Monday, February 20, 2006

Profiles of Some African American Baha'is

I just discovered these lovely tributes to a few African American Baha'is in honor of Black History Month that was featured in the U.S. Baha'i News. Enjoy!

Selected profiles of African-American Baha'is

In observance of Black History Month, we pay tribute to some notable African-American Baha’is who have made significant contributions to American society.

Louis G. Gregory (1874-1951)
Louis Gregory became a Baha’i in his mid-30s, drawn by the Faith’s core belief in oneness and unity. For more than 35 years he taught the principles of “race amity” throughout the United States, giving up a successful law practice and real estate business to do so. Mr. Gregory was well-received whenever he spoke at colleges, churches, civic groups and clubs throughout the country.
He was often accompanied by his wife, Louisa Mathew, a white Englishwoman. Some looked askance at their interracial union and prohibited them from traveling and speaking together. One time, the Ku Klux Klan broke up an interracial Baha’i meeting in Atlanta. Other Baha’is to whom Gregory spoke were evicted by landlords. In 2003 the Louis G. Gregory Baha’i Museum was dedicated in Charleston, S.C., to honor one of the most distinguished figures in the Baha’i Faith and a pre-eminent champion of the Faith’s central principle of unity.
After Mr. Gregory died in 1951, Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha'i Faith, posthumously conferred upon him the title of “Hand of the Cause,” a spiritual distinction with which only 47 people have been honored in the history of the Baha'i Faith.

Alain Locke (1886-1954)
Alain LeRoy Locke received a PhD in philosophy from Harvard in 1918, was the first black Rhodes Scholar and played a major role, along with contemporaries W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, in the flowering of the Harlem Renaissance, which started in the 1920s and produced the likes of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Louis Armstrong. In publishing The New Negro, an anthology of writings by African American authors, he gained national prominence as a spokesman for African-Americans. As a humanist and philosopher, Mr. Locke promoted what he called “cultural pluralism,” which contends that cultural groups can maintain their own identity and still be part of a broader culture. Some of his writings, including three essays published for the first time in their entirety, can be found in the 2005 Vol 36. #3 edition of World Order magazine. After becoming a Baha’i in his early 30s, Mr. Locke focused on the Baha’i principle of oneness and wrote: “The intellectual core of the problems of the peace … will be the discovery of the necessary common denominators . . .involved in a democratic world order or democracy on a world scale.”

Dr. H. Elsie Austin (1908-2004)
Elsie Austin’s life dedication to righting wrongs began at an early age when she pointed out to her 98-percent-white classroom in Cincinnati that the textbook they were reading disparaged the contribution of Africans in world history. Austin was a pioneer in the civil rights movement, and in 1930 was the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Cincinnati College of Law and the first African-American woman to serve as Assistant Attorney-General of the State of Ohio.
Ms. Austin had a successful legal career with several U.S. government agencies, including the U.S. Information Agency, where she spent 10 years in Africa working with cultural and educational programs. In 1974, she co-founded the African and American Women’s Association. A Baha’i for 70 years, Ms. Austin served on Baha’i Local Spiritual Assemblies in the Bahamas, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria and the United States.

Fayard Nicholas (1914-2006)
Self-taught, dapper and imaginative, Fayard Nicholas was one-half of the Nicholas Brothers, a dynamic tap-dancing duo that wowed and amazed audiences for many years with their trademark daring athletic prowess: airborne splits and doing leap-frogging splits down a sweeping staircase.
Mr. Nicholas and his younger brother, Harold, started out in show business by touring with their parents’ vaudeville orchestra.
Mr. Nicholas developed the duo’s trademark balletic and acrobatic style, which they showcased in 65 movies, and which inspired such greats as Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Michael Jackson, to whom they taught tap. Like many black performers, the Nicholas Brothers persevered despite facing racial obstacles in Hollywood and on the club scene.

Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993)
John Birks Gillespie, jazz trumpeter extraordinaire, was among the top kings of bebop, a style of jazz popular in the 1940s characterized by fast tempos and improvisations. Gillespie was known for his puffed-cheek style of blowing—the consequence of being self-taught—and his onstage antics, which ranged from deadpan to wacky.
He also was known for being a generous mentor to many musicians. After becoming a Baha’i in 1968, Gilllespie became an international ambassador and spokesman for the Faith. In his memoirs, he wrote that “Becoming a Baha’i changed my life in every way and gave me a new concept of the relationship between God and man—between man and his fellow man—man and his family.”
In Dizzy: To be or not to bop : the autobiography of Dizzy Gillespie with Al Fraser, Gillespie mused that his “role in music is just a stepping stone to a higher role.”

William H. Smith (1946- )
Recently featured in the November 2005 Sports Illustrated cover story, “Groundbreakers,” about high-school star athletes who broke the color barrier in southern college football, William H. Smith has spent his life promoting social justice and race unity. He has been a civil rights advocate, businessman, educator, film and video producer and, since 1994, the (first) executive director of the Center for Diversity in the Communications Industries at Emerson College in Boston.
After serving as a medic in Vietnam, where he was awarded two Bronze Stars and the Combat Medic Badge, Mr. Smith earned his doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts. In 2000 he played a major role in the historic Joint Congressional Resolution establishing a National Day of Honor to recognize the service of African American and other minority soldiers in World War II.
In conjunction with that event, Mr. Smith produced an award-winning documentary, “The Invisible Soldiers: Unheard Voices,” which aired on PBS. Among his many accolades, he received the keys to the city of his birthplace, Greenville, S.C., as part of Dr. William “Smitty” Smith Day.