The Fallout from a City in Flames 1
Next door to Handel Hall, at the Masonic Temple on the corner of State and Randolph Streets, another convention was underway that evening. Fifty-eight delegates from forty-three cities were about to elect nine members to the governing board of the Bahá’í Temple Unity, a national body formed to coordinate the largest project ever undertaken by the Bahá’ís in North America: the construction of an enormous house of worship north of Chicago. White fluted columns with capitals wrapped in acanthus leaves surrounded the delegates in Corinthian Hall as they cast their secret ballots.
After the first round of voting there was a tie for ninth place between Frederick Nutt, a white doctor from Chicago, and Louis Gregory 2, the black lawyer from Washington, DC. In a dramatic departure from the vicious 1912 Presidential election, which raged all around them, each man resigned in favor of the other.
Then Mr. Roy Wilhelm 3, a delegate from Ithaca, NY, stood and put forward a proposal. His motion, seconded by Dr. Homer S. Harper of Minneapolis, recommended that the convention accept Dr. Nutt’s resignation.
The delegates assented unanimously.
To have elected an African American to the governing board of a national organization of largely middle- and upper-class white Americans — and to have done so at the nadir of the Jim Crow era in 1912 — was rare in the extreme. Even the NAACP had only elected one black member to its executive committee when it had been formed in 1909.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s assault on the color line was beginning to bear fruit.
It was a warm, springlike day on Tuesday, April 30, when Jane Addams welcomed ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to an audience that far exceeded the auditorium’s seating capacity of 750. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke on the unity of races, saying, “God is not pleased with , neither should any reasonable or intelligent man be willing to recognize inequality in the races because of this distinction [color].” 4
Talk at Hull House, Chicago, Illinois
But there is need of a superior power to overcome human prejudices, a power which nothing in the world of mankind can withstand and which will overshadow the effect of all other forces at work in human conditions. That irresistible power is the love of God. It is my hope and prayer that it may destroy the prejudice of this one point of distinction between you and unite you all permanently under its hallowed protection. Bahá’u’lláh has proclaimed the oneness of the world of humanity. He has caused various nations and divergent creeds to unite. He has declared that difference of race and color is like the variegated beauty of flowers in a garden. If you enter a garden, you will see yellow, white, blue, red flowers in profusion and beauty—each radiant within itself and although different from the others, lending its own charm to them. Racial difference in the human kingdom is similar. If all the flowers in a garden were of the same color, the effect would be monotonous and wearying to the eye.
Therefore, Bahá’u’lláh hath said that the various races of humankind lend a composite harmony and beauty of color to the whole. Let all associate, therefore, in this great human garden even as flowers grow and blend together side by side without discord or disagreement between them. 5
Tuesday, April 30, 1912
Several friends and inquirers gathered in one of the rooms of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s suite and went in two or three at a time to speak with Him through an interpreter. Each returned transformed, soaring high in the atmosphere of happiness and joy. A few newspaper reporters were announced and He addressed them:
“We believe Bahá’u’lláh to be the supreme educator of the humanity. When the gloom of contention was spread over the Orient; when the nations of the East were steeped in enmity and hatred; when its religious sects shunned one another, denouncing one another as impure, and the people were ever engaged in war and the shedding of blood, Bahá’u’lláh appeared as the sun from the horizon of the East and summoned all to fellowship and harmony. He devoted Himself to their education and upliftment. He guided people from all nations and religions, cemented different denominations and united diverse nationalities to such an extent that if you attend their meetings you cannot say who is a Jew, who is a Muslim, who is a Parsi or who is a Christian. The despotic king of Persia with the legions of his ‘ulamá [Muslim clergymen] arose against Him and inflicted the severest persecution upon Him. They imprisoned Bahá’u’lláh and killed His followers. The oppression intensified to such a degree that all those who dared obey Bahá’u’lláh would lose life and property. But with all this, they could not resist Him; His teachings spread more and more. Then His persecutors exiled Him to Baghdád, whence He was sent to Rumelia and finally to the penal city of ‘Akká. He passed away in that city. I myself was in the same prison until the declaration of liberty by the Committee of Union and Progress when all prisoners were set free.
As to the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, they are, first, the investigation of truth. The fundamental principle of all the Prophets is Truth. Truth is one. Abraham was the promulgator of truth; Moses was the servant of truth; Christ laid down the cornerstone of truth; Muhammad was the propagator of truth; the Báb was the herald of truth; and Bahá’u’lláh was the light of truth. Truth is the foundation of all the divine religions and is one. In truth there is no dissension. Imitations are different and are a cause of dissension and division. If people investigate truth and set aside imitations, all the nations will unite, for there exists no difference in religious truth; the differences lie in imitations only.
The second principle of Bahá’u’lláh is the unity of mankind. Bahá’u’lláh proclaims that all are the servants of one God; He has created all and provides for and sustains all. All are immersed in the ocean of His mercy and God is kind to all. Why should we be unkind to one another? We must follow the polity of God. Can we conceive a better polity than that of God?
The third principle He gave us is the harmony of science and religion. Both science and religion are truth. If religion is against reality and truth it is mere superstition. Every religious tenet that conflicts with true knowledge and sound reasoning is not worthy of belief. Thus the dogmas and imitations that stand in the way of science and progress must be removed.
The fourth principle is that religion must be the cause of unity, it must connect hearts to one another. Christ and all the other divine messengers came to create unity and love. Therefore, if religion becomes the cause of differences, its nonexistence is preferable.
The fifth principle is that all religious, racial, patriotic and political prejudices are the causes of war and the destroyers of the edifice of humanity. All these must be discarded and abolished.
The sixth principle is Universal Peace. Humanity must achieve this peace. Until its light illumines the decisions of the leaders and governments of the world, humanity will find no rest.
The seventh principle is the equality of rights for men and women. The education of women must be equal to that of men so that they may advance and achieve the same status as men. Teachings of this kind are numerous. In addition to the visits of large numbers of people at the hotel both day and night, three large meetings were held, attended by almost three thousand people, all of whom were honored to see Abdu’l-Bahá. The first meeting was held at Hull House and was attended by both blacks and whites. The Master spoke on the subject of the unity and oneness of humanity; that God has given faculties and powers equally to all and that the different colors of humankind are like the various colors of the flowers of a garden, which increases the beauty and charm of the garden. His eloquent and impressive talk thrilled His listeners.”
In addition to the visits of large numbers of people at the hotel both day and night, three large meetings were held, attended by almost three thousand people, all of whom were honored to see ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The first meeting was held at Hull House and was attended by both blacks and whites.71 The Master spoke on the subject of the unity and oneness of humanity; that God has given faculties and powers equally to all and that the different colors of humankind are like the various colors of the flowers of a garden, which increases the beauty and charm of the garden. His eloquent and impressive talk thrilled His listeners.
There exists among the whites in America a marked animosity for the blacks, who are held in such low esteem that the whites do not allow them to attend their public functions and think it beneath their dignity to mix with them in some of the public buildings and hotels. One day, Dr Zia Bagdadi 6invited Mr [Louis] Gregory, a black Bahá’í, to his home. When his landlord heard about this, he gave notice to Dr Bagdadi to vacate his residence because he had had a black man in his home. Although such prejudice was intense, the influence of the Cause of God and the power of God’s Covenant is so great that in many cities in America hundreds of black and white Bahá’ís mingle together and associate with each other as brothers and sisters.
Another meeting held at Handel Hall especially to bring together the blacks and the whites. The Master offered a commentary on a verse from the Old Testament, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’: ‘By “image and likeness”‘, He said, ‘is meant human virtues and perfections and not the black or white color of the skin.’ The Master’s impressive talk transformed and deeply affected the gathering.
The Master then went to a third meeting, addressing some two thousand people at the Convention of the Bahá’í Temple Unity held at the spacious Drill Hall. The entire audience stood when the Master entered, even though not all were Bahá’ís. The friends were full of excitement and cried ‘Alláh-u-Abhá’ so loudly that the hall resounded with their voices.’After a song of praise and glorification, the Master gave a detailed and eloquent talk on the purpose of the Temple and the unification of all under one standard. He concluded His talk by chanting a prayer in Persian in a most melodious voice. Some of those attending the convention met Him outside and asked whether they could visit Him at His residence. The crowd gathered around Him until He got into His carriage. 7
- Menon, Jonathan. “The Fallout from a City in Flames.” 239 Days in America, April 30, 2012. https://239days.com/2012/04/30/the-fallout-from-a-city-in-flames/. ↩
- Reneau, Annie. “Shining Lamp: Louis Gregory (1874-1951).” Brilliant Star, April 6, 2020. https://brilliantstarmagazine.org/articles/louis-gregory-1874-1951. ↩
- Radley, Gail. “Shining Lamp: Roy Wilhelm (1875-1951).” Brilliant Star, August 1, 2019. https://brilliantstarmagazine.org/articles/shining-lamp-roy-wilhelm-1875-1951. ↩
- Ward, Allan L. 239 Days: ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s Journey in America. Wilmette, Ill: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1979, 48. ↩
- 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, 68-69. https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/abdul-baha/promulgation-universal-peace/4#677388614. ↩
- Reneau, Annie. “Shining Lamp: Dr. Zia Mabsoot Bagdadi.” Brilliant Star, May 15, 2018. https://brilliantstarmagazine.org/articles/shining-lamp-dr.-zia-mabsoot-bagdadi. ↩
- ’Abdu’l-Bahá, and Mirza Mahmud-i-Zarqani. 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#section37. ↩