Bellwood Press has created a series of books for junior youth and young readers called the Change Maker series which tells the true stories of individuals who worked to bring about positive social change. So far the series includes three titles: Robert Sengstacke Abbott: A Man, a Paper, and a Parade; John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie: A Man, a Trumpet, and a Journey to Bebop; and Richard St. Barbe Baker: Child of the Trees.
Susan Engle authored the first two titles, and I wanted to hear more from her about the book about Dizzy Gillespie (you may also remember Susan from when she shared all about her enchanting tiny books). Susan is a delight and I hope you enjoy this conversation:
Baha’i Blog: Can you tell us a little bit about who Dizzy Gillespie was?
If you had lived in his neighborhood when he was a child, you might have heard his family and neighbors calling out, using his first two names as is a southern tradition, “John Birks, sit a spell, why don’t you?” He was constantly on the move. When he was in elementary school, he was provided with a trombone for a small school band. From then on, he channeled most of his energy into playing music. Since his arms were too short to play all the notes on trombone, he would often borrow a neighbor’s trumpet, taking turns with Brother Harrington, practicing for hours at a time. As he grew and became better and better, finally leaving South Carolina for Philadelphia and New York City in his teens, he had years of playing and working out sounds and keys for trumpet tunes under his belt.
Trying out for the Freddie Fairfax Band when he was about 18, one of the band members said, “That dizzy little cat’s from down South.” The nickname “Dizzy” stuck. By the time he had helped bring about a new style of jazz called Bebop, performed for more than one President of the United States, traveled around the world for the State Department, and recorded dozens of records, Dizzy was well-known and loved—not only by many of his fellow musicians, but by jazz fans across the U.S. and around the world. He had many official and unofficial titles, including “King of the Trumpet,” “Ambassador of Jazz,” and “Diz the Wiz.” By the end of his life, he had also received many awards including 14 honorary degrees, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys, and the Kennedy Center Honors. He even has a star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, California.
Dizzy Gillespie (October 21, 1917 – January 6, 1993). Photo courtesy of Roland Godefroy, accessed from Wikimedia Commons.
From childhood, John Birks Gillespie—famously nicknamed “Dizzy” in his teens—stood out: in his school, in his family, among his musical colleagues. According to Mrs. Wilson, his third-grade teacher, she would say to him, “John, do you have your lessons?” He would reply, “‘Yeah, I got it, I got it, Mrs. Wilson, I got it.’ And when the time for recitations came, he would know it. How? I don’t know, because he wouldn’t study.” Continue reading
Knight of Baha'u'llah Elsie Austin (May 10, 1908– Oct 26, 2004). Photo courtesy of the Baha'i International Community
Elsie Austin’s passion for racial equality was in her DNA. Her parents taught at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, an African American educational establishment headed by Booker T. Washington. Even as a girl, Elsie was outspoken, incensed that a textbook failed to recognise any black people for their contribution to history.
“I was taught…that Africans worked iron before Europeans knew anything about it,” she announced to her class. “I was taught that they knew how to cast bronze in making statues and that they worked in gold and ivory so beautifully that the European nations came to their shores to buy their carvings and statues.” While her protest was met with barely suppressed snickering, Elsie was undeterred. “If there had been no protest,” she later said, “what ingrained prejudice and hostility would have been implanted in the minds of those children, and what humiliation and degradation would have been stamped upon us.”
Similarly, when she and seven other African American women students were admitted to the University of Cincinnati, they were warned to be inconspicuous and have low expectations. “That speech traumatized us,” Elsie remembered. The eight resolved to prove their worth, and by the end of the year each took home an honor.
Elsie was angry about prejudice—often justified by religion—towards race. She told her father she was not able to “believe anymore in these religions that are all separate, all fighting with each other, all enforcing prejudice against some group, and yet they say God is the father of all mankind.” George Austin knew something of the Bahaʼis, thought they had interesting views, and encouraged her to investigate this new Faith. Guided by Louis G. Gregory and Dorothy Baker, Elsie joined the Baha’i community in 1934. Continue reading
Howard MacNutt, 13 July, 1859 - 26 December, 1926. (Photo courtesy of the Baha'is of the United States.)
To read about the life of Howard MacNutt is to learn a love story. Howard was born 13 July, 1859 in Philadelphia and he passed away on 26 December, 1926 in Miami. He was posthumously named by Shoghi Effendi as one of 19 Western Disciples of Abdu’l-Baha, or Heralds of the Covenant. Shoghi Effendi wrote that Howard MacNutt “will for ever remain associated with the rise and establishment of His Faith in the American continent, and will continue to shed on its annals a lustre that time can never dim.”
Perhaps of all Howard MacNutt’s services rendered to the early Baha’i community of North America, the one for which I am most grateful is the bringing together of the talks given by Abdu’l-Baha on His travels in the United States and Canada in 1912. Abdu’l-Baha requested that the volume be titled The Promulgation of Universal Peace and that Howard write its introduction. What an honour! It’s a beautiful introduction that sets out to explain Abdu’l-Baha’s Station. For example, he writes: Continue reading
The Americas – North, Central and South America – are the home to over 980 Indigenous Nations, and these Nations all have different languages, traditions, clothing, housing, diets, etc. I am for instance from the South-western United States, but am part Apache, part Pueblo, and part Yaqui, but most people would just see me as a ‘Native American’ without much thought to the diversity of culture which exists within Indigenous America. Continue reading
Masud Olufani is an African-American multidisciplinary artist, actor and writer currently based in Atlanta, and you may have seen some of his incredible work featured on Baha’i Blog over the years. For instance you may recognize him from his 2018 ABS presentation “The Residue of Memory & The Clarion Call of Truth: Healing Through Reclamation and Art” or his BahaiTeachings.org talk Freeing Ourselves from the the Stain of Racism. He was also featured on their Cloud9 podcast series, and the episode is called Masud Olufani: An Artist Rooted in Justice and Unity.
More recently, Masud teamed up with our friends at BahaiTeachings.org to host a new podcast series called ‘America’s Most Challenging Issue’, and it tackles the subject of racism. As its host, Masud interviews Baha’is throughout the United States who are actively building racial unity by building community.
We reached out to Masud to hear more about the America’s Most Challenging Issue podcast, and here’s what he shared with us: Continue reading
Ellsworth Blackwell (August 1, 1902 – April 17, 1978). Photo courtesy of the Baha'i International Community. Source: Baha'i World, Vol. 17.
Ellsworth Blackwell (1902 – 1978) was an African-American Baha’i who was dedicated to sharing the principles of the Baha’i Faith in America, Haiti, Madagascar, and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). In this article I would like to share a challenge he faced when confronted with racism within the Baha’i community, and how his commitment to justice, combined with wholehearted co-operation with the governing or administrative bodies of the Baha’i Faith, allowed this instance of prejudice to be resolved while maintaining a unified spirit.
Ellsworth became a Baha’i in 1934, and in 1937 he decided to serve at the Wilmette House of Worship (the Temple was not entirely completed until the 1950s, but it was open to visitors and Baha’is volunteered as tour guides). He had the capacity to be a tour guide, but was informed that it was “policy” that African-Americans could not be tour guides. This example of discrimination was of course not in keeping with the Baha’i teachings on the elimination of prejudice. This quotation from Abdu’l-Baha amply elucidates the Baha’i view:
… as to religious, racial, national and political bias: all these prejudices strike at the very root of human life; one and all they beget bloodshed, and the ruination of the world.
As a college student, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted my education and typical patterns of life, just as it has for countless numbers of souls throughout the globe. I study and serve a community near Boston, but when my school closed, I returned home to live with my family near Washington DC. Like others living and serving in Boston, I have tried to find creative ways to continue to build community, especially during this time when our careers, our work, our social lives, and our health have been impacted by factors outside of our control, often leaving us scared and concerned for both ourselves and for the wellbeing of our communities. Continue reading
Hand of the Cause of God William Sears (1911-1992). Photo courtesy of the Baha'i International Community.
When setting out to write this article, I felt overwhelmed: William Sears accomplished so much in his 80 years. How to distill decades of service, achievements, and adventures into a short article? Here I’ve only captured the outlines of a man who seized every opportunity to serve—who once said, “I need only to remember one thing: nothing must come between me and my responsibilities to God and to my fellow man. Glory is not his who loves his country, his family, or himself alone. Glory is his who loves his kind. This, I believe, has helped me to look upon each dawn as a new adventure.”
A spiritual light burned in Sears practically from his birth on March 28, 1911. Starting in 1912, at 18 months old, he had dreams about a Holy Man—dreams which, he later discovered, began when that Holy Man, Abdu’l-Baha, visited Minnesota, where Sears grew up. Raised in the Catholic Church, Sears was full of questions about religion, and was supported in his investigations by his grandfather. His father, however, was bewildered as the boy voraciously studied the Bible and proclaimed, “Someday I’m going to go all over the world and tell people about God.” Continue reading
Ellen Tuller Beecher known affectionately as "Mother Beecher" (1840-1932)
In 1844 Siyyid Ali Muhammad, known to the world as the Bab, spent a quiet evening in His home, with Mulla Husayn. That evening, outwardly unnoticed, signified the birth of a new dispensation, era, and cycle in humanity’s history. Four years earlier, in the United States, a woman was born who was destined to become one of the spiritual progeny of the energy released into the world from that momentous conversation.
When, at the end of the 19th century, Ellen Tuller Beecher declared her belief in Baha’u’llah as the Manifestation of God for this Day, she was nearly 60 years old. At the time she was one of only several hundred individuals in the United States who were registered members of the Baha’i community. She immediately entered into correspondence with Abdu’l-Baha. Some of the letters from Him to Mother Beecher, as she came to be known, contain many well-known passages from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha regarding the importance of unity: Continue reading