Category Archives: Early Believers

1922

Louis Gregory Elected to the first National Spiritual                     Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the USA

In 1912, during the National Bahá’í Convention attended by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Louis Gregory was elected to the Executive Board of Bahá’í Temple Unity, the governing body in North America at the time.  In 1922 he was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, which superseded the Executive Board.  Through these positions, Gregory was one of few African Americans elected to national leadership in any interracial organization in the U.S. the first half of the twentieth century.  He served on the National Assembly for fourteen years, and during several elections  he received the highest or second highest number of votes cast.

NSA USA

Photo courtesy of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States

The NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, early 1940s. Seated, L. to R.: Dorothy Baker, Louis Gregory, Leroy Ioas, Amelia Collins. Standing, L. to R.: Siegfried Schopflocher, Roy Wilhelm, Horace Holley, Allen McDaniel, George Latimer.

The photo below was taken roughly around the same time as the election of the NSA in front of Eirenion Hall at Green Acre, Eliot, Maine.

Gregory and others in Maine

Photo courtesy Eliot Baha'i Archives

From left to right:  Horace Holley, Jenabe Fazel, Louis Gregory and Siegfried Schopflocker.  Photo taken circa 1920.
Info courtesy Gayle Morrison, “Louis George Gregory,” Bahá’í Encyclopedia Project, http://www.bahai-encyclopedia-project.org (accessed 17 July 2009).

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1909

June 1909- Louis Gregory Joins the Bahá’í Faith

Louis Gregory’s education at the Avery Institute and Normal School (now Avery Research Center), Fisk University, and Howard University’s School of Law established him as one of the “Talented Tenth,” W.E.B. DuBois’ term for the capable, educated African Americans of the time.

Louis Gregory

Louis Gregory, Reproduced with permission of the Bahá’í International Community

Gregory first learned about the Bahá’í Faith in 1907 through a Southern white couple,  Joseph and Pauline Hannen, who showed Gregory sincere love and respect born out of their own religious faith.

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Pauline and Joseph Hannen, pictured with Pauline's sister (right). Image courtesy National Bahá’í Archives, United States

Abdu’l-Bahá wrote in 1909 in reply to Gregory’s first letter to Him, “I hope that thou mayest become . . . the means whereby the white and colored people shall close their eyes to racial differences and behold the reality of humanity.”

On September 27, 1912, Louis Gregory married a white English Baha’i, Louisa (Louise) A. M. Mathew.  It was the first interracial marriage in the American Bahá’í community and a tremendously significant act, considering that interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states as recent as the 1960’s.  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá encouraged the marriage, telling Gregory, “If you have any influence to get the races to intermarry, it will be very valuable”

louis gregory

Image courtesy of the NSA of the Baha'is of the United States

Gregory holds an esteemed place in Bahá’í history for many reasons, including his election to the first National Spiritual Assembly of the US (1922) and his appointment posthumously as Hand of the Cause of God by Shoghi Effendi (1951).

Information gleaned from Gayle Morrison, “Louis George Gregory,” Bahá’í Encyclopedia Project, http://www.bahai-encyclopedia-project.org (accessed 18 July 2009).

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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

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1898

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.

Turner_1898Pilgrimage

Robert Turner in the Holy Land, 1898. Image Courtesy Baha'i National Archives, Wilmette, IL, USA

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.

FatherSon-1

Info and photo courtesy of http://denial.bahai.org

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