The Baha’i Community of Washington, DC (Jul 1966)
Members of the Washington, DC Baha’i Community gather on the front lawn of the Baha’i Center for photographs. (Credits #1-2).
[Left to Right] Rear, standing-7: Willie C. Shipman, Eugenia McClain, James Sturdivant, Fenton Williams?, Terry Randolph, Steve Sewell, James Oliver
Middle, kneeling-5: Glenford Mitchell, Sharon Mitchell, Frances Coley, Darlene Morris, Bernice Brigham; standing-5: Sanaiyh Alai, Antoinette Washington, Yvonne Merritt, June Ritter, Fazhollah Abdolbashar (?); rear, under tree-3: Marva Bruce, Gloria Giles (sun Glasses), Theodies Washington
Front, seated-7: Dr. Sarah Martin Pereira, Ruth Dunbar, Diane Porlier & son, Victor Porlier, Maxine Gipson, Richard Bruce; rear, standing-3: Clarence Baker, Amie McClain (black handbag), Della Howard.
Local Spiritual Assembly Members: Glenford E. Mitchell, Chairman; Victor Porlier, Vice-Chairman; Bernice Brigham, Corresponding Secretary; Francis Coley, Recording Secretary; Ruth Dunbar, Treasurer (?); Richard Bruce, Sarah Pereira, Terry Randolph, Steven Sewell.
(Note: The order of people in the two photographs remain the same; except, the top photo was taken by Glenford Mitchell, then replaced by John Hayman who took the b&w photo. (Camera: Terry Randolph).
In 1966 the membership of the Washington, DC Baha’i community totaled 83 adults plus 5 youth. The Baha’i Center became the a focal point for several smaller communities, groups, and isolated believers scattered throughout its immediate vicinity, primarily Northern Virginia (including Fairfax, Arlington and Falls Church), and Maryland (mainly Prince Georges and Howard counties). The community, in many ways, was the ‘root’ from which the faith expanded and ultimately prospered in the region. The Washington Baha’i community also supported and received support from its sister Baha’i Community in the city of Baltimore, Maryland. Both communities had the distinction of having acquired a Baha’i Center as the focal point for their respective activities.
New Baha’i Center
Previous facilities used for Baha’i activities consisted mainly of rental properties until a suitable building (5713 16th St., NW) was purchased in 1964. Also during the previous the Coley family opened their home for Baha’i community events (Feast, Baha’i Holy days, Firesides, etc.) located at 6402 16th St., NW.
The newly purchased property was officially registered with the local government as the ‘Washington, DC Baha’i Center’. Standing on the front lawn (L/R): Glenford E. Mitchell, Helen Webb Harris, Dr. Ali-Kuli Khan, Albert James, three unidentified people, and John Hayman.
The Baha’i Faith in the Nations Capital
The Baha’i Faith arrived in the Nations Capital in 1898, brought there by Charlotte Dixon, a white woman, who came to teach the religion she dearly loved, and concentrated her efforts on teaching the faith to African Americans. Through dedication and extremely hard work, over time, she was able to organize the first ever-Baha’i group in Washington. From these early beginnings, the Baha’i community would later prosper to produce many Baha’i’s of note who contributed to the growth, development and expansion of the faith not only in the United States but also in far-flung regions of the world.
In 1912, the Washington Baha’i Community achieved distinction by hosting Abdu’l-Baha, the son of the religion’s founder, during his visit to the United States.
From within this early Baha’i community rose one who would be designated posthumously as a ‘Hand of the Cause of God’, a rank of great distinction within the faith. There were also those who later served on Baha’i local, national and international administrative bodies after heeding the call for local and international Baha’i pioneers, and still others who would serve untiringly at the Seat of the faith in the Holy Land. These achievements branched directly from the efforts of one inspired individual, Charlotte Dixon, a person deeply committed to sharing her newly found faith with others.
Information is provided about racial prejudice in Washington, DC. It also reflects the general climate at that time pervasive throughout most of the nation. The reader is given a backdrop of information to acquire a deeper understanding and to develop appreciation for the early believers who withstood deeply entrenched social pressures, undoubtedly for some it would mean endangering limb or life or both, and against all odds firmly established the Baha’i Faith in the Nations Capital.
On September 20, 1850 the slave trade is abolished in Washington, DC, but is allowed to continue until 1862.
Washington was a rigidly segregated town — except for federal government agencies. They had been integrated during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War ended, enabling African-Americans to obtain federal jobs and work side by side with whites in government agencies. When Woodrow Wilson, a Virginian by birth and southern sympathizer, came to power in 1913 as the 28th president of the United States, he promptly authorized members of his cabinet to reverse this long-standing policy of racial integration in the federal civil service. The results were devastating to Black Washingtonians.
- Newspaper Row. “For black newspaper boys holding their street corners in downtown Washington, on Thursday, January 13, 1870 there was a new paper to hawk, a paper uniquely speaking to their emerging place in the country and city, ‘The New Era’.”
- “The senior editor is the eldest son of Frederick Douglass, and inherits a large share of his father’s abilities. He is an active, energetic man, deeply alive to every interest of his race, uncompromising in his adherence to principle, and is a valuable citizen in any community.”
- “His paper is well conducted, and should receive the patronage of our people throughout the country. Both Benjamin Quarles and Philip Foner’s works on Douglass treat “The New Era” critically, respectfully, and accurately based on scholarship.”
Knobloch Family Memorial Service
During the early 1900s, the Knoblochs and Hannens were instrumental in teaching the Baha’i Faith to African Americans in Washington, DC. The Knobloch Family Memorial Service was held July 7, 2000 at Prospect Hills Cemetery in the Nations Capital to commemorate their achievements. The event originated from a statement made by Abdu’l-Baba that the family be honored for their outstanding service to the Baha’i Faith. The memorial program provided below is annotated to provide additional information about the family’s efforts to advance the faith, and includes their services rendered in the state of North Carolina. ‘The Baha’i Faith in the Triangle’ identifies other Baha’is who also served the Cause in both Washington, DC and in North Carolina and may be of use to researchers; however, some information may require further verification.
Teaching African Americans
“I became a confirmed believer about June, 1909 and thereafter cooperated with the Hannen’s in arranging meetings and trying to give everyone the message. Misses Alma and Fanny Knobloch with Mr. And Mrs. Hannen were pioneers in the early days in spreading the message among the colored people of Washington.” -Louis Gregory
- The 54th Annual Emancipation Reuniion held at Cosmopolitan Baptist Church in Washington, DC, October 1916. “Many of the ex-slaves have passed the century mark. Uncle Nelson Keith, who is 106 years old, will be one of the speakers. Robert Lee, once a slave of General Robert E. Lee, will preach a sermon, as will John Jackson, who was once the property of General Stonewall Jackson. Old plantation melodies will feature the sessions.”
- The women pictured are Annie Parram, 104, Anna Angales, 105, Elizabeth Berkeley, 125 and Sadie Thompson, 110. They were old, no doubt, but their exact ages are questioned in some quarters. This being the fifty-fourth reunion, it was first held in 1862, three years prior to the end of the Civil War.
- According to a Washington Post article, the 1916 convention was the fifty-fourth gathering of former slaves and ran from October 22nd to November 6th. President Wilson is listed among the invited speakers.
Information provided will grant the reader insight into the ”Peculiar Institution” that so pervaded American life. It’s important to learn about racial prejudice and its practices, its social norms, attitudes and abnormalities, and how it was perpetuated throughout most of America’s history to be a continuing blight within its society. Further, you, the reader, undoubtedly will learn to appreciate the enormity of effort put forth by those early believers in Washington, DC and elsewhere to teach the faith, establish a viable Baha’i community life, and gain official recognition for the faith.
Abridgement of Lawful Rights
Racism is endemic in US society. It is the systematic abridgment of the lawful rights of a major segment of humanity since its regulatory enforcement in the state of Virginia during the mid-1700s, and has now spread its corrosive effects to the very core of the nation.
Derogatory thinking, language about, and actions taken against African Americans are indicators of an underlying infection, a virus within the offending white majority, namely an antagonism against blacks based upon the belief of white superiority, the core problem that must be forthrightly addressed if the United States of America is to rid itself of this cancer that perpetuates continuing cycles of injustice.
To this day racism remains a primary issue in American society and its people, seemingly, lack the ability to marshal the effort required to resolve the problem.
It is incumbent upon Baha’i’s to demonstrate unceasingly the principles of their beloved faith, to plan strategically to awaken a sleeping public to the pressing need for galvanizing a collective will to eradicate the scourge of racism too long in vogue.
Racism in American Society
Charlotte Dixon arrived in Washington just thirty-three years after the Civil War ended, a conflict that saw an estimated 640,000-700,000 killed and wounded. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning author James McPherson, the war was fought “…because of uncompromising differences between the free and slave states over the power of the national government to prohibit slavery in the territories that had not yet become states.”; meaning that slavery was the primary reason for the war. As a result of animosities lingering since war’s end (1861-1865), the debacle of Reconstruction (1865-1877) and the advent of Jim Crow laws (1877-1954), racial prejudice became more deeply ingrained in society to wrought havoc on America’s psychic as a nation. Washington, DC certainly was not immune to these conditions.
When Dixon started her teaching campaign the US was about to enter a period of mass slaughter where no less than 3,224 African-Americans would be lynched over the next twenty-nine years (1889-1918). Segregation reined supreme. Separate and unequal was forcefully upheld. Of course Baha’i principles supported the idea of racial equality; however, for Baha’is to demonstrate that whites and blacks could socialize together, engaged in intergroup dynamics, was anathema to social norms.
One must understand the nation’s racial climate, its social atmosphere, unfounded stigma, the possibility of personal harm that could engulf Dixon and those whom she sought to teach, in spite of perceived social standing, in order to acquire appreciation for the daunting task and dangers she and they faced in that race-hostile environment.
- The Georgetown section of Washington, DC was a hub of African American activity, its largest resident group when the Baha’i Faith arrived in Washington, DC during 1898.
- When researching the early history the Baha’i Faith in the Nations Capital, post-1900, it was discovered that several Africa Americans who were members of the faith also resided in Georgetown.
- This is where you take out all your hostilities and frustrations. It’s better than kicking the puppy dog around and all that so.
Abdu’l-Baha Addresses the Problem of Race
Upon his visit to the United States in 1912, and upon visiting Washington, DC and invited to speak at Howard University, he provided these words of wisdom concerning the issue of race in America.
Addressing White Bahá’ís:
“Let the white make a supreme effort in their resolve to contribute their share to the solution of this problem, to abandon once for all their usually inherent and at times subconscious sense of superiority to correct their tendency towards revealing a patronizing attitude towards the members of the other race, to persuade them through their intimate, spontaneous and informal association with them of the genuineness of their friendship and the sincerity of their intentions, and to master their impatience of any lack of responsiveness on the part of a people who have received, for so long a period, such grievous and slow-healing wounds.”
Addressing Black Bahá’ís:
“Let the Negroes, through a corresponding effort on their part, show by every means in their power the warmth of their response, their readiness to forget the past, and their ability to wipe out every trace of suspicion that may still linger in their hearts and minds.”
“Let neither think that the solution of so vast a problem is a matter that exclusively concerns the other. Let neither think that such a problem can either easily or immediately be resolved. Let neither think that they can wait confidently for the solution of this problem until the initiative has been taken, and the favorable circumstances created, by agencies that stand outside the orbit of their Faith. Let neither think that anything short of genuine love, extreme patience, true humility, consummate tact, sound initiative, mature wisdom, and deliberate, persistent, and prayerful effort, can succeed in blotting out the stain which this patent evil has left on the fair name of their common country.”
(The Advent of Divine Justice, p 40)
Prayer for America
O Thou kind Lord! This gathering is turning to Thee. These hearts are radiant with Thy love. These minds and spirits are exhilarated by the message of Thy glad-tidings. O God! Let this American democracy become glorious in spiritual degrees even as it has aspired to material degrees, and render this just government victorious. Confirm this revered nation to upraise the standard of the oneness of humanity, to promulgate the Most Great Peace, to become thereby most glorious and praiseworthy among all the nations of the world. O God! This American nation is worthy of Thy favors and is deserving of Thy mercy. Make it precious and near to Thee through Thy bounty and bestowal. -‘Abdu’l-Bahá
- The Shaw neighborhood in recent years has drawn attention to the rich cultural history of places like the U Street entertainment strip and the elegant residences of LeDroit Park. However, the area also had its thriving industrial side.
- The area once hosting factories that produced much of the bread, cakes, and other baked goods bought by Washingtonians. Corby’s Bakery was one of them. Photo: 28 Jan 1906 ed. ‘The Washington Times’.
- It is also where Howard University is located, the institution where Abdu’l-Baha spoke in 1912. Some early Baha’is resided in the Shaw area, and it later became a center-point of Baha’i activity.
Baha’i Race Amity Movement
“In 19–21 May 1921, the Baha’i ‘Race Amity’ movement was launched in the Washington DC, as “a practical effort to influence public discourse on race in the United States”. This came at a time when the ‘color line’ between black and white was drenched red with lynchings and race riots that infected Jim Crow America with fear and dread.” -Christopher Buck
1-2. Top photos, (1) color, (2) b&w (OB Archives)
3. Slider photos – Terry Randolph (OB Archives)
4. Baha’i Center color photo (Scurlock Studio)
5. Autocar (System Magazine)
6. Girl group (ByGone America)
7. End of Slavery b&w (ByGone America)
8. Four (4) large middle-placed b&w photos (Library of Congress)
a. Newspaper Row, Washington, DC (Library of Congress)
b. Former Slave Women, Washington, DC (Harris & Ewing Collection/Library of Congress)
c. Georgetown (includes view of the Potomac River), Washington, DC (Library of Congress)
d. Corbay’s Bakery, Shaw Area, Washington, DC (Library of Congress)
9. Knowbloch, Hennan, Gregory photos (Baha’i Media Library)
10. Abdu’l-Baha photos (Baha’i Media Library)
11. Race Amity photo (Baha’i Media Library)
12. Race Amity video (An American Story)