The visit of Abdu'l-Baha to Washington, DC in 1912 was an event of historic significance in the history of the city.
At the age of 68 after release from 40 years' imprisonment , Abdu'l-Baha set sail for America. He came, in the twilight years of his life and on the eve of World War I, to promulgate his father's teachings in the Western world. Notable among them was the call for universal peace, a central teaching of the new religion for whose cause he had been imprisoned and at whose head he now stood.
During his eight-month sojourn in North America, Abdu'l-Baha made three visits to Washington, DC. The first lasted from April 20 th through April 28 th . He returned on May 8 th and stayed through May 11 th . Later that year he again came to Washington, remaining from November 6 th through November 10th.
Abdu'l-Baha spoke to dozens of large and intimate groups in Washington DC; he was an honored speaker in churches and synagogues; i.e. the 8 th street Synagogue, the Universalist church, and the prominent AME church on M Street. On the night of his arrival he spoke to 800 persons at the Carnegie building (now DC Historical Museum). On all of these occasions, he shared Baha'u'llah's teachings, explaining, giving examples, often witty, delighting audiences with the wealth of stories drawn from the rich culture into which he was born and his own experience in different places of exile.
It is important to note that Abdu'l-Baha had lived a life of exile and imprisonment, had never spoken before an audience, knew neither Western languages nor customs, yet as a Unitarian minister later wrote, he was nonetheless the master of every situation.
Barely nineteen years after the World Congress of Religion, at which the name of Baha'u'llah was first mentioned on the American continent, Washington, DC was already the most diverse Baha'i community in North America. It was made up of both white and African-Americans at a time and place of total segregation of the races. It held within it persons of high social rank, such as those who opened the doors for Abdu'l-Baha to the highest strata of society, and it included those of humble origin but great spiritual acumen.
It was in this setting and social context that Abdu'l-Baha made some of his strongest statements on the unity of the races. At his speech in the chapel of Howard University, he told both races what was expected of each of them in order to cleanse the country of the malignancy of race prejudice. He made the startling statement that the coming together of the races in America would lead the way to world peace. And he went to the homes of the black Baha'is and to Baha'i meetings in homes where both races were present. Whenever he saw the races together, he expressed his joy and happiness at their unity. And to his white hostess' dinner table he led an outstanding black Baha'i , Louis Gregory, and seated him at his right hand. Abdu'l-Baha introduced a new pattern of behavior as a model for others to follow. Louis Gregory was a Howard University lawyer, highly regarded writer and lecturer, the first African-American to serve on the national governing body of the Baha'is of the U.S. and Canada.
Abdu'l-Baha's principal hostess in Washington, DC was Mrs. Agnes Parsons who was steadfast in her devotion to Abdu'l-Baha. She opened door after door to the world of thinkers, policy-makers, political figures, and religious leaders whom she tirelessly invited to her home to meet and listen to the message brought by Abdu'l-Baha . Many men of the moment such as Admiral Perry, back from discovery of the North Pole, were among them. Alexander Graham Bell insisted that Abdu'l-Baha attend his Friday night circle of scientists, who paid the utmost respect to him, one even declining to speak after Abdu'l-Baha , saying "the talk of the Master from the East was so wonderful that I find myself inadequate to say anything." The Turkish Ambassador - whose government had held Abdu'l-Baha and His father prisoner for forty years - could not do enough to express his admiration and devotion. One sophisticated Washingtonian said he felt in Abdu'l-Baha's presence as if he were in the sheltering presence of the Father Himself.
Fortunately most of Abdu'l-Baha's visit to Washington has been documented in several diaries and memoirs. His visit also received considerable coverage by the newspapers of the day. All these have given us a rich legacy of his visit.
Zarqani, Mirza Mahmud. Mahmud's Diary. Translated by Mohi Sobhani, Oxford: George Ronald, 1998.
Hollinger, Richard, ed. Abdu'l-Baha in America: Agnes Parsons' Diary . Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1996.
Ward, Allan, L. 236 Days in America: Abdu'l-Baha's Journey in America. Wilmette: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1979.