Able, Leo Earl

Biography

Leo Earl Able

Leo Earl Able was the grandson of Elijah Able, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ earliest and most prominent Black priesthood holder. Leo’s father, Elijah Able Jr., was racially described as mulatto as a child, but married a Scottish woman and passed as white as an adult. Despite Leo’s mixed racial ancestry, public records offer no indication that he was ever understood to be anything other than white. He thus represents the racial passage of one branch of the Elijah Able family.

Leo Able was born in Salt Lake City on April 9, 1896. Within three months of his birth, his parents took him to the Salt Lake Fourteenth Ward where G.H. Taylor blessed him before the congregation. Somewhere around 1910, when Leo was around 14, the family moved to Lark, Utah, where his father worked as a night watchman for the Ohio Copper Plant. By 1914, the Ables had returned to Salt Lake City, where Leo was listed, along with his parents in the Sixteenth Ward LDS Census. The clerk noted that 19-year-old Leo was a baptized member of the church, although no baptismal record has been found. He was likely baptized in 1904, sometime after his eighth birthday. Even still, Leo did not hold any office in the LDS lay priesthood, an indication that local leaders may have been aware of his mixed racial ancestry or that the family was not particularly devout in the faith.[1]

The family did not stay in Salt Lake City long. In 1915, a Salt Lake City directory listed Leo as a laborer still living with his parents, but the 1916 directory indicated he had “moved to Lark.” It was there that Leo would register for the military and offer a glimpse into his physical identity. In response to World War I, on May 18, 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act which required all men between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for military service. Leo was a part of the first draft registration, which occurred on June 5, 1917. Appearing at the local Lark office, 21-year-old Leo indicated that he was an auto machinist employed by the Union Stage Lines in Salt Lake City. The draft registrar listed Leo’s race as Caucasian and noted that he was of medium height and build with black hair and blue eyes. Leo had been described as white on the 1900 and 1910 censuses as well. It is unclear if Leo was aware of his mixed racial heritage but there is no indication that he understood himself to be anything other than white. The draft registration card said, “If person is of African descent, tear off this corner.” Leo’s corner was untorn, so clearly the draft registrar in the small town of Lark had no reason to suspect he was not white.[2]

On February 19, 1919, Leo enlisted in the United States Navy. He had strong desires to enter the Navy and clearly identified deeply with it. Even before enlisting he had gotten two tattoos, one on each forearm, an anchor labeled “U.S.N.” on the right arm and an eagle, flag, and shield on the left. Even still, Leo’s later obituary indicated that getting into the Navy had been difficult. “He had been a sufferer from Bright’s disease,” the obituary said, a form of kidney disease such as chronic or acute nephritis. As a result, “it was only through persistent effort that he was permitted to enlist in the Navy.” At his enlistment, the examining doctor recorded that he was 22 years old, five feet eight inches tall, 142 pounds, with blue eyes, dark brown hair, and a ruddy complexion. The medical doctor marked his race as white.[3]

Leo was immediately transferred to complete his training in Charleston, South Carolina. Soon after, he was assigned to a receiving ship in the barracks extension. In August of 1919, he was permitted to return to Utah, where the Salt Lake Tribune noted that he visited with his family for ten days before returning to South Carolina. On October 1, 1919, his rating was changed to a Fireman Second Class and two weeks later he was transferred to a receiving ship in San Francisco, California. He was next assigned to the U.S. Submarine Chaser 306 where he served for a few months until he was promoted to a Machinist’s Mate Second Class. On June 11, 1920, he was transferred to the SubBase in San Francisco to serve on the U.S.S. Alert (AS-4). Later newspaper accounts indicated that he was in charge of all gas engines and motorboats on the ship. Within two weeks, however, he was sent to the Naval Hospital on Mare Island, California where he died three days after being admitted. The death report indicated that he had died of acute nephritis, his longstanding disease.

Leo's body was sent to his father and mother in Lark where his funeral was held at the LDS chapel.[4]He was buried in the Draper City Cemetery. The epitaph on his grave expressed his parents’ deep 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.[5]

Leo was posthumously awarded the Victory Medal and the Patrol Clasp for services rendered in the World War. Eight months following his death, he received the priesthood and his temple rituals by proxy in the Salt Lake City Temple.[6]

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.

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.

“Lark.” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah). 1919 August 3, 54

“Military Funeral for Utah Sailor.” Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, Utah). 29 June 1920, 11

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

Salt Lake City Directory. Salt Lake City, Utah: R.L. Polk & Co., 1915, 1916.

United States. 1900 Census. Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, 2nd District.

United States. 1910 Census. Utah, Salt Lake County, Lark, District 92.

United States. Lark, Utah. World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918. Leo Earl Able. National Archives and Records Administration. Washington, D.C.

Secondary Sources

Able, Leo Earl. FindAGrave.com.

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


[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; “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; Andrew Jensen, Encyclopedic History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Deseret News Publishing Company, 1941), 414.

[2] “Able, Leo E.,” Salt Lake City Directory, (Salt Lake City, Utah: R.L. Polk & Co., 1915, 1916); United States, 1900 Census, Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, 2nd District; United States, 1910 Census, Utah, Salt Lake County, Lark; United States, Lark, Utah, World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, Leo Earl Able, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC.

[3] The following documents are from Leo Earl Able, United States Navy, Enlistment File, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C.: “Enlistment of Able, Leo Earl,” United States Navy, February 19, 1919; Service Record, Able, Leo Earl, Department of the Navy, 1919 February 19; “Naval Machinist to be Buried at Draper Tomorrow,” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah), 29 June 1920, 17.

[4] Letter from M.E. Reeder to Robert W. Inscore, Office of the Adjutant General, Utah National Guard, 28 March 1950; “Lark,” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah), 1919 August 3, 54; Letter from E.C. White to Bureau of Navigation, Navy Department, Washington, D.C., 1920 July 3; Western Union Telegram, Navigation, Navy Department, 25 June 1920; Service Record, Able, Leo Earl, Department of the Navy, 1919 February 19, all in Leo Earl Able, United States Navy, Enlistment File, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C.; “Naval Machinist to be Buried at Draper Tomorrow,” Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah), 29 June 1920, 17; “Military Funeral for Utah Sailor,” Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, Utah) 29 June 1920, 11.

[5] Leo Earl Able, FindAGrave.com

[6] Victory Medal Receipt, U.S. Navy Recruiting Station, 1931 January 10, in Leo Earl Able, United States Navy, Enlistment File, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C.  Leo Earl Able, (K27R-2HN), Ordinance Records on FamilySearch.org (accessed 12 September 2020). A newspaper article from 1920 discussing happenings in Lark indicated that “Mrs. Leo Able of Lark was the guest of her sister, Mrs. Daniel Densley, Saturday and Sunday.” Leo did not marry. The article should have referenced Mrs. Elijah Able, Leo’s father, since his wife's half-sister was Lillian Mabel Newbold, married to Daniel Edwin Densley of Riverton, Utah. “Riverton,” Salt Lake Tribune, 1 August 1920, 52.

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