Marker for DC’s first African American Baha’i is unveiled

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July 27, 2018
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Pocahontas Pope memorialized in graveside service

William Collins and Donna Denizé unveil the grave marker for Pocahontas Pope, the first African American Baha’i in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of William Collins

She was the first African American Baha’i in Washington, DC. Now, 112 years later, Pocahontas Pope’s grave has a fitting marker.

About 90 people gathered for the unveiling May 19 in a graveside ceremony at the National Harmony Memorial Park in Hyattsville, Maryland.

Pope’s remains had been transferred there in 1960 after the closure of Columbian Harmony, the District of Columbia cemetery where she was buried. But the Maryland grave went unmarked until Baha’is located it in 2017 and raised the funds to design and place a burgundy-and-gold plaque extolling Pope’s place in history.

The grave marker for Pocahontas Pope proclaims her place in history. Photo courtesy of William Collins

The marker quotes a letter ‘Abdu’l-Baha, then head of the Faith, wrote to Pope in 1906 when she embraced the teachings of Baha’u’llah: “Render thanks to the Lord that among that race thou art the first believer, … arisen to guide others.”

The letter also says, in reference to people of African descent: “Although the pupil of the eye is black, it is the source of light.”

Prayers and readings began the May 19 ceremony. After remarks by the Spiritual Assembly, the Baha’i governing body for DC, a history of Pope’s life and accomplishments was read and a monologue in her voice was performed. The letter from ‘Abdu’l-Baha to Pope was recited, and the ceremony closed with the call-and-response singing of “I’m Goin’ Back to the Father.”

Pope was born in 1864 in Halifax County, North Carolina, to a prominent family of free African Americans. There is evidence she also had American Indian heritage.

Members of her and her husband’s families were successful business people, landowners and office holders. But when North Carolina began strictly enforcing Jim Crow laws, the young couple relocated to the nation’s capital.

It was there that Pocahontas Pope declared her belief in Baha’u’llah. From that point until at least 1918 she hosted talks in her home, and one of the people she led to the Faith was Alain Locke, “Father of the Harlem Renaissance.”

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