First D.C.-Based African American of the Bahá’í Faith Memorialized

Bill Collins and Donna Denize with the memorial marker (Courtesy of Deeba Yavrom)
Bill Collins and Donna Denize with the memorial marker (Courtesy of Deeba Yavrom)

On May 19, the Bahá’í community honored Pocahontas Pope, the first African-American member of their religion in Washington, D.C., with an official marker for her grave in National Harmony Memorial Park in Hyattsville, Maryland.

The recent efforts from the D.C. area Bahá’í community made it possible to locate Pope’s grave. In 1960, her grave location was one of 37,000 that moved from Columbian Harmony Cemetery to National Harmony Memorial Park. Unfortunately, the original markers were not retained. Her history with their faith motivated them to research the location where she was buried and had a grave plaque made to honor her memory.

Pope was born Pocahontas Kay in 1864 in Halifax County, North Carolina. In 1884, she married John W. Pope, a faith leader, school teacher and elected commissioner in Rich Square, NC. As North Carolina implemented Jim Crow laws that made public life and elected positions dangerous for Black people, the Popes moved to Washington, D.C., in 1898. She was a community leader, seamstress and public servant who focused on advancing education of Black students. In addition, Pope and her husband were officers of the Second Baptist Church’s Baptist Lyceum where she spoke on race relations.

The Bahá’í faith was founded in the mid-19th century by Bahá’u’lláh in Iran then expanded to different areas of the Middle East. It teaches the founders of the world’s major religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrian) are manifestations of God, who each brought a message suited for the people to receive during the time it was revealed and the unity of all people. He was banished from Iran and followers of the faith still face persecution. After his death in 1892, his son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, became leader of the religion.

Today, it is estimated that the international Bahá’í community has more than 5 million adherents worldwide who are referred to as Bahá’ís.

Pope’s reason to join the Bahá’í faith varies. It was a combination of the teaching of the oneness of humanity, the equality of all races, and the willingness of members to reach out to her to get involved in their community and the practice of the principle of freedom from prejudice. She was also honored as the “source of light” by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

The Popes had Bahá’í meetings at their home in northwest D.C. An average of 20 to 40 people attended and the majority were people of color. This was rare during her time due to segregation. Their inner circle included prominent African Americans that joined the faith, such as Coralie Franklin Cook, Howard University educator and suffragist, Harriet Gibbs Marshall, founder of the Washington Conservatory of Music, and philosopher, writer and educator Alain LeRoy Locke, known as the “dean” of the Harlem Renaissance.

The Bahá’í community in D.C. has a legacy of working to build racial unity. In 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, spoke about interracial harmony at Howard University’s Rankin Chapel which was one of the city’s the earliest racially integrated gatherings.

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