Dana, Norma Rachel Ables

Biography

photo of  Norma Rachel Ables Dana

Norma Rachel Ables Dana was the granddaughter of Mary Ann Adams and Elijah Able, prominent black Latter-day Saint pioneers. Her father Enoch died before Norma turned six years old, which left her mother, Mary Jordi, a widow with seven young children to raise (she gave birth to an eighth child following Enoch’s death). Mary Jordi Ables relied on her own hard work, the hard work of her older children, and on public and religious assistance to provide for her family.[1]

Thus, Norma’s early life was no doubt influenced by her family’s struggles on the economic margins, but it was also shaped by the racial passage she and her siblings had to negotiate in an American society which was steeped in segregation. In 1896, when Norma was one year old, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the segregationist principle of “separate but equal” as constitutional and thereby ushered in an era of legal and systemic racism.[2]

During Norma’s same formative years, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hardened its own racial policies in place. Those policies segregated its lay priesthood and temple rituals and came to include a “one drop” rule designed to prevent anyone with African ancestry, no matter “how remote a degree,” from temple admission or priesthood ordination.[3] It is no wonder, then, that Norma and her siblings all distanced themselves from their African American ancestry and passed as white by the time they reached adulthood.

When Norma was just two weeks old, John Jacobs, a fellow congregant of the Ables family in the Logan 5th Ward, blessed her. A clerk then entered her name into the ward’s membership record as “Rachel,” the name she went by as a child.[4] The 1900 and 1910 U.S. censuses also listed her name as Rachel but by the 1920 census she used Norma as her first name.[5] Three of Norma’s sisters were baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the same day in 1896, but Norma was only one year old at the time.[6] She would wait until she was twenty-eight before she received baptism and joined the faith.[7] Her life in the meantime took some perhaps unforeseeable turns.

Just after her eighteenth birthday, on 18 March 1913, at 3:15 a.m. Norma gave birth to her first daughter Lena. Lena’s birth certificate listed her father as Leslie Lower, a twenty-one-year-old laborer from Smithfield, a farming village north of Logan. The certificate listed Norma’s name as “Rachel Norma Abel” and her age as nineteen, even though she had just turned eighteen the month before.[8] Leslie and Norma were not married at the time, but just over seven months later, on 30 September 1913, they appeared before Justice of the Peace William Brangham and “did join in the holy bonds of matrimony.” The marriage certificate correctly listed Norma’s age as eighteen even as her name shifted for the first time on a public record from Rachel to “Norma R. Ables.”[9]

According to divorce proceedings which Norma filed in August 1915, the new marriage did not last. Norma claimed that Leslie deserted her in December 1913, just three months after they were wed, and she had “not seen or heard from him in any manner since that time.” She had “made search and inquiry” of his friends and family, including his mother Alice Lower, then living in Smithfield. Alice claimed that she did not “know the present whereabouts” of her son and other acquaintances gave the same answer. Norma came to believe that Leslie had left the state of Utah but after making “due and diligent search” had been unable to “ascertain the whereabouts and place of residence” of her husband. She thus asked the court to dissolve the “bonds of matrimony now and heretofore existing between” her and Lower.[10]

By the time she filed for divorce Norma had moved to Ogden, in Weber County, in order to support herself and her daughter Lena. The divorce proceedings oddly claimed that there was no “issue” (presumably meaning offspring) as a result of the marriage between Norma and Leslie, a statement which was technically true given that Lena was born before the marriage took place, but Lena was not otherwise mentioned in the divorce proceedings.[11]

The court ordered that a public subpoena be published for five consecutive weeks in the local Ogden newspaper in an effort to notify Leslie to appear in court. The Weber County Sherriff also attempted to locate Leslie and serve him with a summons, but to no avail. After over a year of waiting, the court finally granted Norma a divorce on 22 December 1916.[12] The Salt Lake Herald Republican and the Ogden Standard newspapers both published news of the divorce.[13]

Leslie resurfaced at some point thereafter and in June 1917 he married Elnora Leavitt in Logan. That marriage was eventually solemnized in the Logan LDS Temple. Leslie passed away in 1972; his obituary noted that he was the father to five sons and three daughters but made no mention of his first daughter Lena nor of his prior marriage to Norma.[14] It was certainly a distant memory by that point and likely rather forgotten.

Norma’s obituary also failed to mention her first marriage to Leslie but did proudly note her marriage to Joseph William Dana on 9 June 1915.[15] It was a marriage that lasted for the rest of her life but was certainly complicated in the beginning by the fact that she married Joseph before she had filed for divorce from Leslie. This fact likely accounts for the shift which took place in her name and the parentage she claimed for herself between 1915 and 1930.

When Norma married Joseph Dana in 1915 she signed her name on the marriage certificate as “Norma R. Lewis.”[16] In the 1920 census she listed her birthplace, as well as that of her father, as the state of Washington.[17] Further adding to the confusion, in 1923 when Norma was baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Ogden 10th Ward, she did so as “Norma Rachel Lewis” and claimed to have been born in Seattle, Washington. Her baptismal record listed her father as a man by the name of Bert Lewis and her mother as Marie Yarda (a version of her mother’s name which sometimes appeared on public records).[18]

Norma’s daughter Lena Lower, who was ten years old at the time, was baptized with Norma on the same day. The clerk who recorded Lena’s baptism listed her name as “Helen Lewis Dana,” her mother’s name as “Norma R. Lewis,” and her father’s name as Joseph William Dana.[19] These were modified identities for both Norma and Helen, no doubt designed to  leave their old lives behind and to start anew.

By the time of Norma’s baptism, she had been married to Joseph W. Dana for eight years and Joseph had certainly become Helen’s father in practice, even though no record of an adoption survives in Weber County probate court files.[20] Helen was two years old when Norma and Joseph married and likely grew up only knowing Joseph as her father. As the transition played out over time “Helen Dana” became the name which the person born as “Lena Lower” used for the rest of her life.[21]

Moreover, Norma’s shift to “Lewis” for a last name was likely calculated to facilitate her marriage to Joseph before she had obtained a legal divorce from Leslie. It is not clear why she chose a man by the name of “Bert Lewis” to claim as her father or the state of Washington as her place of birth. According to 1900 U.S. census records, there were at least four men living in Seattle, Washington by the last name of Lewis with at least an initial “B” for a first or middle name but no one whose name was listed exactly as “Bert Lewis” or “Albert Lewis,” let alone the seemingly other endless possible name variations such as Norbert, Herbert, Adelbert, Robert, Egbert, Bertram, Hubert, Wilbert, and so forth.[22] There was also a man by the name of Bert Lewis living in Cache Valley, Utah, but no possible way of connecting him to Norma’s claim.[23]

More importantly, the chance that Bert Lewis was actually Norma’s father is remote. The most immediate source for Norma’s birth was the LDS blessing record created on 7 March 1895, exactly two weeks following Norma’s birth. That record listed Norma’s father as Enoch Able and her mother as Mary Jordi. John Jacobs performed the blessing in Logan, Utah, not Seattle, Washington.[24] It is difficult to imagine Mary Jordi traveling from Seattle to Logan within two weeks of giving birth, let alone of a man named Bert Lewis as the father of her child with no mention of such a scandal in local records. More than likely, Bert Lewis and Seattle, Washington, were invented details which Norma used to facilitate her marriage to Joseph Dana while she worked on a solution to her divorce from Leslie Lower.

There may have been a racial calculation hanging in the balance as well. In 1900, when Norma was five years old she first appeared on a federal census record. Her father Enoch was still alive and he and his children, including Norma, were identified as black on the census record while their mother Mary, a French speaking immigrant from Switzerland, was listed as white.[25] Ten years later, the census again listed Mary as white but described Norma and her siblings as mulatto.[26] That was the last public record to define any of Enoch’s and Mary’s children as anything other than white. The various children in the family navigated their own passages to whiteness as they transitioned to adulthood and formed families of their own. For a period of time, for example, Norma’s brother Elijah and his wife and children adopted the surname of “Van Able.”[27] As community memory faded following Enoch’s death in 1901 and the various children grew to adulthood and moved from Logan, they also moved away from their black-African ancestry toward whiteness.

For Norma, claiming Bert Lewis from Seattle, Washington as a father on her baptismal record solidified her distance from any suspicion of black African ancestry. It was also a way to potentially influence her and her children’s social acceptance among Latter-day Saints as well as access to priesthood ordination and saving rites. LDS Church records continued to list Norma’s maiden name as “Lewis” at least through 1927 when her youngest son, Joseph Jr., was blessed in the Ogden 8th Ward, but by that time “Able” had reappeared among identifiers Norma used as well. The birth and blessing record for Joseph Jr. listed Norma’s name as “Norma Able Lewis Dana,” a signifier of the complicated path Norma had followed to that point in her life.[28]

Norma shifted back to acknowledging Enoch as her father as early as the 1930 census. That year she described her own birthplace as Utah and that of her father as Utah as well.[29] Norma’s death certificate listed her name as “Norma Rachel Ables Dana;” the surname “Lewis” had disappeared by that point as had any reference to Bert Lewis from Seattle, Washington.[30] Her death certificate and her published obituary acknowledged that her father was Enoch Ables and her mother was Mary Yardey.[31] Enoch had long been dead by that point and the Dana family had moved to Salt Lake City in 1938, a move which further distanced Norma from suspicions over her racial identity.[32]

After her family’s transition to Salt Lake City, Norma took a job as a saleswoman at a department store. Besides Helen (who Joseph raised as his own daughter) Norma and Joseph had three children together, Kathryn, Viola, and Joseph Jr.[33] Norma maintained an affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the rest of her life.[34]

In 1954, Norma passed away in Salt Lake City following an eighteen-month battle with colon cancer. She was just one-month shy of her 59th birthday.[35] She was laid to rest in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.[36] In 1968, proxy temple rituals were performed in Norma’s behalf in the Oakland California Temple, including a vicarious sealing to Joseph W. Dana.[37]

By W. Paul Reeve

Primary Sources

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Record of Members Collection. Hawthorne Ward. Microfilm 889,388. Family History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Record of Members Collection. Logan 5th Ward. CR 375 8, box 3748, folder 1, image 124-125, 176-177, 190-191. Church History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Record of Members Collection. Ogden 8th Ward. Microfilm 25,659. Family History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Record of Members Collection. Ogden 10th Ward. Microfilm 26,266. Family History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.

“Commissioners Proceedings.” Logan Republican (Logan, Utah). 4 January 1908, 8.

“Divorce.” Ogden Standard. 22 December 1916, 7.

Extract from George F. Richards Record of Decisions by the Council of the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles. (No date given but the next decision in order is dated 8 February 1907). George A. Smith Family Papers. MS 36, box 78, folder 7. Manuscripts Division. Special Collections. J. Willard Marriott Library. University of Utah. Salt Lake City, Utah.

“Files Suit for Divorce.” Salt Lake Herald Republican. 26 August 1915, 8.

“Leslie Lower.” Ogden Standard Examiner. 2 September 1972, 13.

“Leslie Lower.” Salt Lake Tribune. 4 September 1972, 29.

“Local Briefs.” Logan Nation (Logan, Utah). 5 October 1901, 8.

“Local Points.” The Journal (Logan, Utah). 23 February 1901, 8.

Logan 5th Ward. Relief Society. Record Book. LR 4967 14. Church History Library. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Lower v. Lower. Second District Court. Weber County Civil Case Files. Series 6659. Reel 100. Case 5120. Utah Division of Archives and Records Service. Salt Lake City, Utah.

“Norma A. Dana.” Deseret News. 19 January 1954, B6.

“Two Divorce Decrees Signed.” Salt Lake Herald Republican. 23 December 1916, 7.

United States. 1900 Census. Utah, Cache County, Logan 5th Ward.

United States. 1910 Census. Utah, Cache County, Logan 5th Ward.

United States. 1920 Census. Utah, Weber County, Ogden.

United States. 1930 Census. Utah, Weber County, Ogden.

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

Utah. Cache County. Birth Register, 1895-1905. Series 83781. Utah Division of Archives and Records Service. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Utah. Cache County. Marriage License. Leslie Lower and Norma R. Ables. 30 September 1913. Utah Division of Archives and Records Service. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Utah. State Board of Health. Certificate of Birth. File No. 131, Registered No. 27. Lena Lower. Utah Division of Archives and Records Service. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Utah. State Board of Health. Certificate of Death. File No. 54180122. Registered No. 127. Norma Rachel Ables Dana. Utah Division of Archives and Records Service. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Utah. Weber County. Marriage License. Joseph W. Dana and Norma R. Lewis. 9 June 1915. Utah Division of Archives and Records Service. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Secondary Sources

Ables, Norma Rachel. (K27R-KFF). FamilySearch.org, accessed 7 October 2019.

Dana, Norma Rachel Ables. FindAGrave.com.

Hoffer, Williamjames Hull. Plessy V. Ferguson: Race and Inequality in Jim Crow America. University Press of Kansas, 2012.

Reeve, W. Paul. Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.


[1] “Local Points,” The Journal (Logan, Utah), 23 February 1901, 8; “Local Briefs,” Logan Nation (Logan, Utah), 5 October 1901, 8; “Commissioners Proceedings,” Logan Republican (Logan, Utah), 4 January 1908, 8; Logan 5th Ward, Relief Society, Record Book, LR 4967 14, pp. 13, 16, 29, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[2] Williamjames Hull Hoffer, Plessy V. Ferguson: Race and Inequality in Jim Crow America (University Press of Kansas, 2012); C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 6-7.

[3] Extract from George F. Richards Record of Decisions by the Council of the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles, (no date given but the next decision in order is dated 8 February 1907), George A. Smith Family Papers, MS 36, box 78, folder 7, Manuscripts Division, Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah. For broader context on the “one drop” policies see, W. Paul Reeve, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness (Oxford, 2015), Chapter7.

[4] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Logan 5th Ward, CR 375 8, box 3748, folder 1, image 190-191, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[5] United States, 1900 Census, Utah, Cache County, Logan 5th Ward; United States, 1910 Census, Utah, Cache County, Logan 5th Ward; United States, 1920 Census, Utah, Weber County, Ogden.

[6] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Logan 5th Ward, CR 375 8, box 3748, folder 1, image 124-125, 176-177, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[7] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Ogden 10th Ward, Microfilm 26,266, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[8] Utah, State Board of Health, Certificate of Birth, File No. 131, Registered No. 27, Lena Lower, Utah Division of Archives and Records Service, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[9] Utah, Cache County, Marriage License, Leslie Lower and Norma R. Ables, 30 September 1913, Utah Division of Archives and Records Service, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[10] Lower v. Lower, Second District Court, Weber County Civil Case Files, Series 6659, Reel 100, Case 5120, Utah Division of Archives and Records Service, Salt Lake City, Utah; “Files Suit for Divorce,” Salt Lake Herald Republican, 26 August 1915, 8.

[11] Lower v. Lower, Case 5120.

[12] Lower v. Lower, Case 5120.

[13] “Two Divorce Decrees Signed,” Salt Lake Herald Republican, 23 December 1916, 7; “Divorce,” Ogden Standard, 22 December 1916, 7.

[14] “Leslie Lower,” Ogden Standard Examiner, 2 September 1972, 13; “Leslie Lower,” Salt Lake Tribune, 4 September 1972, 29.

[15] “Norma A. Dana,” Deseret News, 19 January 1954, B6.

[16] Utah, Weber County, Marriage License, Joseph W. Dana and Norma R. Lewis, 9 June 1915, Utah Division of Archives and Records Service, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[17] United States, 1920 Census, Utah, Weber County, Ogden.

[18] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Ogden 10th Ward, Microfilm 26,266, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[19] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Ogden 10th Ward, Microfilm 26,266, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[20] This assessment is based on a search of the index to Second District Court, Weber County Civil Case Files at the Utah Division of Archives and Records Service, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[21] See for example, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Hawthorne Ward, Microfilm 889,388, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah; and Helen Dana, Social Security Death Index, Master File, Social Security Administration.

[22] This is based on a search of the 1900 U.S. Census for Seattle, Washington on Ancestry.com. Without additional identifying information such as a birth year or place of birth, it is impossible to identify a specific person named Bert Lewis in Seattle, Washington. The 1900 census is also five years removed from Norma’s birth which means a man by the name of Bert Lewis could have moved from Seattle but the time of the 1900 census.

[23] Utah, Cache County, Birth Register, 1895-1905, Series 83781, Utah Division of Archives and Records Service, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[24] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Logan 5th Ward, CR 375 8, box 3748, folder 1, image 190-191, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[25] United States, 1900 Census, Utah, Cache County, Logan 5th Ward.

[26] United States, 1910 Census, Utah, Cache County, Logan 5th Ward.

[27] See for example, W. Paul Reeve, “Elijah R. Ables,” and Julia Huddleston, “ArLene Ables Lynn.

[28] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Ogden 8th Ward, Microfilm 25,659, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[29] United States, 1930 Census, Utah, Weber County, Ogden.

[30] Utah, State Board of Health, Certificate of Death, File No. 54180122, Registered No. 127, Norma Rachel Ables Dana, Utah Division of Archives and Records Service, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[31] “Norma A. Dana,” Deseret News, 19 January 1954, B6.

[32] The move to Salt Lake in 1938 is recorded in the Hawthorn LDS Ward membership record for Helen and Joseph Jr. See Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Hawthorne Ward, Microfilm 889,388, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[33] United States, 1940 Census, Utah, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City.

[34] “Norma A. Dana,” Deseret News, 19 January 1954, B6.

[35] Utah, State Board of Health, Certificate of Death, File No. 54180122, Registered No. 127, Norma Rachel Ables Dana, Utah Division of Archives and Records Service, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[36] Norma Rachel Ables Dana, FindAGrave.com.

[37] Norma Rachel Ables, (K27R-KFF), ordinance records at FamilySearch.org, accessed 7 October 2019.

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