POETRY | RACISM

The Guest Turned the Tables on Racial Prejudice in 1912 Washington

Abdu’l Baha comes to America

Photo of African American lawyer Louis Gregory, wearing glasses, mustached, wearing suit, white shirt and polka-dot tie.
Photo of Louis Gregory, Copyright Baha’i International Community, non-commercial use allowed

You may have heard of Howard University, a Black university in
Washington DC where Vice-President of the U.S. Kamala Harris graduated.
Ninety-nine years ago a man named Louis Gregory,
whose parents had been slaves ten years before his birth,
delivered the commencement address there
on graduation from their College of Law.

In 1911 he traveled by ship to Akka, in then-called Palestine,
to meet a political prisoner of the Ottoman empire. The man welcomed him with a balm of lovingkindness, spoke of unity of all the earth’s peoples,
in phrases like, “God does not look at colors; He looks at the hearts.”
He called himself “servant”, servant of glory, in Arabic, Abdu’l Baha.
His father called him “The Master”.

When Abdu’l Baha was freed by the young Turkish revolution in 1912,
Westerners, inspired by him, invited him to the U.S.
Louis Gregory arranged for him to give a talk to the student body
at Howard University that 1,000 attended.
Abdu’l Baha had invited Mr. Gregory to visit with him at a four-story embassy-like “Persian Ligation” afterward. During their visit Abdu’l Baha
kept prolonging conversation, until people summoned
him to a formal banquet in his honor.

Wearing a long robe he entered the ornate room where
dignitaries sat in a rectangle by rank.
I wonder, as he saw the table, strewn with rose petals,
if memories arose of living in the morgue of
Akka barracks in Palestine, an exile and prisoner
from youth to old age, making broth for fellow prisoners.

“Where is Gregory?” he asked.
At that moment, Louis Gregory was slipping out a back door,
not invited following strict social protocol for Whites and Blacks.
“Bring Mr. Gregory!” Abdu’l Baha called.
He pushed aside plates, utensils, gathered up place cards,
replaced them, while the Charge D’Affaires hurried to bring Mr. Gregory.

Abdu’l Baha bade his friend sit at his right, at the head table.
I wonder how Mr. Gregory felt, son of emancipated slaves,
his grandfather killed by the Ku Klux Klan,
sitting next to Abdu’l Baha, in the place of honor,
the only Black person at the table,
cherished for his reality, not color, in front of the shocked assemblage.
It’s said that Abdu’l Baha continued with dinner as though nothing had happened, then gave a talk on racial prejudice.

“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.” — Abdu’l Baha, letter to Louis Gregory

“The diversity in the human family should be the cause of love and harmony, as it is in music where many different notes blend together in the making of a perfect chord. If you meet those of different race and colour from yourself, do not mistrust them and withdraw yourself into your shell of conventionality, but rather be glad and show them kindness. Think of them as different coloured roses growing in the beautiful garden of humanity, and rejoice to be among them.” Abdu’l Baha, Paris Talks.

Abdu’l Baha in Dublin, New Hampshire, July, 26, 1912, Copyright Baha’i International Community, permission given for non-commercial use.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá at a banquet given in His honor at the Great Northern Hotel, New York, New York, November 23, 1912. Copyright Baha’i International Community, permission given for non-commercial use.

Sources:

Menon, Jonathan. “Day 13: Breaking the Color Line.” 239 Days: Abdu’l-Baha’s Journey in America, Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1979.

Morrison, Gayle. “Gregory, Louis George 1874–1951.” Bahá’í Encyclopedia Project, National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States, www.bahai-encyclopedia-project.org .

Authors Notes: Abdu’l Baha’s talks in the United States are compiled in The Promulgation of Universal Peace. His talk at Howard University is linked here.

Howard University’s commencement address for graduates of 2020 and 2021 will be live-streamed on Saturday, May 8, 2021 at 10 a.m. U.S. Eastern time.

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Penofgold

Penofgold

Goal: Ignite your heart, soul, and laughter with humorous, spiritual, psychologically healing stories informed by service as a clinical social worker 30 years.