Remembering the First African American Bahá'í

The Hearst Years

Sometime in or around 1883, as a young man in his mid-20s, Robert Turner left David S. Brown’s employ and went to work for the wealthy mining and real estate magnate George Hearst, initially as a waiter but soon as the Hearst family’s butler. Hearst had recently acquired the San Francisco Examiner newspaper, and would later be first appointed and then elected as a United States Senator from California.

Robert Turner worked for the Hearst family for 26 years – the rest of his life. Since Phoebe Hearst, George Hearst’s wife, managed the family’s servants, Robert worked directly under her supervision.

For the initial years of his lifelong service to the Hearst family, during the eight-year period from 1883 to 1891, Robert Turner helped manage the Hearst households in the San Francisco Bay area. In 1890, Robert and his wife Melissa suffered a great tragedy, the death of their five-year-old daughter Emily, their only child.

During those years Robert accompanied George Hearst on trips to the Hearst mansion in Washington, D.C. for George’s duties as an elected official in the nation’s capitol. In 1891, when Senator Hearst passed away at the age of 71, his widow Phoebe Hearst, who was then 48 years old, retained Robert Turner as her personal butler.

Phoebe, who trusted Robert explicitly, tasked him with helping manage the large cohort of household employees at her Pleasanton, California ranch and its 92-room mansion, known as the Hacienda del Pozo de Verona. With a large staff of maids, cooks, butlers, coachmen, electricians, carpenters, chamber boys, chauffeurs, dressmakers, housekeepers, and laundresses, Robert’s managerial duties kept him fully occupied, and he often shared management duties with the Hearst housekeepers and business managers. Of Robert Phoebe Hearst once wrote:

And who reigned over my kitchen dominion and kept the machinery oiled and quiet? Well, the most glorious, the most important, the most absolutely indispensable, was Robert, my faithful servant, for if he has a marked fault, it is his aptitude to extend, to swell, far beyond the need and size of the occasion.

– from a letter written by Phoebe Hearst included in the Phoebe Apperson Hearst papers at the Bancroft Library, the University of California, Berkeley.

Phoebe Hearst, the sole heir of George Hearst’s fortune, became one of the wealthiest women in the United States after her husband’s passing. Although she spent much of her time running, managing, and expanding the Hearst business empire, she also engaged in a generous philanthropic practice focused on the education of girls, initially in the 1880s as a major benefactor of the Bay Area’s Golden Gate Kindergarten Association, which sponsored teacher training and operated 26 schools for children. She gave significant leadership and generous financial support to the University of California, and served as its first female regent beginning in 1897. She helped establish the National Congress of Mothers, which later became the National Parent-Teacher Association, now known as the PTA. She also co-founded the all-girls school at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC; and became a founder and supporter of major anthropological and research expeditions around the world, as well. Her interest in bettering the world led her to fund medical research and establish hospitals and community libraries. She was willing to help when she saw a need, such as in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Her many philanthropic activities, primarily centered around education for women and girls, offered teaching and training for children of all races, highly unusual for that severely segregated period in American history. Mrs. Hearst’s generosity of spirit and commitment to justice resonated with her beliefs in the oneness of humanity, and with her respect for Robert Turner despite their different racial backgrounds.

  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