Remembering the First African American Bahá'í

A Lifelong Connection and a Solemn Promise

The close and obvious bond between Robert Turner and `Abdu’l-Bahá made an impact on many others, Phoebe Hearst among them. As just one example of that influence, shortly after she returned from her pilgrimage to her home in Washington, DC, Mrs. Hearst held an unprecedented public reception in her home for African-American educators in that racially-divided capitol city. Because she was one of Washington’s most respected women, openly demonstrating her support for the Black population of the city broke barriers and encouraged other charitable donors to direct their attention toward the education of African-American children.

During his own visit to North America in 1912, `Abdu’l-Bahá famously defied segregation laws and legalized racist practices by insisting on the inclusion of African-American Bahá’ís in all of his public and private meetings.

After meeting `Abdu’l-Bahá during that portentous pilgrimage to Akka, Robert Turner continued working for Phoebe Hearst. He would live only another ten years, and throughout that succeeding decade he remained a faithful Bahá’í. In 1909 Robert fell ill with Bright’s Disease (now known as chronic nephritis, the same disease that killed Booker T. Washington) and became bedridden. A well-known Bahá’í named Ali Kuli Khan, who served at the time as the Chief Diplomatic Representative and Charge d’Affaires of Persia, visited Robert while he was ill, and, as Lighting the Western Sky recounts:

Robert was able to convey through Ali-Kuli Khan one last message to the Master from his deathbed in which he assured `Abdu’l-Bahá of his love and asked for His prayers. – p. 258.

When Khan delivered his message and reported Robert’s condition in a letter to `Abdu’l-Bahá, the Master replied:

Convey wondrous Abha greetings to Mr. Robert, the servant of that honorable lady, and say to him: Be not grieved at your illness, for thou hast attained eternal life and hast found thy way to the World of the Kingdom. God willing, we shall meet one another with joy and fragrance in that Divine World, and I beg of God that you may also find rest in this material world. – Ibid.

As his illness worsened, Robert reportedly recited the Greatest Name, even when he became delirious.  On his deathbed, his survivors said, his last words were “Yá Bahá’u’l-Abhá!” (يا بهاء الأبهى) a prayerful Bahá’í invocation which means “O Thou the Glory of the Most Glorious!”

In 1943 Ali Kuli Khan wrote a letter to a Bahá’í named Jessie Revell, telling her about the two visits he and Phoebe Hearst made to Robert during his last days on Earth:

… Robert Turner was ill and in the city with his family. I remember Mrs. Hearst and I called upon him. His face was shining and he told me a great deal about his pilgrimage … Some months later, when he passed away, again Mrs. Hearst and I went to his house, where the body was laid out before the funeral took place. At my request, Mrs. Hearst obtained leave from the family for me to place the Bahá’í ring for the dead, which I had with me, on his finger. I also chanted the Bahá’í prayer for the dead.

`Abdu’l-Bahá sent Robert yet another tablet in care of fellow Bay area Bahá’í Helen Goodall:

O thou servant of God!

Thank thou God that from the day of the meeting until now `Abdu’l-Bahá has not forgotten thee. He remembers thee always. I ask of the Lord of the Kingdom that he may make thee dear in this world and the world to come; crown thee with the love of God and make thee an ignited and enkindled candle among the colored race. – Ibid.

Robert did not live to receive this last tablet.

  1. Introduction
  2. The Hearst Years
  3. Turner Encounters the Baha’i Faith
  4. The Pupil of the Eye
  5. The First Western Baha’is Meet `Abdu’l-Bahá
  6. A Lifelong Connection and a Solemn Promise
  7. Robert Turner’s Passage to the Next World
Remembering the First African American Bahá'í