National Assembly Encourages Teaching Efforts in Honor of Robert Turner

Robert Turner, the first Black American Bahá’í and a soul noted by Shoghi Effendi as a Disciple of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Herald of the Covenant, is being honored on this commemorative year. The unveiling of a permanent memorial to Mr. Turner will complement the activities being held to honor the life of the beloved Master as Bahá’ís observe the centenary of the His Ascension.

The National Spiritual Assembly, in its June 15, 2021 letter to the believers, gave background on Mr. Turner:

Born into slavery in Virginia in 1856, Mr. Turner was later hired by Mrs. Phoebe Hearst [1] as a butler, a post he occupied for 26 years. He first heard about the teachings of the Faith while serving tea to her guests, Edward and Lua Getsinger. Together with Mrs. Hearst and other early American believers, Robert set sail on pilgrimage to the Holy Land to meet with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. May Maxwell recalls in her memoir, An Early Pilgrimage, that on the morning of their arrival in ‘Akká in 1899, the Master summoned the small group of honored pilgrims to His room. “Seeing that one of the believers was absent, He asked, ‘Where is Robert?’… In a moment, Robert’s radiant face appeared in the doorway and the Master rose to greet him, bidding him to be seated, and said, ‘Robert, your Lord loves you. God gave you a black skin, but a heart white as snow.’” 

The letter continues,

Be assured of our prayers that the spirit of Mr. Turner may inspire all those who act in his name and strive to bring to fruition ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s reported promise to him: “Robert, if you remain firm and steadfast to the end, you will be a door through which a whole race will enter the Kingdom.”

Artist Masud Olufani visits the gravesite — and future monument site — of Robert Turner.

Weather permitting, the memorial installation at a cemetery in Colma, California, should be completed by the end of this year, coinciding with the 165th anniversary of Mr. Turner’s birth in 1856.  

Designed by Bahá’í artist Masud Olufani, the memorial in Cypress Lawn Cemetery features elements thoughtfully and painstakingly selected to reflect the life and times of Mr. Turner. Images and descriptions of the monument’s design can be found at Servitude to humanity and the “Pupil of the Eye,” a metaphor used by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in reference to the spirit of Black people, are elements incorporated into the design. 

The National Spiritual Assembly encourages the believers to enjoy other stories and additional materials available on the website, dedicated to the life of this stalwart believer. The website is updated regularly as this project progresses.

The first group of western Bahá’í pilgrims, with Robert Turner standing at left.

The National Spiritual Assembly, in its letter dated October 27, 2021, wrote:

May we all draw inspiration from the Words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá shared at the news of Robert Turner’s passing from this world in 1909:

Gracious God! What a shining candle was lighted within that black-coloured lamp. Praise be to God that this candle ascended from its earthly lamp unto the immortal Kingdom, to gleam and shine in the assemblage of heaven.

A fund raising effort launched to finance the memorial has exceeded its goal. The excess monies will be directed toward teaching efforts aimed at empowering African American communities.

The letter continues with an appeal to dedicate teaching efforts in memory of Robert Turner:

We also call upon you to consider dedicating your teaching efforts for a period of time in Mr. Turner’s memory, especially those focused on reaching out to African American populations.

The Council prays for the success of teaching efforts among African American Populations during this critical moment in history.

[1] Phoebe Hearst lived in the San Francisco area. Mr. Turner became a Bahá’í in 1898, one year before he was among that first group of Western pilgrims to visit ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

An artisan and task force member plan the monument to Robert Turner, the first American of African descent to embrace the Bahá’í Faith.