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Montreal, June 16,  2020  - The close relationship  of the Montreal Bahá'í  Community with the “Black Roses” community continued through indefatigable work of Mrs Maxwell who was involved in the social and philanthropic work of the city.

In 1927 she became the honorary president of the Negro club of Montreal. The Club relieved hardship and aided the poor, and provided clothing to newly arrived West Indian immigrants. It operated soup kitchen for the unemployed, provided burial plots for those who could not afford any,  and its members volunteered as visiting mothers’ aids. The life of African Canadians in Montreal, numbering at least 1200 was dwarfed to an un healthy extent. Housing, education and other facilities were negligible, except for poolrooms and flats on St. Antoine Street, between Windsor and Guy.

One of the early contacts made by May Maxwell was one of the noted reformer Charles H. Este, pastor of Montreal’s only Negro Church who led the congregation from 1925 to 1968. The Church was the first of all agencies to concern itself with recreational, cultural and educational activities for African Canadians in the city. Rev. Este became a personal friend of the Maxwell household and visited with Mrs Maxwell at the 1963 World Congress in London, UK. He thus became a close friend of the Bahá’í community of Montreal.

A number of people from Rev. Este’s Church became Bahá’ís, including Mr. Eddie Elliot and the two daughters of Mrs Blackburn who had married an African Canadian man. They became members of the first Montreal Youth Group.

Mrs Maxwell’s interest in providing personal attention to the plight of African Canadians is reflected in an account from someone who visited her house at that time. The maid told the visitor that Mrs Maxell could not receive her today! Then Mrs Maxwell was seen rushing down the stairs to welcome the visitor apologetically explaining that she had a woman upstairs giving birth to a baby because she was black and none of the hospitals would take her. So she was bringing in her own doctor and having this baby to be born right in her house.

Giving a talk in 1912 to the students of Howard University in Washington, D.C., founded in 1867 to educate former slaves; the first predominantly black audience ‘Abdu’l-Bahá would address in America, He began by drawing attention to the diversity in the room. “Today I am happy,” he said, “for I see . . . white and black sitting together.” He then proceeded to reject prevailing black and white views about racial essentialism — the widespread belief that a person’s race was central to his or her humanity: “There are no whites and blacks before God. All colors are one, and that is the color of servitude to God. Scent and color are not important. The heart is important. If the heart is pure, white or black or any color makes no difference.”

“As I stand here tonight and look upon this assembly,” he told the audience, “I am reminded curiously of a beautiful bouquet of violets gathered together in varying colors, dark and light.”

“In the vegetable kingdom the colors of multicolored flowers are not the cause of discord. Rather, colors are the cause of the adornment of the garden because a single color has no appeal; but when you observe many-colored flowers, there is charm and display. The world of humanity, too, is like a garden, and humankind are like the many-coloured flowers.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá had begun to craft a new language of race — a new range of racial images and metaphors — which consciously contradicted these racist and ingrained associations. They found their focus in Louis Gregory himself, who was the first American Bahá’í of African descent. “I liken you,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá told him, “to the pupil of the eye. You are black and the pupil is black, yet it becomes the focus of light.”

“When Louis Gregory travelled to Stuttgart,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote, “although being of black color, yet he shone as a bright light in the meeting of the friends.” “He will return to America very soon,” he advised an American friend, “and you, the white people, should then honor and welcome this shining colored man in such a way that all the people will be astonished.”

In another talk, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explained that:

“In the clustered jewels of the races may the blacks be as sapphires and rubies and the whites as diamonds and pearls. The composite beauty of humanity will be witnessed in their unity and blending.”

Photos: The first Montreal youth group; Eddie Elliot is standing on the left side

Inset: May Maxwell

References: Abdu'l-Bahá'í – Mahmud’s Diary

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

Montreal Council’s minutes, 1928

Bertly, Leo W. 1977 : Canada and Its People of African Descent. Montreal

 

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