In observance of African American History Month, we pay tribute to some notable African American Baha’is.
Robert Turner (1855/56 – 1909)
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. 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.”
(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)
Louis G. Gregory (1874-1951)
Louis Gregory became a Baha’i in his mid-30s, drawn by the Faith’s core belief in oneness and unity. For more than 35 years he taught the principles of “race amity” throughout the United States, giving up a successful law practice and real estate business to do so. Mr. Gregory was well-received whenever he spoke at colleges, churches, civic groups and clubs throughout the country.
Whenever he was accompanied by his wife–a white Englishwoman named Louisa Mathew–they received a different reaction because interracial marriage was illegal or unrecognized in a majority of the states at that time. Gregory and other Baha’is encountered other, more serious, responses. One time, the Ku Klux Klan broke up an interracial Baha’i meeting in Atlanta. Other Baha’is to whom Gregory spoke were evicted by landlords. In 2003 the Louis G. Gregory Baha’i Museum was dedicated in Charleston, S.C., to honor one of the most distinguished figures in the Baha’i Faith and a pre-eminent champion of the Faith’s central principle of unity.
After Mr. Gregory died in 1951, Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, posthumously conferred upon him the title of “Hand of the Cause,” a spiritual distinction with which only 50 people have been honored in the history of the Baha’i Faith.
Learn much more about his life from the Baha’i Encyclopedia Project article on Louis Gregory.
Dr. Alain Locke (1885-1954)
Alain LeRoy Locke received a PhD in philosophy from Harvard in 1918, was the first black Rhodes Scholar and played a major role in the flowering of the Harlem Renaissance, which started in the 1920s and produced the likes of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Louis Armstrong. In publishing The New Negro, an anthology of writings by African American authors, he gained national prominence as a spokesman for African-Americans. As a humanist and philosopher, Dr. Locke promoted what he called “cultural pluralism,” which contends that cultural groups can maintain their own identity and still be part of a broader culture. Some of his writings, including three essays published for the first time in their entirety, can be found in the 2005 Vol 36. #3 edition of World Order magazine. After becoming a Baha’i in his early 30s, Dr. Locke focused on the Baha’i principle of oneness and wrote: “The intellectual core of the problems of the peace … will be the discovery of the necessary common denominators . . .involved in a democratic world order or democracy on a world scale.”
Dr. H. Elsie Austin (1908-2004)
Elsie Austin’s life dedication to righting wrongs began at an early age when she pointed out to her 98-percent-white classroom in Cincinnati that the textbook they were reading disparaged the contribution of Africans in world history. Ms. Austin was a pioneer in the civil rights movement, and in 1930 was the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Cincinnati College of Law and the first African American woman to serve as Assistant Attorney-General of the State of Ohio.
Ms. Austin had a successful legal career with several U.S. government agencies, including the U.S. Information Agency, where she spent 10 years in Africa working with cultural and educational programs. In 1974, she co-founded the African and American Women’s Association. A Baha’i for 70 years, Ms. Austin served on Baha’i Local Spiritual Assemblies in the Bahamas, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria and the United States.
Heman Marion Sweatt (1912-1982)
Heman Marion Sweatt, from Houston, was described by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as “an ordinary man who had an extraordinary dream to live in a world in which Afro-Americans and Whites alike were afforded equal opportunity to sharpen their minds and to hone their skills.” After being refused admission to the University of Texas School of Law in 1946 on the basis of race, Mr. Sweatt took his case to the Texas courts. They ruled against him, citing the Texas state constitution, which mandated segregated education, and ordered the state to establish a law school for blacks. Unsatisfied with the decision, Mr. Sweatt took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court (Sweatt v. Painter). He was represented by Marshall and in 1950, the Supreme Court decided in Mr. Sweatt’s favor, declaring the Texas’ black law school inferior. In celebrating his courage, the December 28, 1946 edition of the Houston Informer bestowed on Mr. Sweatt the titles “Man of Texas” and “Texan of the Year”.
Later in life, Mr. Sweatt moved to Atlanta, where he earned a master’s degree in social work and worked for the NAACP and the Urban League. Mr. Sweatt died in 1982 at the age of 70, but his legacy lives on. He is considered responsible for the establishment of the Texas State University for Negroes (later renamed Texas Southern University), a college for blacks that included a law school. In 1987, the University of Texas, today considered a national leader in graduating African-Americans from its law school, inaugurated an annual conference in his name, the Heman Sweatt Symposium on Civil Rights. Also in that year, the UT Little Campus was renamed the Heman Sweatt Campus, and a professorship and scholarship were established in his memory.
Robert Hayden became the first African-American to be appointed Poet Laureate. Born Asa Bundy Sheffey in 1913 in the Paradise Valley neighborhood of Detroit, Mr. Hayden spent much of his time reading and writing. He attended Detroit City College (now Wayne State University) on a scholarship and earned a master’s degree at the University of Michigan, where he was mentored by celebrated poet W.H. Auden.
In 1943, while in graduate school, Mr. Hayden became acquainted with the Baha’i Faith and was drawn to its focus on racial harmony. He incorporated those beliefs into his poems and thought of himself as an American poet, rather than a black poet.
Mr. Hayden was awarded the grand prize for poetry in 1966 for his collection Ballad of Remembrance at the First World Festival of Negro Arts held in Senegal. The award earned him long-awaited worldwide recognition. In 1976, he was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, which later became the esteemed title Poet Laureate of the United States. His poetry is wide-ranging and includes tributes to black leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, folklore, politics, life in the slums and the Vietnam War. One of his most-well-known poems is “Those Winter Sundays,” in which a son reminisces about his father.
Robert Hayden taught at Fisk University in Nashville for 23 years and then at the University of Michigan from 1969 until his death in 1980 at age 66.
Fayard Nicholas (1914-2006)
Self-taught, dapper and imaginative, Fayard Nicholas was one-half of the Nicholas Brothers, a dynamic tap-dancing duo that wowed and amazed audiences for many years with their trademark daring athletic prowess: airborne splits and doing leap-frogging splits down a sweeping staircase.
Mr. Nicholas and his younger brother, Harold, started out in show business by touring with their parents’ vaudeville orchestra.
Mr. Nicholas developed the duo’s trademark balletic and acrobatic style, which they showcased in 65 movies, and which inspired such greats as Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Michael Jackson, to whom they taught tap. Like many black performers, the Nicholas Brothers persevered despite facing racial obstacles in Hollywood and on the club scene.
John Birks Gillespie (1917 – 1993), jazz trumpeter extraordinaire, was among the top kings of bebop, a style of jazz popular in the 1940s characterized by fast tempos and improvisations. Gillespie was known for his puffed-cheek style of blowing—the consequence of being self-taught—and his onstage antics, which ranged from deadpan to wacky.
He also was known for being a generous mentor to many musicians. After becoming a Baha’i in 1968, Mr. Gilllespie became an international ambassador and spokesman for the Faith. In his memoirs, he wrote that “Becoming a Baha’i changed my life in every way and gave me a new concept of the relationship between God and man—between man and his fellow man—man and his family.”
In Dizzy: To be or not to bop : the autobiography of Dizzy Gillespie with Al Fraser, Mr. Gillespie mused that his “role in music is just a stepping stone to a higher role.”