December 10, 1898: First African-American Bahá’í
Sometime in 1898, Robert Turner became the first African-American member of the Bahá’í Faith. He was the butler of Mrs. Phoebe Hearst, an early Bahá’í. Mr. Turner visited ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in the Holy Land (then Palestine, now Northern Israel), arriving on December 10, 1898 and staying into 1899.
Back row, L-R: Robert Turner, Julia Pearson and Anne Apperson, (both nieces of Mrs. Khayru’llah) holding the Symbol of the Greatest Name. Front row, L-R: Daughter of Ibrahim Khayru’llah; Mrs. Marion Khayru’llah; Ibrahim Khayru’llah(early teacher of the Faith in the U.S. who later turned against ‘Abdu’l-Baha); Lua Getsinger; second daughter of Ibrahim Khayru’llah from a previous marriage.
While in the Holy Land, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá displayed a great affection for Turner which stood in stark contrast to the conventions of interracial interaction in Western societies. In this way He modeled how true Bahá’ís should act towards all members of the human race. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá told Turner that “if he remained firm and steadfast until the end, he would be the door through which a whole race would enter the Kingdom.”
After receiving a photo of Robert Turner prior to his visit to the Holy Land, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote:
“O thous who are pure in heart, sanctified in spirit, peerless in character, beauteous in face! Thy photograph hath been received revealing thy physical frame in the utmost grace and best appearance…Thou art like unto the pupil of the eye which is dark in color, yet it is the fount of light and the revealer of the contingent world.” (Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p 100)
(information courtesy of Lights of the Spirit Historical Portraits of Black Baha’is in North America: 1898-2000 by Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis and Richard Thomas (p.24) and http://bahai-covenant.blogspot.com)
At This Time in the Greater Bahá’í World…
The Bahá’í Faith has been persecuted in Iran since its founding there in the mid-1800s. Early followers faced violent opposition from both the Islamic religious authorities and succeeding dynasties. It has been estimated that some 20,000 persons perished in these programs during the nineteenth century.
The photo below shows a Bahá’í father and son (at left) in chains after being arrested with fellow Bahá’ís, in a photograph taken around 1896. Both were subsequently executed.