The first African American Baha’i in America
Robert Turner (1855-1909) was one of 19 Disciples of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the first African American Baha’i in America.
Robert first heard of the Bahá’í Faith while accompanying Phoebe Hearst (his employer) on a trip to Paris when Lua Getsinger visited Phoebe and spoke about the religion. He listened to Lua while serving tea, and remained to hear her talk, and both Phoebe and Robert became Bahá’ís in July or August 1898 after returning to California.
In 1898 Phoebe funded the Pilgrimage of the the first Western Bahá’í Pilgrim group, which consisted of fifteen Bahá’ís, including both herself and Robert Turner. The Pilgrims departed the United States on September 22, 1898 and arrived in ‘Akká on December 10 the same year.
Robert met with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on December 10, 1898. He initially waited outside the room where the pilgrims met with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, feeling that he was not worthy of meeting him, but ‘Abdu’l-Bahá left the room to meet Robert and embraced him.
Louis Gregory, Hand of the Cause documented the following when Robert first met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá—“At sight of the master he dropped upon his knees and exclaimed: ‘My Lord! My Lord! I am not worthy to be here!’ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá raised him to his feet, and embraced him like a loving father.”
While in the Holy Land, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá displayed a great affection for Turner which stood in stark contrast to the conventions of interracial interaction in Western societies. In this way He modeled how true Bahá’ís should act towards all members of the human race. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá told Turner, “if he remained firm and steadfast until the end, he would be the door through which a whole race would enter the Kingdom.”
Mr. Turner passed away before ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s journey to the West, but he was mentioned lovingly in many of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s tablets, including these two examples cited by Marzieh Gail in “Arches of the Years”:
‘Soon after, I wrote the Master and described our visit with Robert Turner. In a Tablet which I received from the Master later in Washington, He wrote four lines regarding Robert Turner which I translate as follows: “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.”’