A Brief History of the Baha'i Faith in Chattanooga
A Personal Recollection by Mary K. Radpour (related during March 2020)
Albert & Ruth James come to Chattanooga (early 1940s)
I am going to sketch out the Baha’i history of Chattanooga as it was told to me and recorded in various notes to myself. Today I wrote a note to Bob James and to Dermot McHugh, asking if they can confirm the segment about Albert and Ruth James being in Chattanooga. Albert was Bob James’ uncle, and Dermot was Albert’s son-in-law. I knew Albert well as I was his assistant when he was an auxiliary Board member. (the first in a handful of assistants in the world).
My understanding is that Albert wanted to train as a Tuskegee airman, but he was sent instead to Chattanooga because he was a teacher, and the Army needed black teachers to train black troops. Albert taught literacy classes here, and Ruth was a homemaker. When they lived here, they hosted Sarah Martin Pereira, whom I recall told me that she used to come to Chattanooga to speak at a local hotel meeting room rented by the friends and advertised in the paper. There was a very active Baha’i couple from Memphis who often came here to assist in that effort of proclamation of the teachings. Their names were Odessa and John Myers; I do recall that they were African-American and both were very tall and had advanced degrees. This is speculation, but because Louis Gregory was so active in TN in his visits to Fisk, I would be very surprised if he was not also a visitor to Chattanooga and to Knoxville College in Knoxville.
It would also be reasonable to conclude that Hand of the Cause Dorothy Baker may have come to Chattanooga on speaking tours in the South. (Documentation of Gregory and Baker trips here might be available from the Archives office in Wilmette.)
After the war, a number of years passed before there were Baha’is resident in Chattanooga again.
Among the first were Thom Thompson and his wife Lucia, who lived in Chattanooga and Lookout Mountain; one dramatic event which occurred during their time here was the accidental destruction of their home by fire. Thom told me that they were here for several years and that there was also a Baha’i couple here with whom they held the Feast, named Peyton and Anne Brien, whose presence here is confirmed in 1965 by the archives.
- In 1968, there was one Baha’i on record in Chattanooga: Bradshaw Cummings.
- Hand of the Cause* Dr. Rahmatullah Muhajir visited Chattanooga on February 8, 1976 for a meeting of the District Teaching Committee with the Local Spiritual Assembly of Chattanooga.
* The Hands of the Cause of God, Hands of the Cause, or Hands (informally) were a select group of Baháʼís, appointed for life, whose main function was to propagate and protect the Baháʼí Faith. Hands are considered to have achieved a distinguished rank in service to the religion.
- The first Spiritual Assembly of Chattanooga, Tennessee was formed by joint declaration on December 29, 1975. The officers of the Assembly were Julian MacQueen, Chair; Joe Ford, Treasurer; Sarah Norton, Corresponding Secretary; Cathy Giles, Recording Secretary; and Paul Haynes, Librarian.
- The first election for a Spiritual Assembly was held in April, 1976, when there were 11 members of the community. The Assembly members were: Joe Ford, Chair; Karen Smartt, Vice-Chair; Sarah Norton, Corresponding Secretary; Kathleen Giles, Recording Secretary; Mary Ann Elczuk, Treasurer; Mimi Hamill, Librarian; Mary Allen; Paul Haynes; and Rebecca Mayberry. Joe Ford and his girlfriend Karen Smartt had learned of the Faith by way of a Seals & Crofts concert; the musicians held a fireside after the performance.
- The first Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Hamilton County, Tennessee was formed in 1981. The first members were George Bley, Ruth Bley, Jeanie McKenna, Michael McKenna, Nader Naderi, Shahrzad Naderi, Azizollah Rassekh, Fakhre Rassekh & Maliheh Nazerian.
- The Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Chattanooga became an incorporated body on March 28th, 1979.
- The Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Hamilton County, Tennessee became an incorporated body on September 10th, 1985. (Note: Currently there is no Baha'i Assembly in Hamilton County.)
- 1979: Incorporation of the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Chattanooga; Members were Sharon Brown, Chuck Hendrickson, Shahri Naderi, Iraj Radpour, Mary K. Radpour, Tahereh Radpour, Karen Sliger, Tommy Sliger
- 1979: Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of East Ridge was formed. Members were Dorothy Edwards, Edda Errol, Fuad Ghalili, Ladon Ghalili, Betty Morris, Edith Osborn
- The first Baha’i Center of Chattanooga was in the home of Edith Osborn and was located at 5013 Cassandra Smith Road in Hixson, in a house which no longer stands. It served as the Center from 1979 to 1996.
- Sunday, November 9th, 2003: First worship service in new Center
- The first Baha’i Center purchased by the Spiritual Assembly of Chattanooga was located at 1403 North Moore Road in East Brainerd. It served the community as a Center from the fall of 2000 to the fall of 2003.
- On November 9, 2003, the former Gospel Chapel Church, at 2405 Hamill Road, Hixson was purchased by the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Chattanooga and the community held its first worship service at this location on Sunday, November 9th, 2003.
- Sunday, June 6th, 2004: Dedication of the current Baha’i Center of Chattanooga on Hamill Road in Hixson.
Added historical notes from in and around Chattanooga**
Editor: abl 2020 0326
- Ruth Moffett: In 1938 she was in a wide tour including the South across 11 states - some of them were: New Orleans, Louisiana, Mobile, Fairhope, Birmingham, and Teladega, Alabama, Atlanta, Georgia, Chattanooga, Nashville, Tennessee, and Camner, Kentucky. Milwaukee and Racine were stops she would give series of talks in between and on leaving for and arriving from many tours. [Historical Note: Ruth Moffett (January 19, 1880 - July 5, 1978), or most often in newspaper accounts as Mrs. Robert Lee Moffett, was one of the outstanding traveling speakers for the religion who is known to have aided the founding of Bahá'í communities.]
- Mid-February 1957, George Van Sombeek wrote a Letter to the editor on race unity and an appreciation of Black history. A couple weeks later there is a story of Ludmila Van Sombeek returning from a 10 day speaking tour - but now lifted off the society page and in an article of her own. It noted she gave talks and visited individuals in Chattanooga, Memphis, and at Fisk University having spoken there in 1934.
[Historical Notes: Ludmila Ott Bechtold Van Sombeek (Jul 30, 1893 Vienna, Austria - Sep 7, 1979 in Phoenix, Arizona) was a nurse who fled World War I to the United States by marrying Adolph George Bechtold and learned of the Baha'i Faith from Marie Foote in Brooklyn, New York. Her first appearance in newspapers was supporting a black school for children and concerns of African Americans would follow through most of her life. She was active in some Race Amity Conventions and was visible in some newspapers such as The Pittsburgh Courier, The Chicago Defender, New York Age, and the The Carolina Times across two marriages which the husbands died in, though noting supporting her and her priorities. Between her husband's she became the first guild-licensed optician in the country and whether in Baha'i circles or not, served in volunteer associations along the way. She moved with her second husband to Durham, North Carolina in 1955 and after he died in 1958 she continued there until 1969 when she moved to be near her children and soon retired from public engagements. She died a decade later. Mid-February 1957, George Van Sombeek wrote a Letter to the editor on race unity and an appreciation of Black history. A couple weeks later there is a story of Ludmila Van Sombeek returning from a 10 day speaking tour - but now lifted off the society page and in an article of her own. It noted she gave talks and visited individuals in Chattanooga, Memphis, and at Fisk University having spoken there in 1934. Perhaps the most revealing of the hundreds of newspaper articles about her was in 1935 done by African-American columnist L. F. Coles who had grown to know her first family and carefully noted the non-prejudicial atmosphere of the family, her active engagement in institutions focused on African-Americans and her advocacy of the Baha'i Faith.]
- North Carolinians were among those attending the Southern Teaching Conference in Chattanooga, TN, in September, 1969. In 1969, communications from the National Spiritual Assembly and its agencies took on an even greater tone of excitement and urgency, and in September, the National Teaching Committee hosted the Southern Teaching Conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in order to prepare a new regional plan. A letter to participants from the National Spiritual Assembly called for a “redoubled effort" to realize “large-scale expansion” in the South, with particular attention to die African American population. During the conference, the National Teaching Committee presented its newly-appointed subsidiary body, the Deep South Committee, that would spearhead the effort. The new committee announced goals for establishing the faith in new localities in each state; for South Carolina, the whopping total was twenty-four towns, most of them small county seats, by the end of the Nine Year Plan in a little more than two years. Source: Louis Ventner, A History of the Baha'i Faith in South Carolina
- While not in Chattanooga, thought near, I thought this was an interesting side note: George Townsend, Hand of the Cause of God [*see above historical note re "Hands"]: Townshend went to Oxford for a time, then returned to Ireland where he was a lead writer for The Irish Times from 1900 to 1904. In 1904 he emigrated to the US and became ordained in Salt Lake City. He then went to Sewanee, Tennessee where he became Associate Professor of English at the University of the South.
- WRCB TV ( Webcast by NBC Chattanooga) (2008, 2013) - Where did the Baha'i faith originate? Source: https://www.wrcbtv.com/story/9312587/question-8-where-did-the-bahai-faith-originate
- H Borrah Kavelin: The National Spiritual Assembly of the United States asked him to sene as a keynote speaker at six regional Vision to Victory conferences throughout the United States (1987). However, by the time his plane arrived at the second conference site, in Chattanooga. Tennessee, he was so ill that he had to be rushed to the hospital in acute distress. His undeviating concern about making his promised presentation was creatively solved by a doctor who asked if the Baha'is could videotape his talk there, in the hospital room. Mr. Kavelin agreed, and arrangements were swiftly made to tape his talk. Shortly after the talk. Mr. Kavelin lapsed into a coma. However, he recovered to the extent that two minor "miracles” were to occur. One was to give a Thanksgiving dinner to thank the doctor and all the many Baha'i friends in Chattanooga who had been so kind to him. The other was to return home to Albuquerque. He lived another three weeks in his home in Albuquerque: then on 18 December 1988, where he passed away. Source: Hugh Adamson, Historical Dictionary of the Baha'i Faith
Editor: abl 2020 0326