239 Days in America

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

April 30, 1912
Chicago, IL
Storify Feature

The Fallout from a City in Flames

THE RACE RIOT in Springfield, Illinois, on August 14, 1908, changed forever the public agenda for colored people in the United States of America. Beginning early in the evening, a mob of several thousand white Springfield citizens “proceeded hour after hour and on two days in succession to make deadly assaults on every Negro they could lay their hands on, to sack and plunder their houses and stores, and to burn and murder on favorable occasion.”


William English Walling, who wrote the account, and his wife arrived in Springfield the next morning. He registered his shock in an article in The Independent on September 3. “We at once discovered, to our amazement,” he wrote, “that Springfield had no shame. She stood for the action of the mob. . . . I talked to many of them the day after the massacre and found no difference of opinion in the question, ‘Why, the niggers came to think they were as good as we are!’ was the final justification offered, not once, but a dozen times.”

Before the Springfield Race Riot, most Americans had believed that large-scale race violence was a purely Southern phenomenon, confined to backwaters like Atlanta, or Wilmington, North Carolina. In fact, there had been several anti-black confrontations in the North, but the Springfield Riot shocked and disgraced the nation because it had occurred just four city blocks from Abraham Lincoln’s home. Springfield galvanized — at last — the national movement for Negro rights.

Soon Walling, who was a Socialist, and several white friends founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a nationwide, biracial organization that would fight to achieve African American civil rights for the next fifty years. Many years later, Walling shared his own version of this history: “I always date the real launching of the organization,” he wrote, “from the day we secured Dr. Du Bois.” W. E. B. Du Bois resigned his teaching position at Atlanta University to become the NAACP’s publicity director and editor of The Crisis, the organization’s official publication.

Three and a half years later, the NAACP invited ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to address their Fourth Annual Conference in Chicago. He spoke at the conference twice on Tuesday, April 30, 1912, once early in the afternoon at Hull House in South Chicago and then to the evening session at Handel Hall, at 40 East Randolph Street in the Loop neighborhood. Du Bois had named ‘Abdu’l-Bahá one of The Crisis’s “Men of the Month” for May.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá began his address at Handel Hall by quoting the Old Testament: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” “Let us find out,” he proposed, “just where and how he is the image and likeness of the Lord, and what is the standard or criterion whereby he can be measured.”

Then he asked a series of rhetorical questions: “If a man should possess wealth, can we call him an image and likeness of God? Or is human honor the criterion whereby he can be called the image of God? Or can we apply a color test as a criterion, and say such and such an one is colored a certain hue and he is therefore, in the image of God? Can we say, for example, that a man who is green in hue is an image of God?”

“Hence we come to the conclusion that colors are of no importance. Colors are accidental in nature. . . . Let him be blue in color, or white, or green, or brown, that matters not! Man is not to be pronounced man simply because of bodily attributes. Man is to be judged according to his intelligence and spirit. . . . That is the image of God.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá concluded by once again conflating and neutralizing common uses of the imagery of black and white, as he had done in Washington: “If man’s temperament be white, if his heart be white, let his outer skin be black; if his heart be black and his temperament be black, let him be blond, it is of no importance.” Color, in other words, had no effect on the content of a person’s character.

Almost immediately across the road from Handel Hall, at the Masonic Temple at 29 East Randolph Street, 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, 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, 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.


  • Baljit Singh Ludher

    Thank God for “Abdul’ Baha”

  • Tonyb

    Only future historians will know the full implication of Abdul’baha’s visit.

    Well done Abdul’Baha

  • Karridine

    Somebody is freely sharing podcasts of these reports… http://bit.ly/JUGPQf

    • http://jmenon.com/ Jonathan Menon

      Hi Karridine,

      Yes! We have given him permission to do so. Please enjoy them!

  • Dean Hedges

    3.3.169 , daylight, … perhaps one of the most unique gifts‘Abdu’l-Bahá has given to us, is the level of trust He has in our autonomy  … Glad Tidings

  • Karen

    The 19th day talked about people waiting for Abdu’l-Baha to arrive on the train.  What happened there?  Why didn’t he arrive?  That was a cliff-hanger with no finish. ??

    • http://jmenon.com/ Jonathan Menon

      Hi Karen,

      We actually finished that part of the story on Twitter. 😉 The train had mechanical problems and was delayed for twelve hours.

      If you don’t use Twitter, you can still see our daily feed here: http://twitter.com/239Days

      It will let you follow ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s activity in real time throughout the day.

  • Karlschleich

    ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had a tremendous presence at the National Convention of the Bahá’is of Alaska! Stories of his travels to North America were recalled and prayers revealed on this continent were intoned! These stories and prayers had a powerful effect on the delegates! Thank you for creating this web site!

  • Marywilson19

    Utterly fascinating! Chills run up my back.

  • Candace Hill

    How wonderful to hear new stories of familiar events.  Thanks so much Jonathan.

  • Bahaiwoman99

    Before this article, I had been unaware of these acts of violence  100 years ago in
    Chicago, a mere 5 hours drive from my own home.  As I read them I think of my darker skinned grandchidren and my own white skin.  I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, I would protect them from any violence and harm with my own life should this be nesessary.

    • http://jmenon.com/ Jonathan Menon

      Yes, it’s really kind of stunning, isn’t it? I think the nation responded the same way in 1908, because Abraham Lincoln had grown up just down the street!

  • Erica Toussaint-Brock

    Thank you Jonathon and crew!  

    Your in-depth research and story-telling skill, combined with an obviously deep and penetrating reading of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s message here in North America are creating a profound, rich and moving experience for me each day. I have been marveling at how you have been weaving a tapestry of history brought to life for us and how that enriches our understanding of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s presence among us here in North America.

    Today my husband and I read this article together (as has become our morning routine) and my heart was bursting with the wonder of it all. 

     “The delegates responded unanimously”. 

    • Jcundall

      agree – I’m reading with you too!  THANK YOU janet

  • Robertahodgin

    We baha’is have an amazing history!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1096860019 Jyotirmoy Das

    “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 as early as 1912—was rare in the extreme, if not unprecedented. Even the NAACP had only elected one black member to its executive committee when it had been formed in 1909.”


    • http://jmenon.com/ Jonathan Menon

      Thanks very much for posting that link, Jyotirmoy.

      For those readers who haven’t clicked it, it is a Wikipedia article listing the African American members of Congress, several of whom were elected during the nineteenth century–hence it calls into question my statement in this article that Louis Gregory’s election was possibly “unprecedented.”

      Using words like “unprecedented” is always risky, I know. Normally I avoid it, but I guess here I took a bit of a risk. I’m really glad that you called me on it.

      However, let me share with you my understanding of the issue. I may be wrong, but I thought that although some African Americans were elected to Congress form the South during the nineteenth century, they came from black-majority districts. Then during the Great Migration some northern cities also developed black-majority areas, which, in some cases, also elected black members to Congress.

      The intention I had here was to report how the delegates to the Temple Unity convention broke with social norms in the middle of the Jim Crow era to elect a black man to their national governing body, even though all of them were white.

      What do you think? Do you think that sentence of mine is misleading? I would be happy to change it if you think it might be.

      I hope you’ll feel free to respond, and thanks again.

      • Nick

        Many people have heard that “Jackie Robinson was the first black baseball player allowed in the Major League.” This statement is false, however, if you do not add the qualifier “since the 1880s.” My point in bringing this up is that the link posted takes you to Reconstruction era statistics. That time immediately following the US Civil War did hold a lot of promise. Unfortunately entrenched racism derailed much of the progress made.

        For greater insight into the society ‘Abdu’l-Baha encountered, I feel a more appropriate link would be the following:


        I don’t mean to say the original post by Mr. Das is invalid. Perhaps changing the phrase “to have done so as early as 1912” into “to have done so in 1912” would help.

        Great article, by the way.

        • http://jmenon.com/ Jonathan Menon

          Thanks Nick,

          I think that’s a good point. I’ll make an adjustment.

      • David Bulman

        Jonathan, i think your judgement in using the word “unprecedented” was ok, given that it was “the governing board of a national organization of largely middle- and upper-class white Americans”. I commend you for your intention and your efforts to be accurate–history is intentionally distorted by so many people, to our collective detriment.

        This is great what you are doing by the way. I did a limited “100 years ago today” series back in 1992, on the centenary of Baha’u’llah’s passing. It is an occasion to remember–it increases our understanding, makes our hearts tender, and motivates us to follow excellent examples.

        We Baha’is do not always succeed in setting an excellent example, but we do have our good moments, fortunately rather frequent. The election story is beautiful. It reminds me of what happened in apartheid South Africa: the black,coloured and white members of the national governing body could not meet — i think it was illegal for the different races to be meeting together in that way — so to facilitate the functioning of the institution, the white members all resigned to allow their places to be taken by Baha’is of other races!

        Abeche, Chad


    That the Master supported the early work of the NAACP and was instrumental in empowering the Temple Board to exemplify the ideal — makes me want to shout out that present day social needs require OUR support. Aren’t we to “follow in His footsteps” that way? Our national body chose at least one such cause recently — for earth day impetus — interfaith moral action on climate change! Yeah!!!

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

    “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 as early as 1912—was rare in the extreme,
    if not unprecedented. 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.”

  • Pat Cameron

    Thank you so much for this article that does such a good job of providing historical context for the great movement of human advancement toward the principle of the oneness of humanity.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Pascal-Molineaux/760849296 Pascal Molineaux

    Abdu’l-Baha’s color blindness when it comes to skin color is a powerful reminder of what mankind’s specific distinction really comes down to: those spiritual qualities of the heart and soul that one is able to develop through life. That is what distinguishes us as human beings, that we may serve others and wear the wreathes of spiritual qualities as we strive to make this world one of light, love and unity.

  • RBulling_47

    American students seldom hear the sad history of race relations in their own land. The shocking story of the race riot in Springfield, Illinois was not in our history books, nor the achievements of our citizens of African descent. Thank you again, for providing the background events of the times in which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá addressed his audiences here.

  • RBulling_47

    Americans students seldom learn about the sad history of race relations in their country or
    the achievements of citizens of African descent. Thanks again for showing us the events of the times in which ‘Abdu’-Bahá addressed his audience at the Fourth Annual Conference of the NAACP in 1912.

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