Bahai News -- Planet Baha'i - Biography of Louis Gregory

A Biography of Louis Gregory

Louis Gregory was born in 1874 and raised in Charleston, SC. His mother, Mary Elizabeth, was the daughter of an enslaved African woman called Mariah, later known as Mary Bacot, and the White owner of the plantation. Mary Elizabeth was 14 years old at the end of the Civil War when she and her mother were freed. Three years later she married Ebenezer George, a blacksmith of who had also been enslaved, with whom she had two sons, Theodore and Louis.

Ebenezer George died of tuberculosis in 1879, and the family suffered extreme poverty as Mary Elizabeth struggled to support them through work as a tailor. In 1885, she married Col. George Gregory, a freeborn native of Charleston who had served in the Union Army. He became a loving and supportive father to the boys.

Louis Gregory's education at the Avery Institute and Normal School (now Avery Research Center), Fisk University, and Howard University's School of Law established him as one of the "talented Tenth," W.E.B. DuBois' term for the capable, educated African Americans of the time.

Gregory established a successful law practice and became a rising star in Washington, DC, where he and other Black leaders such as DuBois struggled over the issues of race that tore at the country and their own hearts. He was deeply influenced by his grandmother who, following the lynching of her husband and her own near murder at the hands of Klansmen, drew on her profound spiritual beliefs and consciously chose not to hate. But he had lost faith that religion held answers to prejudice and injustice or provided a way out of the misery they produced.

In winter of 1907, Gregory attended a meeting in Washington about the Bahá'í Faith. He became acquainted with a Southern White couple, Joseph and Pauline Hannen, who attracted him with their sincere love and respect and shared with him more about the religion that was the source of those qualities. In June of 1909, Gregory embraced the Bahá'í Faith, which became the centerpiece of his life.

His love of the new faith and extraordinary intellectual abilities and character propelled him to positions of responsibility in what was then a predominantly White religious community. Those White, often socially prominent, believers sincerely embraced the faith's teachings of the oneness of God, the essential oneness of the world's religions and the oneness of humanity, but often with limited understanding and certainly no models of what "oneness" meant in the racially-charged United States of the early 20th century. Louis Gregory's pure-heartedness, kindness and humility combined with eloquence, personal example, and unflinching attachment to principle helped bring that teaching into reality in the ever-diversifying American Bahá'í community.

A testimony to the deep regard in which he was held is that in 1912, he was elected to the nine-member Bahá'í national administrative body. He was subsequently elected fifteen more times before declining health curtailed his activities.

However, his greatest passion was to travel and teach the principles of "race amity," for which purpose he gave up his law career and real estate business. He spoke across the country at colleges, churches, civic groups, women's clubs, addressing handfuls to hundreds with a dignity and radiance that received frequent comment. Sometimes, he was accompanied by his wife, Louisa Mathew, a British-born, Cambridge-educated, White Bahá'í with whom in 1912 he began a loving 40-year marriage. In many parts of the US they were unable to even travel together, and they endured gracefully the unique indignities to which each was subjected.

In 1946, when their lives slowed due to ill health, the Gregorys moved to Eliot, Maine, near Green Acre Bahá'í School. This was the last of their several homes, which were modest, warm and hospitable dwelling-places of two cultured, distinguished souls whose lives were joined in "one spirit, one purpose." It is there that on July 30, 1951, Louis Gregory passed away with his beloved wife at his side.

Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, who had encouraged and guided Gregory in his endeavors, cabled: "Profoundly deplore grievous loss of dearly beloved, noble-minded, golden-hearted Louis Gregory," and conferred upon him the spiritual distinction of "Hand of the Cause" with which only 47 people in the history of the Bahá'í Faith have been honored.

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