Early African-American Women Believers
After Robert Turner joined the Faith in 1898, a small but consistent stream of African Americans came into the Faith, particularly women. Just a few are noted below.
Olive Jackson of New York City was the first African American woman to join the Bahá’í Faith in 1899.
Harriet Gibbs Marshall
Harriet Gibbs Marshall (1868-1941) became a Bahá’í in 1912, while ‘Abdu’l Bahá was visiting the US. An extremely educated woman for the time, she studied piano, pipe organ, and voice culture at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and in 1889.
Marshall was the first African American to complete the program and earn a Mus.B. degree (Bachelor of Music degree). In 1903 founded the Washington Conservatory of Music. According to blackpast.org “Marshall’s conservatory was a landmark in the history of black education. The Center sponsored regular concerts for the black community, trained many prominent musical professionals and attracted the nation’s most talented musicians as teachers. It remained in operation until 1960.”
After joining the Bahá’í Faith in 1919, Dorothy Champ (1893-1974) went on to be a lifelong lecturer and teacher of the Faith. She was also the first African American elected to the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of New York City.
Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis, co-author of Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North America: 1898-2000 explains that “. . .the first generation of African-American women Bahá’ís set out to claim for themselves and their loved ones a new religion that offered spiritual nourishment particularly for the weary and downtrodden.” She calls Olive Jackson and her successors “the foremothers of modern-day black feminists.”
info courtesy Lights of the Spirit by Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis, Richard Walter Thomas