ObeisanceBaba
Baha'i Descriptive Historia
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Melba D. Wheatley

Melba Dorsey Wheatley became a member of the Baha’i Faith around 1938.  She recalls that at age 10 or 11 of having a spiritual premonition of Abdu’l-Baha visiting the United States.   As an adult when told by a friend that a prominent man from the east had arrived in the United States, she went to Chicago to look for him.

Background

Information presented about Melba Dorsey Wheatley’s was acquired through my many discussions with her from January 1992 through September 1996.  These took place during the latter years of her life in Battle Creek, Michigan, she as a long time resident and I as someone who had newly arrived.  Born Melba Dorsey in 1902, married name ‘Wheatley”, she passed away in October 1997 at age ninety-five.  She had often stated, “I don’t know why the Lord is keeping me here so long.  I’m ready to go at any time”.

Rememberances

Melba Dorsey recalls that “As a young child, maybe age ten or eleven, I had a spiritual premonition of Abdu’l-Baha visiting the United States”.  This experience was so profound that when she reached adulthood, and when told by a friend that a prominent man from the east had arrived in the United States, she immediately went to Chicago to find him [this was in 1912]. However, she recalls only seeing “those of oriental extraction” and now wonders if she had possibly been close to him but was unaware of this possibility at that time.

Much later when living in Baldwin, Michigan, Melba received the teachings of Baha’u’llah from Helen Z. Thompson and instantly knew that her spiritual search was over. It was then that she officially became a member of the Baha’i Faith [around 1938], but, as she related, “It had always been in my heart”.

Kellogg Company

Battle Creek is home to the Kellogg Company and the philanthropic Kellogg Foundation, both major employers in the area. The Kellogg Company host what is know locally as the “largest breakfast table in the world”, an annual event that consist of free breakfast cereal laid out on a seemingly never ending array of tables placed at downtown city-center and visited by large numbers of people from fay flung areas.

Early Baha'i Efforts (Battle Creek, Michigan)

Since the early 1900s, Battle Creek became the focus of many efforts to establish a Baha’i community there. Through the efforts of local Baha’is, and supported by several noted national Baha’i travel-teachers, the goal was finally achieved. However, the community would later suffer because it became extremely difficult to maintain the number of members required (nine) for an officially recognized local administratively governed Baha’i community. This was due to several reasons, notably, that the teaching effort could not be extended for long periods of time, the movement of some Baha’i community members to other locations, and problems associated with the lack of having acquired a deeper understanding of Baha’i teachings by some newly declared members resulting in their lack of participation in Baha’i activities.[2]

For many years since 1938 Melba Dorsey (Wheatley) was a major Baha’i influence in Battle Creek and surrounding areas. Not alone in  this personal effort, and along with other dedicated believers in the Battle Creek Baha’i community was Ruth McLaglain[3]. She is discussed on a different post.  Much later, about 1966-67, saw the arrival of Eva Bright as a home-front pioneer to Battle Creek from Washington D.C. Baha’i community[4].  She and Melba became stanch friends and their relationship remained so up until Eva’s passing [ca. 1989].

 

 

 

Dorsey Family

Melba Dorsey was born into a professional acrobatic and musical family, and music and entertaining became the mainstay during her early life.

Her family had their own concert group and performed extensively in Texas, and in Chicago her mother sang in opera houses. Melba’s father supported the family as an acrobat, and with various family members performing. Melba recalls that at approximately six years of age she performed acrobatics in shows with her father, and also being on the tight wire.

Melba and her sister, Thelma, together and individually composed various types of music from Negro spirituals to operas. Her brother, James, also talented, was a professor of music at Lincoln University, from where he wrote music and collaborated with his sisters.

Melba was trained at Tuskegee College and at the Chicago Music College . She also studied for a time in Washington, DC .

During her musical career, Melba was a member of the Midland Chautaqua Circuit, the Midland Jubilee Singers. She also joined the Kentucky Harmony Singers featuring Negro spirituals. But it was during her days with the Shaver Group that first took her to Canada. At that time, Shaver was the only female singing group on the road. She and her sister also had their own singing group. Melba was a member of the original Battle Creek Community Chorus.

Melba recalls that during one of her performances she met US President Calvin College, whom people referred to as “Silent Cal”.

In Her Own Words

“I sang a perfect alto, and continued as an alto singer through Sunday school, Church, and [when attending other] schools. My early piano training [was] given [to me] by music teachers that were friends of my mother”; then, “Finally I received instruction from a teacher whose lessons included teaching me how to write my own music.” Melba studied at Tuskegee University where “I sang in the choir [and after leaving that institution] I continue vocal training at the Chicago Musical College”. She then left CMC “when invited to travel with a singing group in need of a alto [singer]”.

 

 

 

 

“My first professional work, and incidentally the largest organization I was ever associated with, was The Midland Chautauqua Circuit, the pioneer of the circuit Chautauqua. The Mother Chautauqua began on Chautauqua Lake in New York, Tuesday Evening, August 4, 1874”.

“We were called ‘Troopers’ in those days and the name of the group was taken from the organizer and manager who contacted those seeking talents, or arranged their circuits. We were also known as the Jubilee Singers; the Richardson Jubilee Singers of Chicago, with whom I was associated.”

“This group as well as most all the rest consisted of five performers: Soprano, alto, tenor, base and a pianist. The company featured plantation melodies, Negro spirituals, and individual specialties: solos, piano numbers, monologues, etc.”

“Other groups I was with: The Kentucky Harmony Singers[1], Carolina Jubilee Singers, and the Lango Jubilee Singers[2]. My time of travels began in 1927.”

“Before coming to Battle Creek, when not on tour, I directed choirs, Choruses, glee clubs, etc., arranging and writing music for them, and also as a music teacher. I have given many recitals with my sister, an accomplished well known organist and pianist in Chicago.”

“In Battle Creek I sang with the first or original Battle Creek Community Chorus under direction of Mr. Eckmeyer.” At that time it was “Alfred ‘Gif’ Richards along with his wife Connie as pianist. A quintet from the chorus was composed of Mattie Willis, now deceased – Arnold Robbins, Katherine Farley-Hall, Ronald Simpson and Melba D. Wheatley. I arranged one of the songs for the quintet. The chorus practiced at the WELL Radio Station then located in the Michigan National Bank. In the early 40s I was pianist at Mt. Zion AME Church.”

I “[h]ave 6 copyright songs published and many others not yet published. Received many plaques, one from Theresa McFall of the Second Baptist Church, for writing and dedicating it to her for her choir [to] use ‘Walk In The Path Of The Lord’. Others from Eta Phi Beta Sorority for setting music to their sorority song, aware from The Morning Musical Club of Battle Creek for one of the Entrant-Sesquicentennial Songs (1981), ‘Welcome and Best Wishes Now’, [and] written in connection with Ester Sielaff (one of their members).”

“First few years after opening of The Springview Tower, where I resided, [there I] assisted with, participated [in], and gave several programs. Occasionally we would have a sing-along for the residents, and I conducted. Also I received an award in 1988 for Senior Citizen of the Year from Battle Creek N.A.N.B. & P.W., having written music for the local Chapter here in Battle Creek.

[1] Link to newspaper article: Daily-Journal World, Lawrence, Kanas, Friday, November 10, 1939. Requires payment to access.

[2] See: http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1945/05/19/page/12/article/religious-news-notes

Becoming Baha'i

In approximately1938, Melba Wheatley declared her belief in the Cause of Baha’u’llah. As a young child, maybe age ten or eleven, she had a spiritual premonition of the Master (Abdu’l-Baha) visiting the United States. This was to such an extent that she went looking to find him, but recalls seeing only those of oriental extraction. She now wonders if she had possibly been close to him, but remained unaware of this possibility at the time.

Much later when as an adult in Baldwin, Michigan, Melba received the message of Baha’u’llah from Helen Z. Thompson and instantly knew that her spiritual search was over. It was then that she officially became a member of the Baha’i Faith, but, as she related, it had always been in her heart.

Melba was a member of the first Local Spiritual Assembly of Idewild (Baldwin?), Cherry Hill area, Nirvana Township, Michigan, established on 21 April 1938.

Members:

Idewild                                                            Baldwin
Helen Zenobia Thompson                              Mr. Kelly
Ester “Sunshine” Benjamin                             Blanche Peyton-Petty
Sadie                                                               Melba Mebane Wheatley
Ruth Pollard                                                     Melba Mebane Wallace (Melba’s daughter, designated Baha’i youth)
Mr. Pollard                                                       Unknown adult member

Other well-known area Baha’i teachers were: Clara and Cora Edge (sisters). Clara sent Melba her first issue of the American Baha’i News in 1939.

 

Arrival in Battle Creek, Michigan

1940 – Melba Wheatley leaves Baldwin to work for WPA, and then on to Chicago. She desires to become inspired to go where Baha’u’llah leads her. She is told of possible employment opportunities in Battle Creek, Michigan but had no desire to go there. She had once sang with a singing group and performed at the Kellogg Sanatorium, the first time she had ever visited the town.

1941-42 – Moved to Battle Creek, was temporarily employed, but sought permanent career change which was not easily realized, and therefore she decided to leave. But, during February 1943 she received a call from the War Manpower Commission. She returned to Battle Creek and started her employment on 12 Feb 1943 (George Washington’s birthday).

As a Baha’i teacher, Melba realized that this was her primary goal. She sought and acquired the first known Baha’i enrollment in Battle Creek. The first Local Spiritual Assembly was formed in the 1940s. Over the years, Battle Creek obtained and lost LSAs several times but always-held group status. In her home, Melba held Baha’i children’s classes, studied and taught the Baha’i Faith. Baha’i meetings were held in various parts of the city, to include the YMCA. Many well-known Baha’is of the era participated in Baha’i activities in Battle Creek; e.g., Hand of the Cause William Sears with wife Margaret.

Melba’s friend, Ruth McLaughlin, a former member of the Battle Creek Baha’i community but had moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, remembers well those early years. She, too, was very much a part of the area-wide effort to bring the healing message of Baha’u’llah to waiting souls.

One other Baha’i friend Melba relied on was Eva Bright, originally from Washington, DC, relocated as a Baha’i home-front pioneer to Battle Creek, Michigan. I (Terry Randolph) was at the meeting at the Baha’i Center in Washington, DC when she made the announcement. We all asked, “Exactly where is Battle Creek?” We organized a send-off party, and Eva was on her way. I did not realize then that years later I was destined to play a role in that same community, but going there by a much different ‘path’; and when arriving in Battle Creek on 21 December 1991 I had completely forgotten that Eva had pioneered there. I would later learn that is was in Battle Creek that she had transitioned to the next world.

Melba and Eva became very close friends. Bound by love for the Faith, they traveled together, taught the Faith together, served the Battle Creek Baha’i Community together, and prayed together up until the time Eva passed away in 1987. Melba related how devastated she was in losing such a trusted friend and soul mate.

Noteworthy

1954 – Melba wrote a song that became the national anthem for the Eta Phi Beta Society.

11 Jan 1968 – Newspaper article: “Mrs. Wheatley to conclude 25 year career at the Michigan Employment Security Commission”. A testimonial dinner was given in her honor.

28 Apr 1983 – Second Baptist Senior Choir in its Second Annual Panorama of Gospel Stars featured the works of Melba Wheatley.

27 Mar 1984 – Melba wrote the music and played the piano at a fashion show sponsored by the EPSS, organized to demonstrate how old clothes can be recycled for use.

19 May 1988 – The Battle Creek Club of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs honored her at the Sojourner Truth Awards Luncheon.

Melba states that there were “Many, many more articles over the years for which I do not have dates”, but include the following:

17 Feb 1991 – Profiles in Black History

07 Feb 1993

14 Feb 1994

22 Feb 1994

Melba credits her spiritually enriched life to “The love of God first, then the love of life second, the love of people, and the appreciation for all God has given me”.

“My Motto: Do the best I can each day and always help lighten someone else’s burden.”

Guidance (Shoghi Effendi)

The letter, dated 19 Mar 1944, was written on behalf of the Guardian in response to letter we presume he received from the Baha’is in Baldwin, Michigan.  The Guardian’s response encourages their teaching efforts, especially among and by the “negro believers”, and also mentions an enclosed letter for ‘Mrs Thompson”.

 

 

 

 

 

Letter From The Guardian

Battle Creek Baha’i Faith Guestbook

The guestbook was not transcribed due to the large amount of work involved and the amount of time required to complete the project.  However, if someone among you would like to volunteer to undertake this task it would be greatly appreciated.  It can be done either in MS Word or Excel, and if Excel is used it would allow for statistical analysis of people and dates.  In any event, this will allow me to extract and ‘Tag’ each name for optimized search.

Footnotes

[1] Melba Wheatley seen at her birthday party, celebrating 93 years and counting.  She holds a photo of Abdu’l-Baha that was taken during his visit to the United States in 1912.  Venue:  57 Chestnut Street, Battle Creek, Michigan.
[2] Early Baha’i teachers
[3]Ruth McLaughlin (MacLaughlin?)
[4] Coincidently, I was a member of the Washington, DC Baha’i community and present during Feast at the Baha’i Center when Eva Bright announced she would soon depart as a home-front pioneer to Battle Creek, Michigan.  This took the community by surprise primarily because she had given us no clue of her desire to heed the call of the NSA for more pioneers, home-front and international, to help fulfill these respective goals.

 

Comments

For Battle Creek, Michigan to be your pioneering post means remaining steadfast in your commitment to serve the faith long-term in a largely unreceptive and therefore unaccepting environment. Over the years Baha’i travel teachers and home-front pioneers have acknowledge this fact from self-experience; and that includes Melba Wheatley and Ruth MacLauquin, both longtime Battle Creek residents, their supporters, and others who arrived to participate in Baha’i activities.

It proved extremely difficult to achieve Local Spiritual Assembly status in Battle Creek (first established in 1948), once achieved was difficult to maintain, and was more often recognized as having a Baha’i group though at times this questionable. The local environment is not openly hostile, not to the Baha’i Faith or to newly arrived residents, but perhaps ‘outward indifference’ may be an appropriate term combined with intense expectation; i.e., projecting a strong ‘wait and see’ attitude to assess if someone can, how they will relate, or will they be able to fit into the community. This is not unusual, in and of itself, as this can be expect when moving into a new community. However, the Battle Creek environment has a unique inherent character that operates within parameters not easily defined. The community even has a history of ejecting those determined, by its standards, ‘not desirable’.

Given this background and perspective, the accomplishments of Melba Wheatley are astounding. During our discussions she readily acknowledged the negative attitudes that were aligned against her when she arrived as a home-front pioneer, the difficulties of serving the Cause, and of the struggles to maintain an active and viable Baha’i community. Melba overcame these odds by, in her words, “Having love in my heart and faith in Baha’u’llah”.

Additional research is required to reveal more about Melba Wheatley, her life, challenges she faced as a Baha’i in Battle Creek, and means whereby she achieved acceptance and distinction in that city. Work will continue once I have acquired more archived material from my storage unit. Information will also be available on the following individuals: Ruth McLaughlin, Eva Bright, Yvonne Merritte (Eva’s sister), and others who were instrumental to furthering Baha’i work in Battle Creek, and other places in Michigan.

All mistakes are entirely mine.  Corrections will be made via updates.

Last Residence: Bynum Drive, Battle Creek, Michigan

Residence of Melba Wheatley

Cemetery:  Battle Creek Memorial Park Association
Lot/Section:  148.  Space/Level:  11.  Date of Burial:  7 Oct 1997

Battle Creek Memorial Park Association

Melba Wheatley Journals

Melba Wheatley was always a ‘high energy’ person (confirmed by people who new her well) and she related to me that her energy level was so intense that “When I had an idea considered too important to forget I would quickly ‘jot’ [write] it down, and on any scrap of paper readily available”. This is important because it explains that over many years this habit resulted in an abundant accumulation of notes now not easy to decipher. I would often visit her and we would sit together, go through piles of notes she had considered worth keeping, and I would attempt to stimulate her memory to recall the context in which certain information, activity, or an event occurred.

Digital/PDF Format

Digitally scanned information Melba Wheatley had accumulated over many years is now made available in a series of ‘Journal’ files in PDF format. Information contained therein may not make sense to many people. However, for knowledgeable researchers and those seeking additional background on the early development of the Baha’i Faith in the United States the Wheatley Journals may provide a wealth of information. The Journals generally covers a period from 1938-1978.

The Melba Wheatley Collection

Through the assistance of Dr. Roger M. Dhal, Chief Archivist, US National Baha’i Archives, ‘The Melba Wheatley Collection’ was established. The main reason this was done is to ensure that important historical information is preserved because once lost may prove difficult to recover, and once destroyed is gone forever.

Base Resource

Another very important fact is that information provided contributes to a much needed base-resource, a resource priority that identifies, expands, broadens, highlights, and clarifies the active participation of lesser-known members of the Baha’i Faith; i.e., those ground troops, those front-line warriors at the community level upon whose shoulders the burden for expansion and consolidation is borne.

Transcribed Material

Journals and Notes are not transcribed. The reason being that Melba, then age 92, had difficulty capturing detail of past events and activities she had previously noted and/or written about.  Still mentally sharp, however during our discussions I found it less taxing for her if we focused on broad issues and occurrences within a particular context.  Using this approach her concentration was much improved and a greater degree of clarity realized.

Research

Knowledgeable researchers may well recognize names of well-known Baha’is, travel teachers and others of note, dates of events and activities, and other information related to the spreading, growth and development of the Baha’i Faith during its formative years in the United States (1912-1965).

Journals

The Wheately Journals (below) have some chronological overlap due primarily to information not being written according to the time an event may have occurred, but primarily when the writer had ideas, projected memories, and engaged plans and activities.

Page Alignment

Due to the condition of some source material normal preparations made for scanning could not be completed. Also, in some cases you will need to align pages for proper viewing by using the ‘clockwise/counterclockwise’ feature available in Adobe Reader.

Letter date Sun, 8/6/78 was copied 4/13/93 to be sent to Archives.  Unsigned and is not know to whom it is addressed, but presumably it was meant for Melba Wheatley.

 

06 M Wheatley Notes-B

Formation of Groups and LSA’s (1941-1976) and mentions the cities of Baldwin and Battle Creek in the state of Michigan.  Provides information on the formation of the 1st LSA in Battle Creek, Michigan, and provides a list of visitors that include names of many well known believers.

 

1940 Ridvan (M Wheatley Journal)

First Local Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Battle Creek, Michigan (1945)

 

M Wheatley-1st LSA of BC 1945

April 21, 1938, first LSA former in Idlewild, Nirvana Township, Michigan.  Also list Baha’i status for Baldwin and Grand Rapids, visiting Baha’i speaker and travel teacher, Anna Romer, Baha’i youth, and other information.

 

M Wheatley-LSA Baldwin 1938-1941

In 1941 Melba Wheatley arrives in Battle Creak, Michigan as a Baha’i home-front pioneer.

 

M Wheatley Notes

Melba Wheatley’s employment timeline (1940-1943).

 

M Wheatley Job Notes 1940-43

Very interesting document that recounts Baha’i activities in Battle Creek, Michigan.  It provides names of many Baha’is who assisted the teaching effort in that city.

 

M Wheatley Notes 19 Jun 1977

Evidently Melba Wheatley visited Laura Rommey Davis in Toronto, Canada in 1978.  However, information provided was taken from a she letter perhaps she later receive from Laura R. Davis.  It also recounts the then prevailing ‘pilgrim note’ (or old wives tale, depending on one’s point of view) about world destruction and the building of the ‘New World Order’.

 

M Wheatley Notes (Laura Rommey Davis)

Early Baha’i visitors to Battle Creek, Michigan

 

Earily Visitors-Battle Creek

First Meeting

I first met Melba Wheatley in January 1992.  I had recently returned to the United States after eleven years having been a Baha’i pioneer to Germany and then to South Korea.  I arrived on 21 December 1991 to undertake a newly assigned position within the US Department of Defense.  At that time Battle Creek had long since lost its Local Spiritual Assembly (LSA) status.  This was due primarily to failure to maintain a viable membership.  Some members reached advance age, some were deceased, and others (including Baha’i youth) had relocated.  In fact, during my discussions with Melba Wheatley she revealed just how difficulty it had been over the years to sustaining the teaching effort and also to maintain LSA status.  Battle Creek had frequently ‘bounced’ between being a community of nine-plus members, required for official LSA status, and simply designated as a ‘Baha’i Group’ where a few members resided.

Historical Perspective

The above must be placed in historical perspective because mandated requirements by the National Spiritual Assembly for official recognition of regional, local, group, and LSA status changed several times since 1938 when Melba Wheatley declared her faith; due in part to demographic issues related to the spread, growth and development of the Baha’i Faith throughout the United States.  To some extent, similar problems are expected, and continue to experienced in present-day Baha’i membership environments.  Research of Baha’i demographics and comparative NSA guidance undoubtedly will be a topic of great interest for future historians, both those having a Baha’i background and others with expressed interest in the Baha’i Faith.

Melba Wheatley and Terry Randolph, discussing the history of the Baha’i Faith in Michigan and in Canada.

Wheatley Musical Career
Background information pertaining to Melba Wheatley’s music education, training, career, and activities.

 

 

Melba Wheatley’s Musical Career

Chautauqua Circuit:
This is an example of music composed by Melba Wheatley.  There are or were others but their condition remains unknown.

Tap The Source

Melba Wheatley Birthday Party

The event to honor Melba Wheatley’s ninety-second birthday was organized by Terry Randolph. The venue was  57 Chestnut Street, Battle Creek, Michigan. Invited guest were noted persons from the Battle Creek community who were supportive of and long familiar with Melba Wheatley community activities, Baha’is from various surrounding communities, and other well-wishers. Congratulations were received from various Baha’i Institutions and from family members, religious faiths, and local leaders.

Birthday Program

Welcome

Baha’i Prayer

~ Steadfastness

Readings

~ The Song of the Reeds ~ Rumi (by Carol Stein)
~ A Poet’s Voice ~ Khalil Gibran (by Carol Stein)
~ On Virtue ~ Phyllis Wheatley (by Ruth McLaughlin)

Musical Selections

By Karen Lucatellie – Pianist (12 year old Baha’i youth )
~ Mozart
~ Mendelssohn Song Without Words

Closing

“With true vision, trust in God and unwavering courage, Melba has met and conquered some of life’s difficult challenges. With moral courage she has withstood the test of time in the face of adversity in order to faithfully deliver the Message of Baha’u’llah, to which she has committed her life.”

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