Category Archives: African American Women

1934

Dr. Elsie Austin Becomes Bahá’í

One of the first African Americans lawyers in the US, Dr. Elsie Austin learned about the Bahá’í Faith through Louis Gregory and Dorothy Baker.  In 1944, she was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the US.  Dr. Austin traveled the world assisting Baha’i communities and serving on local institutions.  She helped to establish Baha’i communities in both northern and western Africa.

bwns_5675-0

Photo Courtesy of the Bahá'í International Community

From 1946-53 Elsie Austin was a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States. From left to right: H. Borrah Kavelin, Mamie Seto, W. Kenneth Christian, Elsie Austin, Paul Haney, Edna True, Horace Holley, Dorothy Baker, Matthew Bullock. April 1953.

Elsie Austin

Photo Courtesy of the Bahá'í International Community

Enoch Olinga, later to be appointed a Hand of the Cause of God (second left), and Elsie Austin (right) with other Bahá’ís at the African Intercontinental Baha’i Conference, Kampala, Uganda, 1953.

Elsie Austin

Photo Courtesy of the Bahá'í International Community

Elsie Austin (wearing coat and holding frame, seated center) with women attending the first Bahá’í Convention in Tunis, Tunisia. 1956.

Leave a comment

Filed under African American Women, Dr. Elsie Austin, NSA

1899

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

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.

Harriet_Gibbs_Marshall__public_domain_

Photo Courtesy Blackpast.org

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.”

Dorothy Champ

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.

Dorothy Champ

Image Courtesy Austin/Thompson Collection

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

Leave a comment

Filed under African American Women, Early Believers, NYC Bahá'í History