic or acute nephritis. Because of his illness, Leo had to make persistent efforts to join the Navy during World War I. After a year in the Navy, Leo died of this disease on June 25, 1920.[19]

Leo’s death was a clear tragedy for Elijah and Frances. The Navy returned Leo’s body to the distraught parents who had lost their only son. The epigraph on Leo’s grave reflects their grief:

He left his home in perfect
health he looked so young
and brave, little did we
think he’d be laid so soon
in a sailor’s grave.[20]

Because of Leo’s death, in 1920, the Navy paid the parents Leo’s $72 monthly wage and $100 in burial costs. Frances was beneficiary to a $5,000 insurance policy from which the United States Treasury paid her $20 per month from 1920 to 1940, but even this extra support could not meet the family’s financial needs. Frances wrote to the Navy in June of 1925 to explain the family’s dire circumstances. She noted that “when my boy went to the navy they took our main support; his father hasent Been able to do a day work for over five years.” She believed the family was entitled to payment from the recently passed World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924, popularly known as the “Bonus Act,” and she asked for a six-hundred-dollar payment and one month of Leo’s wages. She explained the circumstances of her family’s finances and health, and commented on Eljiah’s condition specifically: “[A]t the time my son died,” Frances wrote, “his father was night watchman at the Ohio Copper plant then the mill closed down and he hasn’t been able to do any hard work for he has Lumbago [lower back pain] in his Back and I got neuright in my Legs and feet.” She made a final plea: “I think we ought to Be showed a Little consideration; everything is so high and we cant get what we need food and medicins.” The Navy responded to her letter, informing her that because Leo did not enter naval service prior to November 12, 1918, they were not entitled to compensation under the Bonus Act.[21]

Despite Frances’s lack of success with the Navy, Elijah was eventually able to secure new employment. He left Lark and returned to Salt Lake City sometime around 1926, where he was hired as a teamster for the Pickering Transfer Company. He retired in 1932 as an employee of the Redman Van & Storage Company.[22]

On September 3, 1941, Able, then age 82, was riding a utility bus when a car could not stop on a wet road and struck the bus’s right side. Able was treated for shock and bruises from the accident. Only two months later, after spending twelve days at Salt Lake County General Hospital, on the morning of November 10, 1941, Able died of cardiac failure. On the death certificate, as in census records of the preceding decades, the doctor listed Able’s race as white. Frances survived him. Funeral services were held at the Deseret Mortuary on Saturday, November 15, 1941. Newspaper accounts listed his birthplace as Shasta County, California, as did his death certificate. He was buried in the Draper City Cemetery, and his wife Frances engraved his gravestone with an 1865 birthdate, etching Able’s racial transition in stone.[23]

By Samuel P. Newton

Primary Sources

Able, Leo Earl. United States Navy. Enlistment File. National Archives and Records Administration. Washington D.C.

“Able.” Presiding Bishopric stake and mission census, 1914-1935. CR 4 311. Church History Library. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

“Badly Bruised.” The Salt Lake Herald (Salt Lake City, Utah). 19 May 1880, 3.

“Burton C. Morris Shot Dead.” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah). 18 July 1899, 1.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Record of Members Collection. Salt Lake Fourteenth Ward. Microfilm 26,695. Family History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.

“Elijah Able.” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah). 13 November 1941, 20.

“Elijah Able.” The Salt Lake Tribune. 13 November 1941, 21.

“Funerals.” The Salt Lake Tribune. 14 November 1941, 32.

“Here and There.” The Salt Lake Herald (Salt Lake City, Utah). 9 April 1895, 3.

“Judge Timmony’s Sudden Death.” Deseret Evening News (Salt Lake City, Utah). 2 September 1901, 1.

“Marshal’s Sale.” Deseret Evening News (Salt Lake City, Utah). 5 November 1870, 3.

“Naval Machinist to be Buried at Draper Tomorrow.” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah). 29 June 1920, 17.

“Passenger on Bus Suffers Bruises.” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah). 4 September 1941, 11, 17.

Salt Lake City Directory. Salt Lake City, Utah: R.L. Polk & Co., 1896, 1897, 1906, 1909, 1915, 1916.

“Shook Her Fist at Judge.” The Salt Lake Herald (Salt Lake City, Utah), 17 July 1901, 5.

“Teamsters Organize.” Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, Utah). 30 May 1904, 6.

United States. 1860 Census. Utah Territory, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, Thirteenth Ward.

United States. 1870 Census. Utah Territory, Weber County, Ogden.

United States. 1880 Census. Utah Territory, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, Thirteenth Ward.

United States. 1900 Census. Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, Second District.

United States. 1910 Census. Utah, Salt Lake County, Lark.

United States. 1920 Census. Utah, Salt Lake County, Lark.

United States. 1930 Census. Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, Ward 2.

United States. 1940 Census. Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, Ward 2.

Utah. Department of Commerce. Certificate of Death. File No. 1698. Able, Elijah. 15 November 1941. Utah Division of Archives and Records Service. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Utah. Salt Lake County. County Marriages, 1887-1940. Elijah Able to Francis Cearns. 8 April 1895. Microfilm 1263. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Family History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.

“Woman Knocked Down by Man.” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah). 14 July 1901, 5.

“Woman’s Story of Tragedy.” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah), 4 March 1900, 5.

Secondary Sources

Able Jr., Elijah. FindAGrave.com.

Able, Leo Earl. FindAGrave.com.

Jensen, Andrew. Encyclopedic History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Deseret News Publishing Company, 1941.

Mason, Patrick Q. “The Prohibition of Interracial Marriage in Utah, 1888-1963.” Utah Historical Quarterly 76 (Spring 2008): 108-131.

Miller, Ruth Thompson, et al. Jim Crow’s Legacy: The Lasting Impact of Segregation. Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

Witwer, David Scott. Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union. University of Illinois Press, 2003.


[1] United States, 1860 Census, Utah Territory, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, Thirteenth Ward.

[2] United States, 1870 Census, Utah Territory, Weber County, Ogden; W. Paul Reeve, “Elijah Able”; “Marshal’s Sale,” Deseret Evening News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 5 November 1870, 3.

[3] Reeve, “Elijah Able”; United States, 1880 Census, Utah Territory, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City Eighth Ward.

[4] United States, 1880 Census, Utah Territory, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, Thirteenth Ward.

[5] W. Paul Reeve, “Enoch Able”; “Badly Bruised,” The Salt Lake Herald (Salt Lake City, Utah), 19 May 1880, 3.

[6] Utah, Salt Lake County, County Marriages, 1887-1940, Elijah Able to Francis Cearns, 8 April 1895, Microfilm 1263, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah; “Here and There,” The Salt Lake Herald (Salt Lake City, Utah), 9 April 1895, 3; United States, 1900 Census, Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, 2nd District. Frances went by many different names in her life. In the 1900 census, she is listed as Jessie, her mother, Jessie Harwood Newbold’s name, which might have been a nickname. She went by the last name of Cairns in Scotland (and sometimes Karrens in America)—potentially a reference to her unknown father—and in 1882 she used Harwood on her immigration record.

[7] Patrick Q. Mason, “The Prohibition of Interracial Marriage in Utah, 1888-1963,” Utah Historical Quarterly 76 (Spring 2008): 108-131.

[8] United States, 1860 Census, Utah Territory, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, 13th Ward; United States, 1870 Census, Utah Territory, Weber County, Ogden; United States, 1880 Census, Utah Territory, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, Thirteenth Ward; United States, 1900 Census, Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, Second District; United States, 1910 Census, Utah, Salt Lake County, Lark; United States, 1920 Census, Utah, Salt Lake County, Lark; United States, 1930 Census, Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, Ward 2; United States, 1940 Census, Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, Ward 2.

[9] United States, 1920 Census, Utah, Salt Lake County, Lark; United States, 1930 Census, Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, Ward 2; United States, 1940 Census, Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, Ward 2; “Elijah Able,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 13 November 1941, 20; Ruth Thompson Miller, et al, Jim Crow’s Legacy: The Lasting Impact of Segregation, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 4.

[10] “Burton C. Morris Shot Dead,” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah), 18 July 1899, 1.

[11] “Woman’s Story of Tragedy,” The Daily Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah), 4

[12] “Woman Knocked Down by Man,” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah), 14 July 1901, 5.

[13] “Shook Her Fist at Judge,” The Salt Lake Herald (Salt Lake City, Utah), 17 July 1901, 5; for biographical information about Judge Timmony, see “Judge Timmony’s Sudden Death,” Deseret Evening News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 2 September 1901, 1.

[14] David Scott Witwer, Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union (University of Illinois Press, 2003), 2.

[15] “Able, Elijah,” Salt Lake City Directory, (Salt Lake City, Utah: R.L. Polk & Co., 1896, 1897, 1906, 1909); “Teamsters Organize,” Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, Utah), 30 May 1904, 6.

[16] Andrew Jensen, Encyclopedic History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Deseret News Publishing Company, 1941), 414; United States, 1910 Census, Utah, Salt Lake County, Lark.

[17] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Salt Lake Fourteenth Ward, Microfilm 26,695, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah; “Able,” Presiding Bishopric stake and mission census, 1914-1935, CR 4 311, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[18] “Able,” Presiding Bishopric stake and mission census; ; “Able, Elijah,” Salt Lake City Directory, (Salt Lake City, Utah: R.L. Polk & Co., 1915);“Able, Leo E.,” Salt Lake City Directory, (Salt Lake City, Utah: R.L. Polk & Co., 1916).

[19] “Naval Machinist to be Buried at Draper Tomorrow,” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah), 29 June 1920, 17.

[20] Leo Earl Able, FindAGrave.com.

[21] The following documents are from Leo Earl Able, United States Navy, Enlistment File, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C.: “Award to Beneficiary,” Francilda Able, Treasury Department, Bureau of War Risk Insurance, 2 October 1920; “Allowance of Burial Expenses,” Letter to Mr. Elijah Able from R.H. Hallett, Treasury Department, Bureau of War Risk Insurance, 11 October 1920; Award of Compensation to Francilda Able, Treasury Department, Bureau of War Risk Insurance, 22 April 1921; Letter from Francilda Able to Department of the Navy, 24 June 1925; Letter from Adjusted Compensation Branch to Mrs. E. Able, 14 June [July] 1925; Ott, Julia. “What Was The Great Bull Market?: Value, Valuation, and Financial History,” in American Capitalism: New Histories, edited by Sven Beckert and Christine Desan (Columbia University Press, 2018).

[22] “Elijah Able,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 13 November 1941, 20.

[23] “Passenger on Bus Suffers Bruises,” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah), 4 September 1941, 11; “Elijah Able,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 13 November 1941, 20; “Funerals,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 14 November 1941, 32; Utah, Department of Commerce, Certificate of Death, File No. 1698, Able, Elijah, 15 November 1941, Utah Division of Archives and Records Service, Salt Lake City, Utah; Able Jr., Elijah, FindAGrave.com.

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