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In stark contrast to the prevailing Jim Crow era of enforced racial segregation in America, Abdu’l-Baha passionately supported unity between blacks and whites.
Abdu’l-Baha taught and encouraged interracial, intercultural, and international unity at all levels of society. This was especially true in all his contacts with the early American Baha’is. For instance, in a letter dated August 3, 1921, Abdu’l-Baha wrote the following exhortation about love between the races to a well-known Baha’i teacher, Miss Alma S. Knobloch:
Extend my respectful greetings to Mr. and Mrs. Mann. I supplicate to the Divine Bounties and ask that they may daily become more attracted, become two lighted candles of the love of God, and that the White and the Colored may, in their meetings, fall into each other’s arms. I also ask that Mr. and Mrs. Ashton may hold luminous meetings in their house and through thy help teach the Colored. – Abdu’l-Baha (translated by Rouhi M. Afnan, Haifa, Palestine, August 3, 1921), Translations of Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha Collection, National Baha’i Archives, United States. Courtesy of Lewis V. Walker, Assistant Archivist, National Baha’i Archives, United States.
Five years later, as Abdu’l-Baha had hoped, a racially-integrated Local Spiritual Assembly (LSA) of the Baha’is of Miami was duly elected. We know this because the Miami LSA is listed in the “Baha’i Directory 1926–1927,” with Olive Kretz as Secretary.
In a letter dated February 11, 1927, Olive Kretz gives these names as confirmed Baha’is in Miami: Mr. and Mrs. Wm. M. Atwater, Mrs. B. M. Curbright (“colored”), Mr. H. DeBoer, Miss Corinne “De Armour” [sic], Mr. D. K. Dorsey (“colored”), Mr. and Mrs. John Grundy, and Mrs. Olive E. Kretz. This list represents the nine Baha’is needed to form a Baha’i Local Spiritual Assembly—and identifies two of the members as African Americans.
An earlier report detailed how that Assembly was formed:
Mr. and Mrs. McNutt and Mr. and Mrs. Grundy reached Florida last November after touching Bahai centres [sic] in Athens and Augusta, Ga., Jacksonville, St. Augustine, Stuart, Orlando, Lakeland and Indian Rocks, Fla. they purchased a charming home in Miami and with the cooperation of the Atwater family, Mrs. Kretz, Miss Sunshine, and other friends, established a new spiritual assembly in that city. Fine meetings for inquirers have been held in thier [sic] home throughout the entire Winter, and a weekly meeting is being conducted regularly at the Dorsey Hotel, a centre [sic] for the progressive Negro population of this Southern metropolis. Its owner, Mr. D. A. Dorsey, is a colored financier, highly regarded by all the promoters of Greater Miami. Having accumulated more than five million dollars, is now actively engaged in founding a Model Negro City near Miami, in which he has donated a site for a [Baha’i House of Worship]. – Louise D. Boyle, Agnes Parsons, and Louis Gregory, “Report of Southern Regional Teaching Committee,” April 15, 1926.
This report goes on to mention “a cultured German, Mr. Max Eichenberg,” who decided to work with Mr. Dana Dorsey on this project. Both “have accepted the teachings whole-heartedly through the labours [sic] of Mr. Gregory and Mr. McNutt.” The report also mentions a “Mrs. Lula Alexander, an illumined Negro woman recently confirmed in the Cause.” – Ibid., p. 74.
On Jan 17, 1928, a letter in the Miami LSA’s correspondence gives five names “who answer the qualifications in your letter”: Mrs. Margaret Atwater, Mr. William M. Atwater, Miss Corrinne d’Amour, Major A. C. Goggins (“colored”), and Mrs. Olive Kretz.
On April 11, 1928, Alma S. Knobloch’s letter listed four new believers “in the last six weeks”—one of who is named “D.A. Dorsey” (“colored”).
Also in 1928, there is an LSA election form, listing only Mrs. Olive Kretz. But on the back, nine names are typewritten, with three individuals identified as “colored”: Mrs. S. E. Thompson, plus D.A. Dorsey and Major Goggins.
Most importantly, there is also a note that colored and white believers “can not” meet together at that time.
As for the difficulty in meeting interracially, the note goes on to say: “Alma Knobloch will explain fully how things were when she was here—they have not changed.”
Something very wrong had happened. No further details are available at the time of this writing, but suffice it to say that the Miami Baha’is made notable and noble efforts to cross the racial divide under highly adverse and even dangerous circumstances.
Perhaps there were threats from the Ku Klux Klan, which was very active in the greater Miami area at the time, as it was throughout the South and other parts of the United States. Perhaps legal authorities intervened, justifying their banning of racially integrated meetings with the Jim Crow laws of the period.
In any case, the inability of the Miami Baha’is to mix interracially in 1928, and afterward, would have been due to external forces beyond the immediate control of the Miami Baha’is themselves. This may explain why subsequent records from the Miami Baha’i community are silent regarding these illustrious African American Baha’is. For a brief period of time in the early part of the twentieth century, though, the Miami Baha’is succeeded in achieving and enjoying interracial harmony and friendship, which was far from the norm during the Jim Crow era.