Montreal, July 1, 2020 – It is essential for us to join hands in a process of learning how to create models of what we want to see in every dimension of humanity’s life, as we learn to apply the principle of oneness through practical engagement and experience.

An essential element of the process will be honest and truthful discourse about current conditions and their causes, and understanding, in particular, the deeply entrenched notions of anti-colour that pervade our society. We must build the capacity to truly hear and acknowledge the voices of those who have directly suffered from the effects of racism. This capacity should manifest itself in our schools, the media, and other civic arenas, as well as in our work and personal relations. This should not end with words, but lead to meaningful, constructive action.

In 1934, the Montreal Spiritual Assembly received a letter from the National Amity Committee of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, encouraging it to promote racial amity by holding meetings “for the purpose of bringing together intelligent and open-minded citizens,” presenting scientific facts concerning race, and apprising people “who know little or nothing of Negro culture, to hear what these are striving for, and what are their ideals.” Speakers at these gatherings could be those who were not Bahá’ís, but who would endorse the Bahá’í principles of the unity of humanity, “otherwise there will be no result.” The letter encouraged “Bahá’ís as a body (to) respond to the needs and aims of alien people within their midst.”

The aims were laudable and even far ahead of their times, but were still quite unlike contemporary attitudes in Bahá’í Communities. Then the new religion was largely seen by its adherents as primarily a movement “owned” by particular groups, which had to reach “out” to various races and people, rather than a movement belonging to all. An African Canadian adherent best expressed the question of “ownership” and had this to say when asked about the way she enrolled in the Bahá’í Community:

  • In those days you had to write a letter of intent to the Local Assembly stating that you believed in the Central Figures of the Faith and that you had read the book New Era, and the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. When I met the committee, they talked with me and then asked me to step out into the hall while they discussed my acceptance. I knew that whether they accepted me or not, I was a Bahá’í – the Bahá’í Faith belonged to everyone. Why be formal about it?, I thought. They couldn’t keep me out, so they bring me in? it was my right.

The former perspective produced an ethnocentric view that defined the boundaries of the Bahá’í Community by those who were already members. This entailed a static view of community membership, whereby the boundaries were not extended outwards.

Another goal, according to the letter from the Amity Committee, related to the process of Bahá’í Communities educating themselves about the Bahá’í ideas of race relations. In this connection the Amity Committee summarized some of the past obstacles to racial unity in the form of “lack of intelligent information, by too great diversity of opinion, by minor prejudices, by sentimentality and over emotionalism.”

The narrative of Edward (Eddie) Elliot (1898-1953), a Hydro-Line worker and among the first African-Canadians to enroll to the new religion in Canada illustrates the kind of ties members of minority group would develop with other Bahá’ís. He had come to the Bahá’í Faith through Reverend Este’s Church. His mother has been a maid in the Maxwell household and Eddie Elliot and Mary Maxwell were close childhood friends. Rowland Estall (one of the early Montreal Bahá’ís) speaks further about Mr. Elliot’s involvement with the Bahá’í Community:

  • … as a youth, he (Elliot) was both part of the Bahá’í youth group and of a social club organized by (Mary Maxwell) called the “ Fratority Club.” By this word Mary Maxwell meant to put together the words “fraternity” and “sorority” and had invited people to belong to it, mostly young students at McGill, who would otherwise not have been able to find membership in the exclusive fraternities and sororities around the campus…

In later years, Elliot was often chair of the local Spiritual Assembly of Montreal, although he remained a member of the Negro Church – retaining membership in one’s church was not an uncommon practice among Bahá’ís during those early years. Elliot would arrive at the Maxwell home after dark to not to arouse suspicion among Maxwell’s neighbours.

In a conversation Rowland Estall asked Elliot “when are you coming to the fireside (informal gatherings at Maxwell’s home)? And he said “after dark, you know I wouldn’t come when it’s light.” So nine o’clock he would show up and it was time to go home. These are the sad things about those days…

One of the people who was the member of Reverend Este’s Church, was the 14 years old Violet States (née Grant). Violet and Elliot’s parents have had moved to Canada from West-indies as labourers. The men mostly worked in the Rail Road Company, CN and the women worked as maids, such as Elliot’s mother who worked at Maxwell’s home. Elliot carried a Sunday School program in the church and Violet attended those classes. She remembers that Elliot would get up at a certain hour and leave saying that he had to attend another important meeting. Finally Violet one day asked him about those important meetings that Elliot was attending.

Elliot talked to Violet about the Bahá’í Faith and she accepted the message without any hesitation. She worked in various Montreal Schools as a music teacher. She was also a member of all women Symphony which gave its first performance in the Carnegie Hall, New York. She was nominated by the city of Montreal as one the ten women who build this city and received a certificate of honour from the Montreal Mayor herself!

Violet is still alive and healthy and lives in a retirement home in Montreal. She is 96 years old!

Photos : The Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Montreal, 1948 - Eddie Elliot is at the centre

               Violet State (née Grant)

W.C. van den Hoonaard,  The Origins of the Bahá’í Community of Canada

Estall, 1977

Golgasht Mossafai, interviews with Violet State and Raymond Flournoy

For Violet’s life stories :

Bahá'í Lady among the 20 exceptional Montreal women who are named “Builders of the City”

Name a street or establishment in Verdun in honor of Violet States!

Remembering an early pillar of the Bahá’í Faith


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