Breaking the Color Line 1
When dinner was announced ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stood, and everyone followed him into the dining room. Everyone, that is, except Louis Gregory. It was only 1912: Social Washington did not invite colored people to dinner.
Formality had laid out nineteen place settings along the sides of the long, rectangular banquet table according to strict Washington protocol. Good taste had strewn the table with rose petals. Regard had seated ‘Abdu’l-Bahá at its head. The guests took their seats.
Suddenly, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stood up and looked around the table.
“Where is Mr. Gregory?” he asked. “Bring Mr. Gregory!” he told Ali-Kuli Khan.
Khan had no choice but to locate Mr. Gregory, whom he found trying to slip quietly out of the house without being noticed. By the time he re-entered the dining room with Louis Gregory, Social Washington had succumbed.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá had pushed aside the utensils, plates, and glasses that held sway over the place of honor to his right. Everyone moved over, sending a ripple of activity down one side of the table. In its place, he had laid out a twentieth place setting and ordered a twentieth chair brought to the table. Here he seated Louis Gregory. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá then sat down, explained that he was very happy to have Mr. Gregory here, and, as if nothing out of the ordinary had just occurred, began to speak on racial prejudice.
Washington D. C. 2
He then attended another of the daily receptions at the Parsons’ home, after which He proceeded to 13th Street N.W. to the home of Andrew J. Dyer. 3 In his diary, Dr. Zia Bagdadi, who served as one of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s translators, wrote, “In the evening, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá addressed the white and colored believers and their friends at the home of Mrs. Dyer, a member of the colored race… 4
‘Abdu’l-Bahá concluded His address by saying, … (see entry below)
Talk at Home of Mrs. Andrew J. Dyer, 1937 Thirteenth Street, NW, Washington, D.C.
When the racial elements of the American nation unite in actual fellowship and accord, the lights of the oneness of humanity will shine, the day of eternal glory and bliss will dawn, the spirit of God encompass, and the divine favors descend. Under the leadership and training of God, the real Shepherd, all will be protected and preserved. He will lead them in green pastures of happiness and sustenance, and they will attain to the real goal of existence. This is the blessing and benefit of unity; this is the outcome of love. This is the sign of the Most Great Peace; this is the star of the oneness of the human world. Consider how blessed this condition will be. I pray for you and ask the confirmation and assistance of God in your behalf. 5
Wednesday, April 24, 1912
In the morning ‘Abdu’l-Bahá went to a Bahá’í children’s conference. As He entered the hall, the children sang songs in praise of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in unison, accompanied by the piano. When the Master saw the children, He said, ‘Praise be to God. These children, like flowers, are in a state of utmost purity, freshness and delicacy!’ After He spoke and recited prayers for the children, the Master kissed and embraced each child and gave them some sweets. The immensity of His love and affection for the children was clearly obvious.
A second meeting was held that evening at the home of Mr and Mrs Andrew J. Dyer, a mixed race couple. Those present were in such unity and love that the Master remarked:
“Before I arrived, I felt too tired to speak at this meeting but at the sight of such genuine love and attraction between the white and the black friends, I was so moved that I spoke with great love and likened this union of different colored races to a string of gleaming pearls and rubies.”
After He spoke and showered His love on each one, He left in His carriage for a third meeting.
’ Abdu’l-Bahá was so filled with joy and happiness and His voice resonated so loudly that even the people walking along the street could hear Him:
“O Bahá’u’lláh! What hast Thou done? O Bahá’u’lláh! May my life be sacrificed for Thee! O Bahá’u’lláh! May my soul be offered up for Thy sake! How full were Thy days with trials and tribulations! How severe the ordeals Thou didst endure! How solid the foundation Thou hast finally laid, and how glorious the banner Thou didst hoist!” 6
’ Abdu’l-Bahá continued in this manner until the carriage reached the home of Mr [Alexander Graham] Bell. This great individual is the inventor of the telephone and the head of a scientific society. The day before, this venerable and inventive old gentleman had visited the Master and invited Him to attend the meeting of the scientific society. When the Master entered, all rose and each in turn shook His hand. Those who had met the Master previously introduced Him to the others with the greatest respect and honor. After the Master was seated, discussion of scientific issues continued. Each spoke of his experiences and discussed his discoveries. After several people had spoken, Mr Bell asked Ali Kuli Khan, the Persian ambassador, to relate the history of the Faith. Then Mr Bell thanked the Master for coming to his home and asked Him to address the guests.
The Master began His talk by praising their good manners and praiseworthy qualities. He then spoke of the importance and the results of science, the greatness of this age and the interdependence of society, and paid a glorious tribute to the new Dispensation. Mr Bell was extremely delighted and rose to thank the Master for His talk. The hearts of those present were so moved that when the next member arose to give his talk, he could only say, ‘The talk of the Master from the East was so wonderful that I find myself inadequate to say anything’ and sat down. A few others spoke briefly and the meeting ended.
Mr Bell invited the Master and his guests to go into the dining hall. It was midnight, and as it is customary for people in the West to eat late at night before going to bed, the table was spread with bread, meat, candies, cookies, fruit and beverages. Although the Master had not yet had dinner, He spoke through Mr Bell to his wife and daughter. Mrs Bell is deaf and mute and communicates through sign language. Sign language is similar to writing, with lines, points and stops, just as in telegraph technology, and is now so well developed that people can speak easily with the deaf.
As is well known, Mr Bell’s main purpose was to invent an instrument that would enable the deaf to communicate. Out of his deep love for his wife, he devoted himself to this day and night and in the end invented the telephone. But this did not fulfill his intended purpose. The Master said:
“Yes, most of the great inventions were made in a similar way. For instance, the search for alchemy has brought into being thousands of useful medicines and the desire of finding a direct route to India from Europe became the cause of the discovery of America.” 7
- Menon, Jonathan. “Breaking the Color Line.” 239 Days in America, April 24, 2012. https://239days.com/2012/04/24/breaking-the-color-line/. ↩
- Ward, Allan L. 239 Days: ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s Journey in America. Wilmette, Ill: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1979, 43. ↩
- “In those days, race constituted a social identity marker and the basis for pervasive social discrimination. One of the early American Baha’is, Andrew Jackson Dyer, said to be African American, or of a “mixed” race, was born in 1847 in Virginia, and died in 1918 in Washington, DC. Dyer was employed as a messenger in a government department. His wife, Maggie Jordan Dyer, became a Baha’i in 1909. Born in March 1858 (also in Virginia) and married around 1876, Maggie J. Dyer was listed as “mulatto” in the 1880 and 1910 United States Census and, yet was listed as “white” in the 1900 United States Census.”
Buck, Christopher, and Steven Kolins. “African American Baha’is During Abdu’l-Baha’s Lifetime.” BahaiTeachings.org, June 1, 2020. https://bahaiteachings.org/african-american-bahais-during-abdul-bahas-lifetime/. ↩
- Bagdadi, Zia. “”Abdu’l-Bahá in America.” Star of the West, June 1928, 89. ↩
- ʻAbduʼl-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by ʻAbduʼl-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912. Edited by Howard MacNutt. 2nd ed. Wilmette, Ill: Baháʼí Publishing Trust, 1982, 50. https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/abdul-baha/promulgation-universal-peace/3#769459639. ↩
- Effendi, Shoghi. God Passes By. 1944. Reprint, Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1970, 293. https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/shoghi-effendi/god-passes-by/21#543609895 ↩
- Mahmud-i-Zarqani, Mirza. Mahmúd’s Diary: The Diary of Mírzá Mahmúd-i-Zarqání Chronicling ’Abdu’l-Bahá’s Journey to America. Edited by Shirley Macias. Translated by Mohi Sobhani. Oxford: George Ronald, 1998. https://bahai-library.com/zarqani_mahmuds_diary&chapter=2#section31 ↩