Honoring Pocahontas Pope, the First African American Bahá’í in Washington, D.C.

Memorial marker honoring Pocahontas Pope, the first African American Bahá’í in Washington, D.C., near the Slade section marker in the National Harmony Memorial Park, Hyattsville, Maryland

On May 19, 2018, during the eightieth year since the passing of Pocahontas Pope (c. 1864–1938), the first African American Bahá’í in Washington, D.C., the Bahá’í community in that city held a gathering in the National Harmony Memorial Park in Hyattsville, Maryland, to unveil a memorial marker honoring her. When Pocahontas became a Bahá’í in 1906, she wrote to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of Bahá’u’lláh and the head of the Bahá’í Faith at the time, Who honored her with a tablet, or letter (see below).

Pocahontas Pope was originally buried in the Columbia Harmony Cemetery, an African American cemetery, in Washington, D.C. In 1960, the graves were moved to the National Harmony Memorial Park, in Maryland. We know that Pocahontas was buried in the Slade section grave 24-7 of the Columbia Harmony Cemetery. Because of minimal record keeping during the move, it is likely that she is buried in the same section of the National Harmony Memorial Park, but we do not know the exact location. Hence the newly installed memorial marker only indicates that she is buried somewhere in the Slade section, not her exact burial site. Pocahontas’s marker is highly visible, as it is placed next to the Slade section marker, which is by the side of the road leading into the section.

After the event, an article appeared in The Washington Informer, a weekly African American newspaper and website in Washington, D.C.

Below is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s letter to Pocahontas. It is followed by the text of the talk about her that William Collins gave at the memorial gathering and the text of a dramatic monologue presented by Donna Denizé.—THE EDITORS

Tablet from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to Pocahontas Pope, 1906

He is God! O Maidservant of God!
Render thanks to the Lord that among that race thou art the first believer, that thou hast engaged in spreading sweet-scented breezes, and hast arisen to guide others. It is my hope that through the bounties and favors of the Abhá Beauty thy countenance may be illumined, thy disposition pleasing, and thy fragrance diffused, that thine eyes may be seeing, thine ears attentive, thy tongue eloquent, thy heart filled with supreme glad-tidings, and thy soul refreshed by divine fragrances, so that thou mayest arise among that race and occupy thyself with the edification of the people, and become filled with light. Although the pupil of the eye is black, it is the source of light. Thou shalt likewise be. The disposition should be bright, not they appearance. Therefore, with supreme confidence and certitude, say: “O God! Make me a radiant light, a shining lamp, and a brilliant star, so that I may illumine the hearts with an effulgent ray from Thy Kingdom of Abhá. . . .—‘Abdu’l-Bahá
___________(From a tablet translated from the Persian in “Women,” in The Compilation of
__Compilations 2: 2101: 360. See also http://bahaiteachings.org/black-pupil-eye-source-light)

Who Was Pocahontas Pope?
by William Collins

History is filled with extraordinary people about whom scant testimony remains. Yet the importance of honoring those extraordinary people is not decreased by this challenge. Today we are gathered to honor the woman who broke through barriers of color and integrated the Bahá’í community of Washington, D.C. She is already known through a letter ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote to her, comparing people of African descent to the “pupil of the eye,” which, though dark in color, is the “source of light” to humanity. What is much less well known is who Pocahontas Pope was and how she came to the pioneering step to embrace Bahá’u’lláh 112 years ago, here in Washington, D.C. Today we honor her gravesite, pray for her soul, feel her presence, and share her story, never again to be obscured by either prejudice or forgetfulness.

William Collins and Donna Denizé unveiling the memorial marker honoring Pocahontas Pope

In 2009, members of the Washington, D.C., Bahá’í community conducted a tour of the early sites of the Bahá’í Faith, including Pocahontas’s home at 1500 First Street. These initial steps gained momentum in 2017. A few individuals collaborated to find her grave, located here in the National Harmony Memorial Park, Slade section. The grave was found to be unmarked. In consultation with the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Washington, D.C., a marker was designed, funds raised, and this event scheduled. We do this because her story is inextricably linked to our country’s history, especially its treatment of citizens of African descent, to the history of African-American worship, and to the acceptance of the revelation of Bahá’u’lláh in North America.

Pocahontas’ mother, Mary, was born into the well-known Sanlin (Sanderlin) family of free citizens of African descent in North Carolina. Her father, John Kay, from another prominent family of free people of color, married Mary in 1861. Pocahontas Kay was most likely born in 1864 in Halifax County, North Carolina, soon after Bahá’u’lláh’s proclamation of His mission in the Garden of Ridván in Baghdad, and on the eve of the emancipation of African Americans from enslavement.

The Kay and related family names are also known among the Haliwa-Saponi tribe in the northeast Piedmont area of North Carolina. The late Paula Bidwell, a Bahá’í of Lakota and other native nations background, discovered this connection. There is thus a likelihood that Pocahontas Pope was both African American and indigenous in ancestry.

Map of the National Harmony Memorial Park
showing the site of the memorial marker
honoring Pocahontas Pope

Pocahontas’ father died while Pocahontas was young. In 1876, Mary Sanlin Kay married Lundy Grizzard, another free citizen of African descent who owned important local properties. Lundy Grizzard became stepfather to Pocahontas, who then took the Grizzard family name. Mr. Grizzard was known in local and regional politics on the “Radical” (that is, Republican) ticket. A Goldsboro newspaper article in which he is directly mentioned as a candidate for commissioner along with a mayoral candidate of African descent, stated: “A colored Mayor is an indignity our people will not submit to. . . .” From her stepfather Pocahontas learned to pursue high aspirations despite opposition.

Similarly, Pocahontas’s future husband, John W. Pope (1857–1918), born and raised in Rich Square, North Carolina, was the grandson of Jonas Elias Pope (1827–1913), a Quaker and carpenter who owned a significant amount of land; Quakers had purchased and liberated his ancestors from enslavement in the late 1700s. John W. Pope’s cousin, Manassas T. Pope, ran for mayor of Raleigh, North Carolina—the only African American man to run for mayor of a Southern capital in the Jim Crow Era.

The memorial marker honoring Pocahontas Pope

In 1883, John W. Pope and Pocahontas Kay Grizzard married in Halifax County, North Carolina. Each was listed as “White” on the certificate. Later census records variously categorized Pocahontas as “Mulatto” or “Negro.” These variations reflect the tortured contours of racial categorization.

John Pope was a teacher and principal at the Rich Square (North Carolina) Academy. He was one of the managers of activities at the local African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and was referred to as “Reverend” in news stories and his later obituary, so he was also a member of the clergy. Reverend Pope was a visible community leader, writing newspaper columns, instructing local teachers, giving at least one speech to a crowd of thousands, and attending Republican state conventions. In May 1898, he was elected as a commissioner for Rich Square.

Pocahontas is reported during this same period to have played the organ, assisted in managing the Rich Square Academy, given talks to a range of civic audiences, and managed various activities for the AME Church. In 1898, the Popes hosted North Carolina Representative George H. White, the last, and during his tenure, the only African American to serve in Congress during the beginning of the Jim Crow era.

Sadly, statewide politics and society became more dangerous for citizens of African descent in 1898 as North Carolina began the process of enforcing racial segregation and European American privilege through Jim Crow laws. In the latter part of 1898, the Popes were recorded as having relocated to Washington, D.C.

Pocahontas participated in the academic discussions of the day. She was on committees meeting with the school board to introduce Black history in the curriculum. She was among those who responded to criticism of the progress of Americans of African descent. She and her husband were officers of the Baptist Lyceum, at which she spoke on race relations. The Baptist Lyceum was an activity of the Second Baptist Church, one of the oldest African American congregations in Washington, D.C. Pocahontas Pope herself was described in a 1903 issue of The Colored American as “intensely religious.” Both Pocahontas and her husband were involved with a delegation that met with President Theodore Roosevelt, urging him to find a position for ex-Congressman White.

William Collins and Donna Denizé after the unveiling of the memorial marker for Pocahontas Pope

John worked at the Census Bureau. However, in the winter of 1901–02, Census Bureau Superintendent William Rush Merriam (1849–1931) fired John W. Pope, along with other “Negro clerks.” John then landed a longer-term position in the U.S. Government Printing Office.

During Pocahontas Pope’s first four decades, she lived a life of tireless service to God, community, and family. It was a life of high achievement against the obstacles that America put in the path of those who labored for generations without pay, honor, or kindness. Yet, through the other tradition of interracial cooperation, Quakers had freed her husband’s family so that they could accumulate wealth sufficient to participate as leading citizens in the region’s social, religious, and political life. More than fifty years after the liberation of the Pope family, Pocahontas witnessed the freeing of millions of fellow Americans of African descent in her lifetime. How could she not believe that a new spiritual age had arrived?

In 1906, Pocahontas Pope became a Bahá’í—the first African-American in the District to recognize Bahá’u’lláh. How did this happen?

Pocahontas, in addition to her education, advocacy, and community service, was also an accomplished seamstress, one of the few money-earning avenues open to African American women at the time. Among those to whom Mrs. Pope provided professional services were Bahá’ís Pauline Knobloch Hannen and her sister, Alma Knobloch, who employed Pocahontas Pope.

Pauline had chanced upon this passage from Bahá’u’lláh:

O Children of Men!
Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created.”—Bahá’u’lláh (The Hidden Words, Arabic #68)

A page from the program for the Pocahontas Pope memorial marker unveiling

Realizing the profound implications of Bahá’u’lláh’s words regarding the oneness and equality of the human race, Pauline resolved to bring the Bahá’í message to people of African descent and to treat them with respect, kindness, and love. Pauline wrote that she was the one who first shared the Bahá’í message with Pocahontas Pope. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (1844–1921), the son of Bahá’u’lláh, was the head of the Bahá’í community at that time. Pocahontas wrote her declaration of faith to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and received a response that said in part:

Render thanks to the Lord that among that race thou art the first believer, that thou hast engaged in spreading sweet-scented breezes, and hast arisen to guide others. . . . Although the pupil of the eye is black, it is the source of light. Thou shalt likewise be.”

By July 1908, fifteen African Americans had embraced the faith in Washington, D.C. Together with their European American and Persian American fellow believers, they formed the first interracial community in Bahá’í history among believers of these diverse backgrounds. They had to wrestle with inclusion and how to interact with a highly segregated and racist society. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself settled the matter by declaring interracial gatherings to be the necessary standard before He would visit America, a step that was officially instituted in 1911. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá followed this up by arranging the first interracial marriage in the Bahá’í community. The Universal House of Justice described this as

actions that summoned them [the Bahá’ís] to a level of consciousness far above mere social liberalism and tolerance. One example that must stand for a range of such interventions was His gentle but dramatic act in encouraging the marriage of Louis Gregory and Louisa Mathew—the one black, the other white. The initiative set a standard for the American Bahá’í community as to the real meaning of racial integration, however timid and slow its members were in responding to the core implications of the challenge. (Century of Light, commissioned by the Universal House of Justice, 25)

Pauline Hannen recorded that well-known Bahá’ís such as Lua Getsinger spoke at the Pope home at 12 N St. NW. At these meetings twenty to forty people, mostly of color, would be in attendance. Included among the Popes’ circle were prominent African Americans who later became Bahá’ís, including Coralie Franklin Cook (1861–1942, Howard University educator and foremost African American suffragist); Harriet Gibbs Marshall (1868–1941, founder of the Washington Conservatory of Music, who introduced African American music to the D.C. public education system; and Alain LeRoy Locke (1885–1954), philosopher, writer, and educator, known as the father of the Harlem Renaissance, who Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., compared to Aristotle and Plato).

There is very little currently known about Pocahontas Pope’s final two decades. Pocahontas died on November 11, 1938, at Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., due to illness. She was originally buried in the Columbian Harmony Cemetery in D.C. In 1960, that cemetery was closed and her remains were moved here to National Harmony Memorial Park in Hyattsville. Today, in the eightieth year after her death, we honor her resting place.

It is important that we understand more deeply the experience of those on whose shoulders we stand. The Popes were born in the Civil War era, descendants of free people of color, educators, prominent in society, economically stable, elected to public office, pursuing honorable professions, and active in their faith community. They matured in a period when there were African American congressmen and other elected officials of African descent in the South. They left their home and came north to Washington, D.C., because of the imposition of cruel and inhumane Jim Crow laws intended to deprive people of African descent of influence in southern society. Here in Washington, D.C., they continued their public service in education, faith community, and skilled professions, yet suffered additional indignity when John was fired from a federal agency solely because of skin color. Nonetheless, the Popes persevered and found meaningful work and new friends. And Pocahontas became the first person of African descent in Washington to accept the Bahá’í Faith.

Pocahontas Pope was in the vanguard for her people. She walked her life path with dignity, noble bearing, and spiritual awareness. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote to her, “Although the pupil of the eye is black, it is the source of light. Thou shalt likewise be.” She now shines from this spot and from the Heavenly Concourse where she bears aloft her light, ready to come to our assistance.

Pocahontas Pope Dramatic Monologue
Presented by Donna Denizé at the
Gravesite Memorial Marker Gathering
May 19, 2018

[Enters stage with Bible in hand]

[Announcing herself to the audience:]

Pocahontas Pope.

[Pause before commencing narrative]

It was the simplest gesture, you see, but dear Ms. Pauline Hannen (bless her soul), made up her mind to extend her hand to us black folk. She saw that young black woman trudging through the snow with that bundle of parcels in her arms and her shoelaces untied. And at that very moment the Lord’s Command came to Pauline’s heart:

Since we have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land.

Some ninety people gathered for the unveiling of the Pocahontas Pope memorial marker.

That brave white woman (bless her) put aside her prejudice against black folk and knelt at that poor creature’s feet to tie her shoelaces. [With a hint of laughter at the situation . . .] Oh Lord, they all musta’ thought she was crazy. [dismissive chuckle]

I worked in the household of Pauline’s sister—Ms. Alma Knobloch. They were always very kind to me—Miss Alma, her sisters Miss Fanny and Ms. Pauline, they showed me a warmth I had never experienced in all my years. [Almost incredulously] And for this true, Christ-like love to come from white folk, of all people—I couldn’t understand it at first. The Lord gave Pauline the courage to share with me the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh; and I recognized my Lord Jesus’ call in the Writings she shared with me.

My husband, John W. Pope, and I moved to Washington from Rich Square, North Carolina, to escape growing restrictions on black folk in the South. We were members of Washington’s Second Baptist Church over on 3rd St NW, and we served our fellow citizens and neighbors at the Baptist Lyceum. In our time here, I had taken every opportunity to further the progress and achievements of our Negro race. In the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh I had at last found guidance for a clear path forward.

I wrote to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and the Master confirmed my convictions of the nobility of our race. He said [read slowly and measuredly]:

Although the pupil of the eye is black, it is the source of light. Thou shalt likewise be. The disposition should be bright, not the appearance.

Guests singing “I’m Goin’ Back to the Father,” led by Van Gilmer

Miss Alma and her mother, Mrs. Knobloch, started visiting my home on N St to share the Bahá’í message with our friends. Little by little I invited our associates and other members of our Baptist community to hear this message of peace and hope. Praise the Lord that our beautiful meetings often embraced some twenty to forty of our highly accomplished Negro brothers and sisters—many of whom accepted this new Faith for themselves.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá blessed me with precious words to honor my steps of service to God and my efforts to raise the conditions of our race. He said:

Render thanks to the Lord that among that race thou art the first believer, that thou hast engaged in spreading sweet-scented breezes, and hast arisen to guide others. 

Donna Denizé reciting the prayer ‘Abdu’l-Bahá revealed for Pocahontas Pope, the first African American Bahá’í in Washington, D.C.

[Raise up Bible in hand and indicate toward it]
Our Lord Jesus said: “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”

I pray that we all work to spread this light. Let us pray [arms raised at side]:[Close eyes, bow head, then slowly raise head midway through prayer until countenance, eyes-closed, faces the heavens at conclusion of prayer]:

O God! Make me a radiant light, a shining lamp, and a brilliant star, so that I may illumine the hearts with an effulgent ray from Thy Kingdom of Glory. . . .

___________________________________

For those of you wishing you had been at the memorial gathering for Pocahontas Pope, here is the next best thing—short videos of portions of the program:

  1. Greetings from the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Washington, D.C. (2:17)
  2. A prayer in Persian (2:54)
  3. Remarks about Pocahontas Pope by William Collins (16.57)
  4. Dramatic monologue by Donna Denizé (2:00)
  5. Prayer revealed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá for Pocahontas Pope (1:10)
  6. The beginning of the singing (0:10)
  7. More singing (1:25)
  8. Closing remarks (1:55)

___________________________________

Many thanks are due to:

  • The Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Washington, D.C., for its inspiration and support; and its task forces (Nadim van de Fliert, Rosemary Fennell, William Collins, Elahe Izadi, Joshua Downer, Sean Gallagher) for documenting Pocahontas Pope’s grave, raising funds for and designing the memorial marker, arranging and planning the memorial event, and publicizing it to the media and wider community;
  • The staff of National Harmony Memorial Park for their unfailing dedication to this important event and their recognition of Pocahontas Pope’s historical significance—in particular, Lisa Sloane, who championed and shepherded this project to fruition;
  • Donna Denizé for performing the dramatic monologue about Pocahontas;
  • Deeba Yavrom for pictorial documentation of the event;
  • Shirin Ahlhauser for recording the event;
  • Van Gilmer for planning the music for the event;
  • The many Bahá’ís who donated funds for the memorial marker and gathering;
  • William Collins for his tireless coordination of the grave search, biographical research, cemetery liaison, and other essential details.

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