Review of: No Jim Crow Church: The Origins of South Carolina’s Bahá’í Community
Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida (2015)
Richard W. Thomas
Review published in: Journal of Bahá'í Studies
According to the author, No Jim Crow Church “is the first attempt by a professional historian to reconstruct and analyze the formative period of the Bahá’í Faith in South Carolina, a state where it eventually gained among its most important followings in the Western world, and the only one in the United States where it is today, by at least one reliable count, the largest religious minority” (3). Louis Venters is correct in his assertion, and for those of us who have awaited such a study, this book, which aims to tell “the story of the origins and early development of the first genuinely interracial religious community in a state known more for white male supremacy and Protestant orthodoxy than for egalitarianism or religious innovation,” is a welcome contribution to Bahá’í scholarship (3). Venters’s narrative illuminates the southern community’s attempts to contribute to the “cultural, intellectual, and organizational history of an emerging young religion” and to influence developments at “the regional, national and international levels and vice versa” (3). His extensive research compellingly “situate[s] the Bahá’í Faith as an integral part of the history of South Carolina and the United States in the twentieth century, particularly in the critical areas of religion, race, and social transformation” (3).
He begins by discussing Louis Gregory, the son of former slaves and one of the most remarkable and well-known African American Bahá’ís to live during the first half of the twentieth century. There is nothing new here, but for readers who are not familiar with Gregory, the biographical overview is essential, particularly when set within the historical context of the post-Reconstruction period in South Carolina. Venters includes well-known information about the role played by Joseph and Pauline Hannen (two white southerners) in Gregory’s spiritual development, the racial integration of the Washington DC Bahá’í community, and the ridicule Gregory’s black associates heaped on him for joining the Bahá’í Faith. He further explains how Gregory’s teaching trips to the South brought him in contact with “a white supremacist regime at the height of its power and tenacity” (59). As Venters reveals, compared to the challenges of creating and sustaining an interracial community in the “relatively cosmopolitan, reasonably safe atmosphere of turn-of-the-century Washington, Bahá’í teachers in wartime South Carolina faced a Jim Crow regime that was powerful, pervasive and violent” (60).
These forces of racial oppression were multiplying at the same time that the American Bahá’ís received the Tablets of The Divine Plan, which encouraged teaching the Faith throughout the country, with special attention to the South. Venters situates the Tablets of The Divine Plan within the framework of World War I and the era of progressive racial politics. This approach helps the reader to understand the historical significance of these Tablets, which “represented a further intervention by the head of the Faith to accelerate the process of growth, calling the believers in North America to spare no effort in spreading their religion to all parts of the continent” (58).
Venters describes in great detail the complex social, economic, and political forces that were leagued against the South Carolina black population, as well as the persistent efforts of black leaders and progressive whites to overcome them, sometimes to no avail. In addition, he shows how the racial situation in the United States prompted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to recommend that the Bahá’ís organize “Race Amity” conventions, the first of which was held in May 1921 in Washington DC. According to Venters, this meeting “helped the Bahá’ís forge links with the southern interracial movement” (81).
Venters credits Gregory with being the first person to introduce the Faith to South Carolina, but he also details the efforts of Margaret Klebs, who founded South Carolina’s first Bahá’í community in Augusta and North Augusta between 1911 and 1937. Previously, little was known about Klebs, but thanks to Venters’s pioneering work, we now have valuable information about her contribution to interracial community building in South Carolina. As Venters gives it: “Far from distant outliers, Margaret Klebs and the Augusta-area Bahá’í community she built and nurtured became active participants in this critical transitional period, both shaping and being shaped by developments at the national and regional levels” (91). As a result, by the mid-1930s, the Augusta-area Bahá’í community “was larger and better organized than most in the South and reflected many of the changes in the national movement” (92).
Venters indicates that Klebs used her contacts as a music teacher to teach the Faith to middle- and upper-class whites, who became the first Bahá’ís in the area. She did not neglect the black population, however. In 1914, she invited Joseph Hannen, Gregory’s Bahá’í teacher and a leading advocate for racial integration in the Washington DC Bahá’í community, to visit Augusta on a speaking tour. In addition to lecturing to white audiences, he spoke at the Schofield Normal and Industrial School in Aiken, “one of the oldest and most respected schools for African Americans in South Carolina” (102). Hannen sent ‘Abdu’l-Bahá a report of the teaching trip, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s response contained a prophetic message for Augusta: “Ere long in that city a great multitude shall enter in the Kingdom of God, the Flag of the oneness of the world of humanity will cast its shade over that state and the Songs of the Supreme Concourse will be raised from its glens and dales” (qtd. in Venters 103).
In 1931, the Race Amity Committee of the National Spiritual Assembly “began sending interracial teams on teaching tours to southern colleges and schools” (119). Of the result Venters writes, “The best that can be assumed is that by 1937 the Augusta Bahá’í community was only ‘partially integrated.’ . . . white Bahá’ís had made attempts to teach the Faith to African Americans, but apparently inconsistently with little tangible result” (126). Black and white Bahá’ís simply were overwhelmed by the racial customs that restricted interracial contact. With no reformist champions like Gregory and the Hannens pushing for racial integration and teaching African Americans, Venters determines, “the Augusta community could not be characterized as truly interracial; rather, it was essentially a white organization with a few black members” (127). However, as he shows, this shortcoming did not prevent the Augusta-area Bahá’í community from serving as “the initial base for expansion into other areas” (129).
During what Venters terms “a seven-year campaign of expansion and consolidation,” Bahá’ís began moving into Charleston, Columbia, and Greenville, the three largest cities in South Carolina, “laying the foundations for new local communities that were more thoroughly and, particularly in the case of Columbia, more fearlessly integrated than the one in Augusta had initially been. . .. The campaign’s expansion in South Carolina and other southern states “raised important questions for a religious community that professed to be interracial” (129).
Gregory and other Bahá’í teachers developed relationships with progressive black and white individuals and organizations throughout the South. These efforts were important, but more was required as the Bahá’í community entered a new stage of development that necessitated building new interracial communities throughout the South—often, in many regions simultaneously.
In December 1938, two years after the commencement of the Seven Year Plan, Shoghi Effendi wrote a major letter, “The Advent of Divine Justice,” in which he “call[s] attention to the movement’s need to purge itself of every trace of racial prejudice” (146). According to Venters, this letter “gave a renewed impetus to interracial community-building in the South and had an immediate impact on the development of local Bahá’í communities in South Carolina and other southern states” (146).
“The success of the Seven Year Plan in the South depended on the commitment of white Bahá’ís in particular to fully support a vigorous program of teaching both blacks and whites and to nurture an interracial community life” (166). As Venters points out, “Shoghi Effendi insisted that social and political equality of the races within the Bahá’í community was a prerequisite for the movement’s growth and development” (166). He quotes a letter Shoghi Effendi wrote in 1942: “Regarding the whole manner of teaching the faith in the South: the Guardian feels that, although the greatest consideration should be shown to the feelings of white people in the South whom we are teaching, under no circumstances should we discriminate in their favor, consider them more valuable to the Cause than their Negro fellow-southerners, or single them out to be taught the Message first” (qtd. in Venters 166). Shoghi Effendi further remarks that black and white seekers “should be offered simultaneously, on a basis of equality, the message of Bahá‘u’lláh” (qtd. in Venters 166). In addition, he offered the following guidance to Bahá’ís for handling difficult situations without compromising their principles: “where no other course is opened, the two races should be taught separately until they are fully conscious of the implications of being a Bahá’í, and then be confirmed and admitted to voting membership. Once, however, this has happened, they cannot shun each other’s company, and feel the Cause to be like other faiths in the South, with separate white and black compartments” (qtd. in Venters 166).
Venters contends that while progress in interracial community building was slow, there was movement in the right direction. He references for support the Regional Teaching Committee’s 1942 “Teaching Conference” in Greenville, South Carolina—the first interracial public meeting on the Bahá’í Faith in South Carolina (158). He also highlights how at the 1944 All-America Convention in Chicago, which marked the centenary of the birth of the Bahá’í Faith and the “successful completion of the plan,” another historical milestone was reached: “In view of the long-term development of the Bahá’í Faith around the world, the presence at the centenary convention of black and white believers from the Deep South was almost as significant as that of the representatives from Latin America” (169).
The postwar years witnessed the growth of the civil rights movement and the weakening of the Jim Crow system, but as Venters explains, “the small group of Bahá’ís around the state still had to be discreet about how they brought blacks and whites together for teaching, worship, and other community functions, in public and in private” (188). He provides the following example: During the early years of the second Seven Year Plan (1946-1953), while black and white Bahá’ís were attending a Nineteen Day Feast at the home of a white Bahá’í in Columbia, South Carolina, the neighbors called the police, “who came to the house and ordered the black Bahá’ís to leave” (188). As a result, the Bahá’ís in Columbia “met only in the homes of blacks, where neighbors and police were less concerned about the presence of a few whites, or in rented halls” (188). In Greenville, however, the Ku Klux Klan attacked the home of a white Bahá’í after black Bahá’ís visited (188). Although encountering periodic violence, in the end, the Bahá’ís efforts at interracial community building would prevail.
During the last year of the plan, Roy Williams, a black Bahá’í living in Greenville, “appeared before the Greenville city council to ask for a formal acknowledgement of the local community’s interracial character and protection for its activities” (189). The council “decided that interracial religious gatherings were not contrary to city ordinances and that ‘as a religious organization,’ the Bahá’í community ‘could not be interfered with in the process of its meetings because of the guarantee of freedom of worship’” (189). Unfortunately, as Venters details, this decision did not end the harassment of the Greenville community, “but it likely formed the basis for their efforts less than a decade later to secure formal legal recognition of the religion by state official” (189).
Venters’s narrative then moves to detailing how the Ten Year Plan (1953-1963) provided the spiritual context and vision for further interracial community building in South Carolina. He suggests that “[u]nlike the last two plans, which had occurred amidst a general expansion of civil rights activism in South Carolina, the new one would have to be carried out in the midst of a conservative backlash against interracialism” (207). Throughout the Ten Year Plan, Shoghi Effendi “continued his effort to explain contemporary trends and the immediate tasks of the American Bahá’í community in the context of Bahá‘u’lláh’s vision for the future of humanity. In particular, he linked the black freedom struggle in the United States and the work of the plan with a global shift in the balance of power between subject peoples and their oppressors” (207). Venters further notes that “From the outset of the plan, [Shoghi Effendi] reminded the American community of the continuing critical importance of broadening and strengthening their interracial fellowship” (207).
Unfortunately, there was a “lukewarm response” to both the home-front goals and the early policy of teaching black and white seekers separately. Furthermore, white racist resistance to the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the “complacency of white Bahá’ís” resulted in few blacks and whites becoming Bahá’ís (213). Venters shows how Shoghi Effendi responded to this by instituting a policy change: “For years, in the hope of attracting the white people, in order to ‘go easy’ with them and not offend their sensibilities, a compromise has been made in the teaching work throughout the South. The results have been practically nil. The white people have not responded . . . And the colored people have been hurt and also have not responded” (qtd. in Venters 213). Shoghi Effendi felt that it was now time “that the Bahá’ís stopped worrying entirely about the white element in a community . . . and concentrate on showing the Negro element that this is a Faith which produces complete social equality and which loves and wants minorities” (213).
As the civil rights movement continued its struggle against Jim Crow, Shoghi Effendi told the Bahá’ís—particularly those in the South—“to be courageous in their racial stand . . . as so many non-Bahá’ís and non-Bahá’í organizations are showing marked courage at this time, when the decisions of the Supreme Court are being so hotly contested in the South” (qtd. in Venters 214). The South Carolina Bahá’í community took up the challenge. According to Venters, “[d]during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Bahá’ís hosted interracial picnics, study groups, and Holy Day services . . . [and] organized programs for Human Rights Day” (234). Such efforts, Venters notes, brought the following result:
After the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the remaining state anti-miscegenation laws in 1967, decades’ worth of work to dismantle the color line reached a logical conclusion when the community’s first interracial couple—a local Gullah man and a white woman home-front pioneer from Michigan, both widowed—settled on St. Helena Island and began to raise their blended family. It was the first of scores of interracial marriages in the South Carolina Bahá’í community. (233)
Having overcome formidable challenges during the height of the Jim Crow era, the South Carolina Bahá’í community, along with other southern Bahá’í communities, had become by the late 1960s a shining example of interracial community building within the national Bahá’í community. Venters expresses it best when he writes: “Before the civil rights movement reached its apogee in the mid-1960s, black and white Bahá’ís in South Carolina and other southern states had managed to establish and nurture a new religious culture in which the unity and equality of the diverse members of the human race were not only cherished goals but the normative practice of the community” (242). Furthermore, he claims that “[w]ell before decisive federal action removed the legal basis for the Jim Crow order, the Bahá’ís of South Carolina, a microcosm of their state’s population, had essentially dismantled the color line within their own ranks, contributing decisively to the development of a new model of community, identity, and polity that was at once local and global” (242).
No Jim Crow Church will surely earn a place as a notable classic in several related fields of history, including those of southern race relations, Bahá’í history, and religious studies. Working at the intersections of various historical fields while also developing a credible case study of the South Carolina Bahá’í community in the age of Jim Crow is a formidable task, one that Venters has accomplished with admirable scholarship.
As much as I appreciated the scholarship of the book and the difficulties in researching these related fields of history, I would have loved to have seen some treatment of the 1964 summer Bahá’í youth project initiated by the Bahá’í community of Greenville, South Carolina. The initiative, in which I also took part, saw an interracial group of local and visiting young adults from the northern and southern States joining forces with members of one of the local African American Baptist churches to tutor the first wave of African American children to integrate in the local public schools in the fall of that year. Hopefully, either Venters or some other scholar will capture the history of this project while some of the participants are still around to share the details of that vital and wonderful chapter in the history of interracial community building in Greenville.
Richard W. Thomas is Professor Emeritus of History at Michigan State University. He is the author and co-author of several books, including Detroit: Race and Uneven Development, Racial Unity: An Imperative for Social Progress, Understanding Interracial Unity: A Study of U.S. Race Relations, and Lights of the Spirit: Historical Portraits of Black Bahá’ís in North America, 1898-2000. His latest co-authored book is Detroit: Race Riots, Racial Conflicts, and Efforts to Bridge the Racial Divide.