239 Days in America

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

Day
114
 | 
August 2, 1912
Dublin, NH
Storify Feature

Being Black in the Progressive Era

LOUIS GREGORY INHALED the sea air as his ship broke from the shore. He was leaving America, crossing the same throes of the Atlantic his African ancestors had — but Louis Gregory was unchained. It was March 25, 1911, and he was on his way to Alexandria, Egypt, to meet ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. It was here, in the middle of the ocean, Gregory later said, that he finally felt truly “American.”

Louis’s grandfather had been murdered before he was born. He was a blacksmith who had prospered after the Civil War. He bought a mule and a horse and for this was targeted by the Ku Klux Klan, who drove up to his house one night, called him out, and shot him.

The years between the end of the Civil War and 1877 were the era of Reconstruction. Congress, aided by the Union Army, disbanded the Confederate governments of Southern states and implemented the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed due process and equal protection of the laws to all Americans. The Fifteenth Amendment spurred new elections in which newly-freed slaves could vote. Reconstruction also led to the improvement of educational opportunities for African Americans.

Louis’s mother was freed from slavery when she was fourteen. She managed to go to school for a few years before giving birth to two sons: Louis was born on June 6, 1874. But at around the age of five Louis Gregory’s father died of tuberculosis. His mother struggled to support them, but Louis’s grandmother sustained their spirits, bringing dignity, courage, and a love of laughter to the family.

The Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction. In a political deal, Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, was elected President in return for removing Federal troops from the South. Without the troops to enforce them, the racial legal reforms ceased to function. Throughout the South “Jim Crow” laws at the state level entrenched segregation as a way of life.

The Progressive Era wasn’t very “progressive” for African Americans either. It had begun on a sour note. In 1896, the United States Supreme Court upheld the legal basis of racial segregation under the formula of “separate, but equal.” “Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences,” they wrote in Plessy v. Ferguson. “If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.”

In the North, educated black men pushed forward. After graduating from Howard University, Louis Gregory opened a law office in Washington, DC, in 1902. In 1906 he took a position with the Treasury Department. In 1911 he boarded the ship to visit ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Egypt. As Louis Gregory interacted with the other passengers on board, his biographer Gayle Morrison wrote, “he concluded that blacks had made a unique adaptation to America precisely because their ties with Africa had been so ruthlessly cut. . . .” His fellow travelers, who came from all parts of the world, read his nationality on sight, simply calling him “The American.”

By 1912 little had improved for African Americans on the political front. None of the political parties seemed willing to risk losing the Presidency by upholding the rights of Southern blacks. The Democrats remained the party of segregation. Not much progress had been made under the Republican administrations of Presidents McKinley, Roosevelt, or Taft. While the Socialists upheld black political rights in theory, currents of prejudice ran through the rhetoric of many leading Socialist figures. And then just yesterday, on August 1, 1912, African-American delegates from the South learned that they would not be admitted to the Progressive Party’s upcoming convention. In order to secure Southern votes the Progressives needed a Southern party that was “lily-white,” not one that threatened whites with racial integration.

Shortly after arriving in Alexandria, Louis Gregory met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. “If it be possible, gather together these two races, black and white, into one assembly,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá told him, “and put such love into their hearts that they shall not only unite but even intermarry.” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s solution to the American race problem seemed to be far more fundamental than the political deals that had been struck — and had failed — since Reconstruction.

In tomorrow’s feature, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes a surprising announcement to a group of African Americans in Dublin.

In previous features we have examined ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s discourse on race in America. You can find them here:

Day 12: Even Though the World Should Go to Smash
Day 13: This Shining Colored Man
Day 14: Breaking the Color Line
Day 20: The Fallout from a City in Flames
Day 26: The Ultimate Taboo
and Day 62: Along the Color Line.

ADD A NEW COMMENT

  • Loie Mead

    To the extent that we recognize Baha’u'llah and strive to follow His teaching, the Creator God promises that we will rise above those cultural or racial histories. The Eternal Covenant is operating, AND, with this Baha’i Revelation, we have been given the “Perfect Exemplar ” Who is ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Civilization was in such great need of ‘Abdu’l-Baha.  (His name means “Servant of Glory”.)

    • D4Y5in

      Thanks, Loie. Given the fact that not everyone who’s reading is a Baha’i and won’t necessarily be familiar (or comfortable) with some of the Baha’i terminology you’re using, how would you lay out these thoughts for a secular audience?

    • 239Days

      Thanks, Loie. Given the fact that not everyone who’s reading is a Baha’i and won’t necessarily be familiar (or comfortable) with some of the Baha’i terminology you’re using, how would you lay out these thoughts for a wider audience?

      • Loie Mead

        I believe I should excuse myself from this discussion; I understand the point you are making and I appreciate your comment. Thank you.

      • tah9

        Dear mod, I know you mean well, but I hope your sometimes critical responses don’t accidentally silence sincere souls who are earnestly sharing their own points of view, each of which is supremely legitimate, no matter what their belief.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/William-Maxwell/1140616716 William Maxwell

    That period of history (reconstruction and jim crow) is more sordid than your article intimates.  President Wilson approved strict racial segregation of all public facilities in the nation’s capital.  Negroes could not sit in a “white” restaurant in the city, etc.  Mr. Gregory when traveling for the Baha’i Faith in the “Christian South” often had to sleep on park benches as no hotel would accommodate him and Negroes were so poor in all the cities of the south as not to be able to support a simple “bed and breakfast” type hotel.  In some periods lynching was a weekly entertainment for the White population.  Entire towns were “ethnically cleansed” of Negroes, including Tulsa and many smaller settlements where the entire Negro population was destroyed or forced to flee.  All of my grandfather’s brothers and sisters fled Center Point Arkansas in 1902 because the Whites went on a rampage, killing all the Negroes they could find.  My grandfather stayed because he was “obviously” White.  That period of history and those sordid events are still not covered in textbooks of American history. Shameful and disgraceful is this nation’s history and still the U.S. Congress refuses to apologize along with most of the Christian sects. 

    What would have happened to world were it not for Jesus?  Obviously the world would have sunk back into barbarism.  Similarly, the Baha’i Faith saved the world from a fate worse than what Hitler proposed.  ‘Abdu’l-Baha is the symbol of that salvation and yet He is still rejected by those who claim to love Jesus.  Alas.

    William

    • 239Days

      Excellent points. Thank you for making them. Obviously no description of the difficult, tragic history of racial prejudice in the USA (or elsewhere) is complete without an attempt to set the context of how much suffering took place… and what the effect is on modern day culture. I would only add that many Christians are honest, sincere people and there are potentially a wide range of reasons why they are not followers of the Baha’i Faith. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Pascal-Molineaux/1203381202 Pascal Molineaux

    Bahá’í Writings recognize that our essential identity is spiritual, and that, even as we are incredibly diverse in our material, cultural and social dimensions, our inner spiritual reality makes us one.This spiritual self transcends any outer differences. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was a clear exponent and example of such an acceptance of our differences, seeing in everyone He came across as essentially one, belonging to one race, with one Creator, living on one earth and sharing one history.

  • http://twitter.com/TheStruggleWthn Malik Nash

    Dionne Farris has a wonderful song titled “I Am Human”. For me, the refrains sums up the universality and particularity of human experience:

    “Before I am black
    Before I am young
    Before I am short
    Before I am woman
    I am human.

    Because I am black
    Because I am young
    Because I am short
    Because I am woman
    I am human”

  • Rooplall Dudhnath

    The Jim Crow laws were state and local laws in the United States
    enacted between 1876 and 1965. They mandated de jure racial segregation in all
    public facilities in Southern states of the former Confederacy, with, starting in 1890,
    a “separate but equal” status for African
    Americans. The separation in practice led to conditions that tended to be
    inferior to those provided for white
    Americans, systematizing a number of economic, educational and social
    disadvantages. De jure segregation mainly applied to the Southern United
    States. Northern segregation was generally de facto,
    with patterns of segregation in housing enforced by covenants, bank lending
    practices, and job discrimination, including discriminatory union practices for
    decades.

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