The First Bahá'í in Atlanta
Atlanta, Georgia, at the turn of the century was a city divided by race and class, deeply entrenched in the Jim Crow racial caste system. In 1895 it was the site of the Cotton States and the International Exposition, where Booker T. Washington, founder and president of Tuskegee Institute, gave a speech that became known as the "Atlanta Compromise" and that has drawn much criticism from African Americans. In the speech Washington gave de facto endorsement to segregation, saying, "In all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress."
Although a separate-but-equal "racial peace" prevailed on the surface, events of the early 1900s revealed the depth of racial disunity. In 1906 Atlanta experienced a race riot and in 1915 was the site of the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan initially flourished in the post-Reconstruction era as a reaction to the limited political and economic gains made by freed slaves. However, by the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the Klan had virtually died out because of the Federal government's hesitant steps to crack down on expanding white-supremacist violence in the South and the recovery of the Democratic party, which began to impose legal segregation and to disenfranchise African Americans with Jim Crow laws, thus fulfilling many of the Klan's goals. But the Klan was resurrected in suburban Atlanta when "Colonel" William Joseph Simmons, a former minister and fund-raiser for fraternal organizations, led a group clad in white robes up Stone Mountain to gather by a flag-draped altar and burn a cross.
Such was the social milieu of the activities of the first known Bahá'í in Atlanta — Dr. James Charles Oakshette, who arrived in 1909 and stayed for twenty-eight years, dying on 15 November 1937. Dr. Oakshette was born on Christmas Day in 1858 in London, England Oakshette was born on Christmas Day in 1858 in London, England. He was educated at Oxford, earning a doctorate in philosophy and theology. In addition to his native English, he knew Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Gaelic, and German. Apparently his first vocation was that of a congregational minister, and he held churches in London, Canada, and in Chicago. Later he studied medicine, graduating from the University of Illinois Medical School in 1896. For several years he was a professor of physiotherapy on the medical staff of the university. He also lectured in theosophy and was a master of the Rosicrucian order. These interests are consistent with the observation by Bahá'í historian Robert H. Stockman that many of the early American Bahá'ís were interested and involved in various spiritual and philosophical movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Although there is no record of when Dr. Oakshette became a Bahá'í, he learned about the Faith from Lua Getsinger, one of the most prominent of the early American Bahá'ís, while doing research in Chicago. Mrs. Carl Scheffler, another early American believer, has written that Dr. Oakshette was known in Chicago as a Bahá'í and that her husband knew him. Charles Mason Remey, a Bahá'í in Washington, D.C., who traveled extensively throughout the United States teaching the Faith, corresponded regularly with Dr. Oakshette and kept all of Dr. Oakshette's letters.
It is unclear what profession Dr. Oakshette pursued while in Atlanta; one would presume that it was medicine. However, he taught the Faith actively and is listed in early editions of The Bahá'í World as the contact person for Atlanta Bahá'ís. Raymond Lindsey, an early Atlanta convert, said that Dr. Oakshette held weekly classes in his room at the Hotel Nassau on J.E. Esslemont's introduction to the Bahá'í Faith called Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era and that he kept the local public library stocked with Bahá'í books, having to replace them often when they disappeared.9
Records indicate that during the last ten years of his life, Dr. Oakshette established the Liberal Catholic Church of St. Michael the Archangel to further the Bahá'í teaching work in Atlanta. The Liberal Catholic Church (LCC) grew out of the Old Catholic Church of Holland and was the result of a reorganization in 1916 of the Old Catholic Church of Great Britain. Its "Statement of Principles," written in 1927, shows that many aspects of its creed resemble Bahá'í principles, such as the essential unity or oneness of all religions. For example, it says in part that the LCC, although independent from Roman Catholicism or Protestantism, believes that there is a body of doctrine and mystical experience common to all the great religions of the world and which cannot be claimed as the exclusive possession of any. . . . it holds that the other great religions of the world are divinely inspired and that all proceed from a common source, though different religions stress different aspects of this teaching and some aspects may even temporarily drop out of recognition and that it has no wish to proselytize from among the adherents of any other Church, and as an earnest of this, welcomes all to regular and full participation in its Services without asking or expecting them to leave their original Church. . . . Its congregations are mainly composed of men and women who had ceased to attend Church.
Cleo Lindsey, her son Raymond, and Raymond's wife Estelle Lindsey, all three of whom would eventually become Bahá'ís, attended the Liberal Catholic Church. They report that Dr. Oakshette taught the Bahá'í Faith in his sermons and used Bahá'í prayers throughout church services (Raymond Lindsey later said that, when he became a Bahá'í, he recognized many of the prayers as ones that Dr. Oakshette had used in the LCC).
Raymond Lindsey was so attracted to Dr. Oakshette's teachings that he approached him and said that he too wanted to be a liberal Catholic priest. Dr. Oakshette told him "it was not the right hing to do; there was something better in store for him." Dr. Oakshette gave him a copy of Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era to read.
It must be remembered that in 1927, when Dr. Oakshette organized his church, many Bahá'ís had not yet withdrawn their membership from other religious organizations. However, the requirement of withdrawing from such organizations, once announced to the Bahá'í community, caused Dr. Oakshette much concern. He asked Mrs. Ethel N. Furbush, a Bahá'í from Michigan who lived in Atlanta for less than a year during 1936 and 1937, to "consult the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada on his behalf when they met in Nashville in January 1937 in regard to retaining his membership there, as he so well loved and respected that he was able to give the Bahá'& iacute; Cause to his parishioners. . . ." Mrs. Furbush reported that the National Assembly allowed him to retain his association with the church. Thus Dr. Oakshette used the pulpit of the Liberal Catholic Church to teach the Bahá'í Faith until his death on 15 November 1937.
Dr. Oakshette was actively engaged in early race unity work in Atlanta. Roy Williams, and African-American member of the National Bahá'í Teaching staff, who made trips to Atlanta in the late teens and early 1920s, wrote that
During my first teaching trip I met Dr. Oakshette by arrangement with him in his office in the Hurt Building. This had to be done very secretly but he never showed any fear and we spent many happy hours discussing ways and means and contacts he knew among colored people. I have never met a more charming and lovable character — doing all that he possibly could almost alone under the harsh conditions then existing in Atlanta . . .he told me of his many persistent contacts with persons in all walks of life in Atlanta — whether black or white — Jew or Christian — Protestant or Catholic. No doubt these seeds have or will bear fruit as he was without doubt a true and selfless Bahá'í . . .Of all the Southern and Northern Bahá'ís I have met all over the country I can truthfully say that . . . Dr. Oakshette personified the best of ideals of the Cause under all conditions — even the worst that existed in Atlanta around 1919-1920-1921.
Louis Gregory, an outstanding Bahá'í teacher and a frequent traveling companion of Roy Williams, also had kind words to say about Dr. Oakshette: "He had a marvelous comprehension of the Teachings and of the stations of the Great and Holy On es and I feel assured that his reward is great." Gregory also recorded the fact that it was through Dr. Oakshette's efforts that the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce invited 'Abdu'l-Bahá, the son and appointed successor of Bahá'u'lláh, the Founder of the Bahá'í Faith, to visit Atlanta during His 1912 trip to America. A history of the Atlanta Bahá'í community written by the early Bahá'í Olga Finke, a stalwart believer from New York whose residence in Atlanta spanned five decades, quotes Louis Gregory as writing:
The year he settled in Atlanta is unknown to me, but I am reasonably sure that he was resident there in 1912, since that year, the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce invited 'Abdu'l-Bahá to come to Atlanta. This was probably due to the influence and suggestion of Dr. Oakshette. My informant was the late Joseph H. Hannen of Washington, D.C., very early Bahá'í, who often taught in the South on his business trips.
Although 'Abdu'l-Bahá's trip did not take him into the Deep South, the fact that the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce incited 'Abdu'l-Bahá attests to the influence that Dr. Oakshette had in carious circles in Atlanta's civic life.
Other Atlanta Bahá'ís
The paths of other Bahá'ís intersected in Atlanta during the early years when Dr. Oakshette was its sometimes lone, but always steadfast, Bahá'í. Fred Mortenson came to Atlanta from Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the fall of 1914 and left in the spring of 1916. While working in the mailing department of the Atlanta Constitution, he taught the Faith to several persons, including James Mann, who later moved to Peoria, Illinois, and James Elmore Hays, the first native white Georgian to accept the Bahá'í Faith. Louis Gregory told Olga Finke that Mortenson and Hays were actively engaged in teaching both African Americans and whites before Gregory's first visit to Atlanta in 1915. Gregory said of his week-long visit to Atlanta in the fall of that year:
Mr. Hays and I cooperated. We went everywhere together, eating at the colored Y.M.C.A. He said he was badly scared when he received news of my coming but afterward revived his courage. Addresses were made at Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Morris Brown University, Spellman [sic] Seminary, Gammon Theological Seminary, Clark College, the First Congregational Church, Dr. H. H. Proctor then pastor. Mr. Hays accompanied me to all these places, that his time and strength would allow, abandoning his sleep and rest period (daytime) for this purpose.
Roy Williams added:
I refer to a young white Georgian by the name of Elmore Hayes [sic] — This Bahá'í was like a shining sun — strong of physique and equally strong of spirit. He was entirely devoid of any racial prejudice. He was my and Louis Gregory's closest companion whenever we were in the city. . . . The amusing albeit very dangerous methods he employed to spend an hour or two with me will always live in my memory. Under cover of darkness walking across the city sometimes very late at night, he would come to our house at 2 Beckwith Street, and sit, eat and talk for hours — just a happy intimate fellowship. He and Dr. Oakshette were very closely allied in Bahá'í work.
Hays eventually moved to New York City where he married; little is known about him after he left Atlanta.
The development of the early Atlanta community was greatly facilitated by traveling teachers and speakers who came through the city, Louis Gregory and Roy Williams being the most notable of such visitors. Together they visited Atlanta six times between 1915 and the late 1930s. Dr. Oakshette and transient Bahá'ís such as Mortenson and Hays appear to have made initial contacts that were nurtured by Gregory's and Williams' visits. All this activity helped demonstrate for the African-American community in Atlanta the Bahá'í commitment to racial unity and constructive social change.
Over the years friendly relations developed between the Bahá'ís and various African-American institutions in Atlanta, primarily among churches and colleges. In 1920 Williams spoke in Atlanta to a meeting of more than one hundred ministers, after which Bishop Flipper of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church commanded them to open their pulpits to allow Bahá'ís to speak to their parishioners. Not everyone was as accommodating, however. Williams wrote that
The only incident I have ever heard of a Bahá'í being chased from a platform occurred to me in Atlanta. At Clark University — the President (then white) when he heard me refer to Bahá'u'lláh and Jesus in what he termed equal positions — stopped me in the middle of my address to the students and faculty. He very bitterly denounced me and the Cause and demanded I get off campus at once. Well the result was startling — the entire faculty got together and protested and obtained the use of the Colored Congregational Church (Rev. Russell) for the same night and jammed the church to the doors to fully hear the message.
Gregory reported that another AME minister in Atlanta, Dr. Ponton, had acknowledged to him his belief in Bahá'u'lláh but could not formally accept the Faith due to his livelihood in the AME church. Of the First Congregational Church, still a prominent African-American congregation in downtown Atlanta, Gregory said: "The First Congregational Church of Atlanta has always opened its doors to Bahá'í talks. Its present pastor, Rev. John C. Wright, is at heart a Bahá'í. He has always kept me busy when there with men'[s] and women's clubs, and other meetings and organizations of his church, as well as the Sunday School and service." It was also in Atlanta that Gregory and Willard McKay, a white college professor and a Bahá'í, in December 1931 formed one of two interracial teaching teams at the request of Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, speaking at the First Congregational Church again and the chapel of Morris Brown University before going on to Alabama, Tennessee, and Ohio.
Other traveling teachers also came through Atlanta in the years before a Spiritual Assembly was formed, continuing to strengthen ties between the Bahá'í Faith and Atlanta institutions. Among them were Charles Mason Remey, Ruth Moffett, Jeanne Bolles, Gertrude Gewertz, Mildred Mottahadeh, and Harlan Ober. Throughout this time, Dr. Oakshette was a quiet, behind-the-scenes worker, arranging meetings and providing contacts.
New Bahá'ís in Atlanta
The history of the Bahá'í community of Atlanta began in 1937, when two women, Olga Finke and Doris Ebbert, moved there on 5 October. Archival records and reminiscences by local Bahá'ís who knew them suggested that Finke and Ebbert were tenacious, determined, sometimes stubborn, and always committed. Finke as from New York City. Before settling in Atlanta, she had spent almost three years at a school for African-American children in Piney Woods, Mississippi. (She had also taught at an African-American nursery school in New York City.) She reported in a letter to Edward Struven, the caretaker of the Bahá'í House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois, that it was through Louis Gregory's contacts that she obtain ed the job in Mississippi, where she was able to put to use her training as a Montessori nursery school teacher. The school was run by the Missouri synod of the Lutheran church, whom Finke described as "fundamentalists." She say in the same letter that " The first day that I arrived in Piney Woods I was told by Mr. Jones [the director] that I must not talk on the Bahá'í Cause to any one. I wanted to leave at once but Mr. Gregory urged me to stay, saying that I can at least live the life." It appears that her determination to teach the Bahá'í Faith won out, because she reported to Struven that, after being there for two years, she was able for a short time to have small meetings to discuss the Bahá'í Faith before one of the Lutheran ministers stopped the meetings by forbidding the teachers to attend. Eventually, the school headmaster let Finke go, because she was, as Finke put it, "too far ahead of my time." It was while at Piney Woods that she met Doris Ebbert, a fellow teacher from Ipava, Illinois, who became very interested in the Cause.
Finke's search for another post after leaving Mississippi says a great deal about race relations in the United States at that time and about the Bahá'í community's strategy for teaching the Faith to whites and African Americans. Finke to ld the National Bahá'í Teaching Committee in Wilmette, Illinois, the headquarters of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States and Canada (the national governing body of the two countries) that she was interested in continuing to live in the South to teach the Faith. In a 4 August 1937 letter from Charlotte Linfoot, secretary of the National Bahá'í Teaching Committee, Finke was advised that
Recent communications from the Guardian [Shoghi Effendi] seem to imply that it would be wise for individuals to concentrate on teaching members of their own race rather than to follow the plan which many of the believers have followed in trying to bring the races together in study classes, etc. In other words, we feel that he wishes the white people to teach the white people and the colored to teach their own race, and then when they have become believers, they will come together naturally, through the power of the Teachings. Unity is the result of the Faith, rather than the reverse, and it can be experienced in its fullness only among confirmed believers.
Finke reported that this advice was echoed by Gregory in his correspondence with her, saying that "Mr. Gregory thinks that I ought to try to get into a white school rather than colored at this time as they are better able to pay for such services as my nursery school can render."
Keeping the National Teaching Committee's advice in mind, Finke asked the Committee to help her in choosing a place in the South where she could set up a Montessori nursery school and begin teaching the Bahá'í faith. The National Teaching Committee named no specific place but asked her to survey locations that would most likely support a school financially, saying that she should become self-supporting within two or three months. It is unclear whether Finke made such a survey, but she indicated that the decision to move to Atlanta was on the advice and encouragement of Ethel Furbush, who was about to leave the city. Thus Finke moved to Atlanta and invited Doris Ebbert from Piney Woods to accompany her in setting up her school (Ebbert was not yet a Bahá'í) At the continued prompting of Gregory, Finke decided to solicit only white students.
Thus, a month and a half before Dr. Oakshette — the one constant in the first thirty years of Bahá'í teaching work in Atlanta — died, the two women who were to replace him moved to the city. Two days after arriving in Atlanta, Finke and Ebbert visited the gravely ill Dr. Oakshette. Finke reported that
The picture of 'Abdu'l-Bahá was hanging on the wall at his bedside. He was very weak and hardly able to speak above a whisper and even this required great effort. Nevertheless Dr. Oakshette managed to convey to Miss Ebbert his convict ion that Bahá'u'lláh is the Manifestation of God for this day. This statement made a great impression on Miss Ebbert, coming as it seemed from a Catholic priest. So we find Dr. Oakshette loyal to his task of teaching the Bahá'í Faith to his dying day."
Dr. Oakshette was buried in Westview Cemetery in Atlanta, receiving a Liberal Catholic funeral service conducted by Father Harkness, Dr. Oakshette's assistant.
The first few months in Atlanta were very uncertain for Finke and Ebbert. Since the school year had already started when they arrived on 5 October, they found it difficult to attract students. A series of letters between Finke, Linfoot, and Georgie Brow n Wiles, secretary of the Regional Bahá'í Teaching Committee and a resident of Nashville, indicate that Finke and Ebbert were struggling financially and that they repeatedly asked for support from the National Teaching Committee and the National Spiritual Assembly. In several letters the National Teaching Committee told Finke that the National Assembly was not in the business of helping people start their professions (in this case, setting up a school); it was committed only to providing a stipend of two or three months for food and lodging while Bahá'ís settling in a new area became self-sufficient. Linfoot advised Finke, in a tersely worded letter dated 10 January 1938, that,
In view of your letter of December 30th, we are now sending you $100.00, making a total of $175.00 for the entire project of opening Atlanta, pr $25.00 in excess of the amount budgeted out of the National Treasury for any single project. In view of our repeated emphasis upon the importance of surveying the possibilities and the necessity of teachers becoming self-supporting within two or three months, and since that much time has elapsed since you opened your school, this is the maximum we can provide for this Bahá'í project."
Because of their initial financial difficulties, Finke and Ebbert looked for ways to reduce costs. Ebbert used her carpentry skills learned from her father and built all of the school's furniture, while Finke took on odd jobs such as sewing. Their spirits were given a boost during Thanksgiving week 1937 when Louis Gregory visited the city and gave a series of talks at the First Congregational Church and at Booker T. Washington High School. Gregory advised Finke and Ebbert to write a letter to Shoghi Effendi, telling him of their plans. In an 11 January 1938 letter to Georgie Wiles, Finke wrote that, when she sent her letter to Shoghi Effendi, Ebbert was not a Bahá'í, but she thought "it was about the time that the Guardian wrote the letter that she accepted the Teachings in their entirety."
By mid-January 1938 the school began to attract its first pupils. In a 13 March 1938 report to the Regional Bahá'í Teaching Committee, Finke said, "We look upon our school as a Bahai enterprise. We teach the little children Bahai prayers and memory verses from the Sacred Writings. We also try to explain the fundamental Bahai principles in very simple language for tiny children." However, their school was never entirely successful. After several years, they closed the school, and Ebbert eventually worked as a maid, while Finke worked for the city of Atlanta.
Throughout Finke's and Ebbert's stay in Atlanta, they remained active in Bahá'í teaching efforts and promoted the Bahá'í perspective on social issues in public forums. Both women frequently wrote letters to the editors of local newspapers on various issues, even into the 1970s near the end of their more than forty years in Atlanta.
As one might anticipate, racial unity was often the theme. On one occasion, Finke wrote to the Georgia Power Company, protesting the treatment of African-American passengers on the company's street cars that she rode:
Lately, however, this unjust discrimination is not being accepted with as much docility. In fact, it seems to me that if your company does not do something about this situation soon, your company may unawares be responsible for the spilling of blood among the citizens of Atlanta. . . . "God created one earth and one mankind to people it."
Ebbert once wrote a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Constitution. Referring to protests by state Democrats who denounced the invitation of African-American leaders to an upcoming speech to be given by Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ebbert wrote, "it makes me wonder if there is any hope for a democracy in this state. These men must not have heard that Negro soldiers just finished fighting in a world war for democracy, liberty, and justice."
The Formation of the Spiritual Assembly of Atlanta
By 1939, within two years after Finke's and Ebbert's arrival in Atlanta, the community had grown to more than nine members, including several Bahá'ís who resided in Atlanta temporarily. Cleo, Raymond, and Estelle Lindsey, who had learned about the Bahá'í Faith through Dr. Oakshette's Liberal Catholic Church, became Bahá'ís in 1938. After Dr. Oakshette died, the Lindseys lost contact with the Bahá'ís but continued to read Bahá'í books, which they checked out of the Atlanta public library. It was through Finke's persistent efforts that contact with the Lindsey family was reestablished. When Finke noticed that someone was borrowing Bahá'í books from the library, she made three or four appeals to the public librarian for the Lindseys' address. Her perseverance paid off, and the Lindseys began going to Bahá'í meetings again.
According to 1939 membership records, the community consisted of Olga Finke, Doris Ebbert, Terah Smith (from Binghamton, New York), Renai Gordon (from Montreal), and Raymond, Cleo, and Estelle Lindsey. In addition, a Mrs. Ballard lived in Atlanta before April 1939, and three African-American Bahá'ís — Albert James and Thelma Allison, from Nashville, and Dr. W. D. Thomas, from Florida — were also temporarily in Atlanta around the time Bahá'ís form or elect Spiritual Assemblies. Apparently efforts were made to form a Spiritual Assembly that year, but records indicate that Horace Holley, secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'í of the United States and Canada, notified the Atlanta community that it was not yet "strong enough" in terms of permanent, nontransient members. Had an election taken place, the first Spiritual Assembly of Atlanta would have been integrated.
During 1939 the small group of Bahá'ís in Atlanta held integrated Feasts and Holy Day commemorations, but meetings to teach the Faith were segregated by race. This was in accordance with the advice from Shoghi Effendi, who in a 22 March 1937 letter, supported the National Assembly's policy of segregated teaching meetings, but integrated Bahá'í meetings, saying "Nothing short of such an ultimate fusion of the two races can insure a faithful application of that cornerstone principle of the Cause regarding the oneness of mankind."
through the efforts of Orcella Rexford, a full-time traveling lecturer on health foods and diet who visited Atlanta in late 1939, five individuals became Bahá'ís by the following spring. Rexford held a series of classes on health foods and during the last session gave a talk on the Bahá'í Faith. After Rexford left town, Terah Smith continued deepening classes (small study groups in which participants read and discuss Bahá'í scripture) for those who were interested. All who eventually became Bahá'ís were white, none having ever met any of the African-American Bahá'ís. Thus, when elections took place in April 1940, the first Spiritual Assembly of Atlanta was not integrated. Its nine members included Terah C. Smith, Renai Gordon, Raymond Lindsey, P. D. (Birdie) Cunningham, Doris Ebbert, Olga Finke, Mrs. William L. (Anna Dora) Fey, Lucy Walker, and Mary Huck.
Early Conflict in the Atlanta Bahá'í Community
With a Spiritual Assembly finally elected, Atlanta Bahá'ís began planning various teaching activities. Raymond (who was on the Spiritual Assembly) and Estelle Lindsey felt strongly that it was now time for mixed-race teaching meetings, possibly because the recent election of the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Atlanta inspired greater concern for building bridges between Atlanta's divided races. They invited their African-American neighbors, as well as the white and African-American members of the Bahá'í community, to a special dinner and deepening. Although the meeting went well, afterward there was "vigorous protest" by some of the white Bahá'ís, and Terah Smith warned the Lindseys not to have any more mixed meetings.
Although initially discouraged, the Lindseys decided to have another mixed meeting the following week. The whites who had protested the previous week did not show up, but the Lindseys' African-American neighbors did come and brought more than fifteen of their friends. Toward the end of the meeting the police arrived, saying there were complaints from whites in the neighborhood about a mixed-race gathering. Raymod Lindsey, about to be arrested, replied that this was a religious meeting and that they had a right to meet. One of the Bahá'ís had brought Volume 5 of the Bahá'í World to the meeting; someone opened the book to a seal of the United States government, saying that the Bahá'ís are recognized as a legal religion. The police remarked that, "If the United States Government is back of this we can do nothing about it." The police escorted the African Americans out the back door of the Lindsey house and told Raymond that, if he wanted to meet with them, he should go to their homes.
That night Estelle Lindsey, who was upset about the police disrupting a Bahá'í meeting, had a dream in which she and Raymond were going up a steep hill in an old, junky car. On the side of the road she saw many children, white and African-American, standing together. In the midst of them stood 'Abdu'l-Bahá, who was handing out cards with the Bahá'í message on them. Although the dream helped confirm for her the need for mixed-race teaching, none of the Lindseys' African-American neighbors would return for any more meetings.
Because of such incidents involving mixed-race meetings, there was growing conflict in the nascent Atlanta community, potentially dividing the newly formed Assembly over issues of teaching and race. There also seems to have been little initial communication between African-American community members and the all-white Assembly, since "the Local Assembly . . . was not cognizant of the fact that Mrs. Essie Robertson wished to be accepted into the group." The following year Robertson became the first native African-American Georgian to accept the Faith, having been taught by Thelma Allison during the period of segregated teaching meetings.
The Decade of the 1940s
In the 1940s Atlanta was undergoing subtle changes. The decade was the beginning of the twenty-three-year reign of Mayor William B. Hartsfield, known for his progressive stance on racial issues and as a man who first described Atlanta as "The City Too Busy to Hate." In 1944 the Southern Regional Council was formed to combat racial discrimination; in 1947 a Federal District court battle was won by African-American school teachers trying to equalize pay scales; and in the late 1940s Atlanta made efforts to integrate its police force.
With its major crisis over, the Atlanta Bahá'í community grew and expanded its activities throughout the 1940s. It went from thirteen Bahá'ís in 1940 to fourteen in 1941, seventeen in 1942, nineteen in 1943, twenty-one in 1944, and twenty-three in 1945, w hen the numbers leveled off for the rest of the decade. The community was legally incorporated in 1945.
The Spiritual Assembly maintained an active teaching program, including large public teaching meetings. Many of the public-meeting spaces in hotels, such as in the Biltmore, allowed mixed-race meetings. However, sometimes the only available facilities, such as the Ansley or Henry Grady hotels, allowed whites-only meetings, because of the strict observance of Jim Crow laws by hotel management. When only segregated facilities were available, another meeting with the same speaker would be held the next evening at a facility open to both races, generally in one of the African-American churches or colleges or in the African-American YMCAs or YWCAs. Thus ties began to strengthen systematically between the Bahá'í community and African-American institutions ties that built on the efforts of Roy Williams and Louis Gregory, who had spoken at these institutions in previous decades.
Two major events during the 1940s hastened the development and maturation of the Atlanta Bahá'í community. The first was a visit from 29 September through 2 October 1946 by National Spiritual Assembly member Dorothy Baker. The opening days of her visit were devoted to intensive consultation with the Atlanta Spiritual Assembly about teaching and race unity. In a letter to the Assembly before her visit, Baker outlined her hopes for the Atlanta Bahá'í community:
This is such a heroic moment in the life of the South that I am going to take the liberty of cabling the Guardian before coming and asking his prayers in your deliberations, in order that you may become a true hub in the South with spokes of certainty and illumination going out in all directions.
. . . It is a pretty big adventure and I must confess that I would not suggest it for all southern centers. My faith in Atlanta is great, and my faith in the guidance of Bahá'u'lláh as we arise to really try to solve this deep-seated challenge and basic issue is absolute." The result of the consultation was a nine-point policy governing aspects of teaching across color line in the South. It stated that mixed-race meetings are "blessed" and that there should be no racial division whatsoever within the Bahá'í community. It encouraged Bahá'ís to make efforts to reach potential believers from both African-American and white races. Finally, it enjoined Bahá'ís to maintain "simultaneous" teaching activities for both races "with the ultimate objective of bringing them together."
In an inspirational message sent to the Spiritual Assembly of Atlanta after their meeting, Baker wrote:
I have always felt that great teachers would come out of Atlanta, and a growing spiritual influence. . . .
. . .I am truly proud of you, each and every one, and intend to warm the hearts of the National Assembly and the Guardian himself by saying so, for you have tackled the most subtle problem in justice that we have ever had to meet. . . . God bless you all.
The volatile nature of race relations in 1940s Southern culture can be seen clearly in the Atlanta community's second major turning point during the decade. Large public meetings and even small meetings to teach the Bahá'í faith were often racially segregated during this period; however, Bahá'í events such as study classes, Feasts, and Holy Days were always integrated. But finding a safe location for these meetings was often difficult. One event more than any other hastened the establishment of the pre sent Atlanta Bahá'í Center. At Feast on 28 April 1947 the Bahá'ís had gathered at Finke's and Ebbert's house on Sells Avenue. After the devotional part of the meeting, loud knocking was heard on the door, accompanied by the footsteps of a number of persons. Ebbert answered the door, and one of the nine men who had gathered asked her, "'Are there negroes and whites here??'" When he was told there were, he said, "'Bring the niggers outside!'" Ebbert refused, and Raymond Lindsey, Dr. David Ruhe, and Margaret Ruhe (the latter two were members of the Atlanta Spiritual Assembly during much of the 1940s) moved forward to confront the crowd. While the three Bahá'ís talked to the crowd, the three African Americans attending the Feast, together with some of the white Bahá'ís, went to the back of the house, called the police, and began saying prayers. The Spiritual Assembly's official report to the National Spiritual Assembly explained that "One [of the men standing outside] stated that they did not want us to sell the house to negroes, to which Miss Ebert told them she was the owner of the property and intended to keep living in it, and that she would take the matter up wit h the police, [with] the state of Georgia, as we were incorporated under the religious laws of the state, and with the Federal Government if necessary."
The report went on to say that the police finally came, dispersed the crowd, and escorted the African-American Bahá'ís to their homes, after telling all the Bahá'ís not to have any more mixed-race meetings in that part of the city. Although the men ha d placed a Ku Klux Klan sticker on Ebbert's door, the police said that the men were more likely to be part of the West End Cooperative Association, a white supremacist organization the goal of which was to keep the west end of Atlanta segregated, thus explaining why they asked Ebbert if she intended to sell the house.
The Feast on 28 April 1947, probably more than any other event, prompted the Atlanta Spiritual Assembly to find a building in an integrated, nonresidential section of town where Feasts and other meetings could be held safely. Ironically, only two month s before the incident, the Atlanta community had received a letter from Shoghi Effendi, which read in part:
The friends must, at all times, bear in mind that they are, in a way, like soldiers under attack. The world is at present in an exceedingly dark condition spiritually; hatred and prejudice of every sort, are literally tearing it to pieces. We, on the other hand, are the custodians of the opposite forces, the forces of love, of unity, of peace and integration, and we must constantly be on our guard, whether as individuals or as an Assembly or a Community, lest through us these destructive, negative force s enter into our midst. In other words, we must beware lest the darkness of society become reflected in our acts and attitudes, perhaps all unconsciously. Love for each other, the deep sense that we are a new organism, the dawn-breakers of a New World Order, must constantly animate our Bahá'í lives, and we must pray to be protected from the contamination of society which is so diseased with prejudice.
The Atlanta Bahá'ís immediately began looking for rental space to be used as a Bahá'í Center. Two months later, on 29 June 1947, they had the grand opening of the city's first Bahá'í Center at 44 1/2 Marietta Street, a rented upstairs room in t he Gazette Building in downtown Atlanta. the grand opening took place after the Spiritual Assembly of Atlanta received a 19 June 1947 letter from the National Spiritual Assembly, saying,
We all urge your Assembly to make every effort to acquire a meeting room in an area of the city where mixed meetings are held without difficulties.
We also urge you to confine such meetings as are now held to those involving Assembly business, Nineteen Day Feasts or other anniversaries and with prayer and guidance continue your teaching efforts with individuals or small groups in areas and under circumstances which will not attract further opposition to you at the present time . . . Teaching in your area calls for the utmost unity, love and courage and we know that you have them all.
We beg to inform you that the whole matter of your position under the present Atlanta laws is being carefully studied by a special committee with a view to taking up the implied restrictions as a violation of the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.
The rented room downtown was not the final solution. About a year and a half after the Bahá'ís began using it, the management changed, and it was closed for renovations. The frustration of being at the mercy of one's landlord was resolved by Leroy Burns, and African American who became a Bahá'í in July 1945. Burns was a postal employee who was planning to build a home for himself and his wife but decided that, since he and his wife already had a home, the Bahá'ís had the greater need. He already owned some property on Edgewood Avenue, one block off historic Auburn Avenue in the heart of the African-American section of Atlanta, and decided to build a Bahá'í Center for the Atlanta community at that location. Burns and his son, Onslow Burns, made the cement blocks for the building with their own hands, stacking them in the back yard until needed. Raymond Lindsey, a building inspector for the city of Atlanta, used his professional skills to make sure the building passed city codes. The community was able to move into its new home in late July 1949, and it was dedicated the next year. A number of Bahá'ís living in Atlanta at the time (Estelle Lindsey, Dr. and Mrs. Ruhe, and Margaret Burns report that the location of the Center was the cause of conflict in the early stages. Some whites were uncomfortable with its being in a predominantly African-American part of town. But the genuine need for an interracial meeting place seems to have quickly won over most, if not all, community members, even those with initial reservations.
The Atlanta Bahá'í Center remains to this day a physical legacy of the turbulent history of the early Atlanta community a history that was marked by both setbacks and victories. Not only was the need for a Center symbolic of the struggle in which Bahá'ís of the Deep South were engaged merely to live their Faith, but its construction brought African Americans and whites together in a cooperative effort to promote the oneness of humanity. Atlanta Bahá'ís continue to look on their small but historically rich Center as a source of encouragement and recognize it as an accomplishment during a difficult period in the history of the Faith i the South. It is still a place for Feasts, Holy Day celebrations, deepenings, meetings to teach the Faith, Spiritual Assembly meetings, and children's classes. It was built literally by hand as a place where all races could gather in unity.
A brief survey of the Atlanta Bahá'í community's first forty years cannot pretend to be a definitive history. Rather, it is an overview of the initial struggles and victories of what is now one of the largest Bahá'í communities in the American South. This history, although not without conflict and trials, has been a cogent witness to the power of the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh to unify humankind, especially in the segregated and racially polarized South, and attests to the courage and vision of the early Atlanta Bahá'ís of both races. The journey continues today, as evidenced by Bahá'í cooperative efforts in promoting race unity with admired Atlanta institutions such as The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change, the Jimmy Carter Presidential Center, and the historically African-American colleges that make up the Atlanta University Complex. These ties build on ties made to African-American institutions initiated by Bahá'ís during the first part of this century.