239 Days in America

A Social Media Documentary following 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912

Day
14
 | 
April 24, 1912
washington, dc
Storify Feature

Breaking the Color Line

AT ABOUT TWO O’CLOCK on Tuesday, April 23, 1912, Louis Gregory walked up the limestone steps to the front door of the Persian Legation at 1832 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. This four-level house, its facade built from green serpentine rock, was the nearest thing to an embassy the Persian government had in the United States. Its Chargé d’Affaires — Ali-Kuli Khan — was the closest thing Persia had to an ambassador.

The Legation stood less than a mile southwest of Howard University. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had been driven here immediately after his speech to the student body at Rankin Chapel, in order to attend a formal luncheon that Khan was holding in his honor. But after the talk, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had sent a message to Gregory to meet him at the Legation for a private conversation.

The interview, Gregory later recalled, went on and on. ‘Abdul-Bahá seemed to be prolonging it. 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.


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On Tuesday, April 23, 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had begun his attack on the social conventions of the color line. His discourse on race would soon engage the diverse range of public positions on the subject, which had emerged as agents of, or as reactions and accommodations to, a scientific, political, and cultural program that had entrenched itself in American life since the end of Reconstruction.

In taking on the paramount issue of race, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was just getting started.

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  • Anne Breneman

    What a wonderful focus the Master showed in his concern that Louis Gregory received the
    respect he deserved at the Persian Embassy by engaging other guests to find him and seat him beside Abdu’l Baha himself!  Of course it was a perfect time to speak out about the meaning of unity in terms of black and white, especially among the upper-classes who tended to carry more racial prejudice than others from their own socialization experiences. I will never learn enough from the Master about how to turn the world around in a kindly way!

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/VT4JBKOT3WQZ5SXHYMTFQJU5BU Jamie

    What a wonderful legacy that Abdu’l-Baha has left us.

  • lili

    Thank you kindly, Jonathan and friends, for these vivid
    accounts of Abdu’l-Bahá in America. I so needed to turn to Abdu’l-Bahá for courage, kindness, love and acts that unite and bring together souls for the betterment of the world, one heart at a time. Thank you for helping all of us remember.

  • followyourheart

    This is a beautiful account of speaking truth to power or in this instance demonstrating equality regardless of the color of one’s skin.  May we all all be blessed to act like this when the opportunity arises.

  • http://twitter.com/MalariaFighter Barmak Kusha

    I will never tire of this awesome episode. Never… 

    • David Bulman

      Barmak, i don’t remember hearing of this episode before. What seems clear is that it was deliberate, and that ‘Abdu’l-Baha had a strong sense of drama, and a determined will. But a century later this still brings tears to the eyes. It is very moving, how ‘Abdu’l-Baha intervened for the downtrodden, how he cared and loved them.
      You know, i am sitting this morning in a UN guest house in Abeche, Chad, about to go to work: we are working on the food and nutritional response to the quite serious drought. Our intervention will save lots of lives and reduce suffering, as well as support the nutrition of under two children so they will develop their physical and mental capacities as God intends. I really wonder if this setup would be in place now if ‘Abdu’l-Baha had not made his interventions a century ago, and pushed forward the morals and ethics of that age.

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