Opening the Door to
a Life

Opening the Door to a Life

I beg Thee to forgive me, O my Lord, for every menIon but the menIon of Thee, and for every praise but the praise of Thee, and for every delight but delight in Thy nearness, and for every pleasure but the pleasure of communion with Thee, and for every joy but the joy of Thy love and of Thy good-pleasure, and for all things pertaining unto me which bear no relatIonship unto Thee, O Thou Who art the Lord of lords, He Who provideth the means and unlocketh the doors.
The Báb

The door of a Norfolk, Virginia farmhouse opened to the sound of a baby’s soft coos. Robert Chaittle Turner had entered the world.

Two prosperous towns, Norfolk and Portsmouth, had just experienced a summer of pestilence. An outbreak of yellow fever had swept through, creating controversies about the necessity of quarantines. Townspeople did not know, at the time, that mosquitos initiate the fever, but they did know of yellow fever’s high contagion rate. The wealthy left town, but the Black community, whether living free or not, had little means with which to do so.

Because people gathered, for work and for worship, disease spread. Loved ones died, and flocks could no longer come to pray over them. The hospital lost workers to disease and had to send away for additional doctors and nurses from elsewhere. As beds filled, a field hospital popped up.

Insect on a leaf, photo by Siddarth Nair

Do you know the difference between an outbreak, an epidemic and a pandemic? One infiltrates a small area with disease, the next affects a region, and a pandemic wreaks havoc in the world. In the case of an outbreak, less attention may be focused on research, as in the case of this yellow fever outbreak. (Perhaps your town has experienced not only an outbreak but a pandemic. If so, you know the anxiety and uncertainty Robert’s community faced.)

Front image of a pamphlet from 1856 on the Yellow Fever.

How would such an outbreak have affected health and safety in the era of slavery? If a servant became ill, could they easily call in sick?

As far as we know, baby Robert slept through this first difficult question in life. In fact, he would grow up to transcend many of life’s challenges and to quietly bring hope to his people, although he could not know this at the time.


If your community has experienced inequities coping with health care, have you found ways to offer comfort to the vulnerable?

Origins and Inclinations

We have no current record of Robert Chaittle Turner’s ancestral origin. (Because he outlived his only heir, we do not have access to DNA samples.) We do know that the greatest number of Africans displaced from their homelands and transported to Virginia in the century in the 1700s - 1800s originated from Benin, Biafra, West-Central Africa (and the countries therein), and Sierra Leone. He may likely have come from one of these places.

A scene from 1865 Civil War era.

1865 Civil War Reconstruction, Library of Congress


If the concept of ubuntu was part of your heritage, what principles do you think you would hold dear in America as a contemporary of Robert Turner? Would you expect to find these values in the family, in the community, in the traditions of your ancestors—or perhaps also in a hope based on new ideas? Do you think there can be more than one right answer?

The front of a large building with an over hanging roof.

Doors of an historic “African house” on a plantation in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, photographed in 1940; Library of Congress Historic Engineering Record 

A row of historic houses from the street view.

Portsmouth, Virginia's historic district

The Eyes of Childhood

While Robert was born in Norfolk, his mother spent her working years in nearby Portsmouth as an enslaved Black American in the home of a mayor. Thus, he would have seen the manners and living conditions of the well-to-do as well as the rural life of farming families.

What might he have gained from his mother’s experience?

We might guess that at some point in his childhood, Robert ambled along the shoreline of the Elizabeth and James Rivers, skipping rocks into the water on his way to meet his mother in this historic naval port city.

Perhaps he helped her with chores at the fine home where she served as an assistant to the mayor’s wife, quietly observing the social graces or the array of personalities drifting in and out, whether with concerns or mere conviviality. Unnoticed, he may have seen more of human relations than anyone knew and may have taken it to heart.

Have you ever thought about the word context? We each live under circumstances that affect our perceptions as well as our actual experiences in life, Context refers to the cultural understandings of our times, the local and regional events, our family dynamics and heritage, the arts and religion to which we are exposed, and the landscape and politics where we live. When we add these to what little we gain clues about the inner thoughts that compose a life lived. In this way, we can try to feel empathy for a person’s experience, even if we can’t state these perspectives as facts.

Understanding all the images, words, impressions, exchanges, and thoughts that shape a life, we can only imagine the context of the times when we do not have the writings and cannot have a conversation with someone who lived before.

Because not much has been written about the inner thoughts of Robert Turner, we will try to understand the context of his times. We will begin by thinking about what the world must have looked like through his eyes as a child.

Young people living in the South after the time of slavery tell stories with their eyes. Surely Robert would have seen much more than those who came later, having grown up during the time of the Civil War. We can only imagine the piercing truths that burnished the light in his eyes.

Two African American children sitting on a porch.

Children in the South. Library of Congress, circa 1899, assembled for 1900 Paris Exhibition. Daniel Murray Collection

War on the Water

By the time Robert turned six years old, the Civil War had erupted and lasted until he was almost ten. His home state of Virginia saw more Civil War battles than any state in the country. Virginia had at first decided not to leave the Union, but when troops came in to end rebellion in the state, the whole Confederacy moved its Capitol to Richmond Virginia in 1861, making the state a focal point of the war.

Step into the role of that little boy named Robert. During March of your seventh year, the slip outside, perhaps to catch a fish for supper for your mother. You walk near the waterfront, trying to stay on known paths. You come upon two older boys who tell you a frightful story. They were fishing near the port of the Norfolk berth last week when a two-day battle broke out. You verify their story by seeing the skeletons of ships in the harbor and ask them about the broken mast. You must have been in Portsmouth when the explosions happened, but they saw the fiery event and try to explain the war as if it were a game of chess like the one in the mayor’s house.

Four warships battled each other, they say. One ran aground. Another sunk. Altogether 433 people lost their lives, and yet the battle was a stand-off.

You’ve heard about dozens of other battles fought in Virginia, and the boys cannot really explain what the Confederacy has at stake. One says they all fight for patriotism, the other claims they just want to keep people enslaved so they don’t lose their properties.

You look at the boat and begin to cry thinking about the lives lost. They’ve run off already, so they won’t be missed for their evening chores.


As a seven-year-old child with a tender heart, what do you feel inside as you think about the war, the reasons and the lives lost?

Deck of the ship with a burned masthead.

Iron-clad gunboat on the Saint James River, with masthead damaged by fire;  city map of Norfolk (Library of Congress) 46 

An old map of the City of Norfolk

Mayhem at the Mayor’s House

Imagine that you move on to the home of the mayor to help your mother polish silver in the kitchen. From there, you can hear the mayor and his visitor discuss the effects of the war on their city and state. His advisor says, “Your honor, a minority of White Virginians, along with both free and enslaved Black Virginians, supported the Union before the war. They did not want our Southern states to secede and form a new government, and they felt the slave owners had too much power. As you know, our large plantation owners realized they could not operate their properties without purchasing extra laborers. They would rather break away from the United States than start a new way of life without the economic benefits of slavery.”

The mayor may have sighed and said, “Yes but you see the results over in West Virginia. If its counties vote with the Union, Virginia will become the only state to lose territory due to split opinions. We should decide to either break away or unite with the North.”

As a boy, Robert may have overheard debates in the mayor’s home about the state’s economic challenge of seceding from the Union compared with the property owners’ economic challenges if they gave up slavery.

Imagine you are seven years old, realizing that the lives of your family members and friends are at stake in the gunboat battles, that the ironclad vessels will charge ahead to determine who will live or die, who will be free and who will remain the property of another.

On the other hand, you may be questioning where you will go if your mother loses her role in the mayor’s household and where your extended family will live as well. Think about the confusion naturally felt by a child listening in on such a conversation.

Activity: Improvise a Dinner Party

Create a role play to stage a dinner in the home of the mayor. Decide who will play each of these roles. Based on the descriptions, let the improvisational scene play out:

1. Mr. and Mrs. Smith fear a fallen economy and wants to keep things the way they are, with slavery intact. They claim the servants won’t mind remaining enslaved.

2. Mr. Ellwood, for religious reasons, wants peace and will desert if asked to fight.

3. Mrs. Richards has become friendly with many of the enslaved as well as the free Blacks and thinks that all should have equal freedoms.

4. Robert’s mother, overhearing in a separate room, tries to comfort him and allay fears of fresh battles and future uncertainties.

5. Robert responds, perhaps, to calm his mother.

6. The mayor, let’s presume, is sympathetic to the thinking of both the Virginians and the West Virginians but must defend his city.


Robert may have had opportunities to perceive the perspectives and feelings of people from diverse classes, ethnicities, and opinions.

How might that have shaped his character? How would he still have reacted to the fears of any Black child growing up in Virginia during the Civil War?

A house from that time in Freedman's village

Freedman’s Village, Alexandria, Virginia (Library of Congress) 

Studying a Spiritual Approach to Life and Liberty

Envisioning the life of Robert Turner, we can surmise that he would have felt what it meant to be a young Black American boy, coming of age in a Southern State in turbulent time. He may have known some freed Blacks as well as many enslaved families. Do you think he felt concern for his family members and friends who were not yet freed?

A generation before the Civil War, African American James Bradley wrote:

... I know very well that slave-owners take a great deal of pains to make the people in the free states believe that the slaves are happy; but I know, likewise, that I was never acquainted with a slave, however well he was treated, who did not long to be free.
...The truth is, if a slave shows any discontent, he is sure to be treated worse, and worked harder for it; and every slave knows this. This is why they are careful not to show any uneasiness when white men ask them about freedom. When they are alone by themselves, all their talk is about liberty – liberty! It is the great thought and feeling that fills the minds full all the time. (Narrative on file at Library of Congress).

The voices of Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, and other figureheads of freedom often inspired discussions about freedom.

Religion as a Doorway

Religion created spaces for open conversation among African Americans, away from their work environment. The Black church offered elements of traditional African religion but also incorporated Christianity in its many variations.

Methodists and Baptists had a strong presence in Virginia, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints emerged in the 1800s, claiming to be a new revelation for this day.

However, Bahá’u’lláh would be the only known religious founder to outlaw slavery. His sacred law written in 1873, had not yet been discovered by truth seekers in Robert’s circle.

Meanwhile, Black church networks offered a system for independent discussion, passage out of slave states, and moral support for life’s challenges. What’s more, Northern abolitionists sometimes sent funding to the churches to assist with the Underground Railroad before the war, helping individuals escape to freedom. After the war, the churches became a place for freed African Americans to exercise those freedoms.

This boy Robert Turner most likely had nurturing in honorability from a young age and absorbed the conversations of the adults in the room. Somewhere along the way, he developed special insights and the desire to recognize truth and light wherever he found it.

The church's congregation stands together in front of the church.

Activity: Consulting and Listening

Robert’s skill as an attentive and patient listener opened the door to relationships with the diverse people he later met in life. His strengths proved valuable in ways he could not have imagined at the time he left Virginia.

Practice listening skills in your own group as you try the following activity.

1. Pass around a bowl containing one fruit per person. Each person will take one piece but will not eat it.

2. Raise the question, What can we do to create a sense of belonging in our community?or open conversation among African Americans, away from their work environment. The Black church offered elements of traditional African religion but also incorporated Christianity in its many variations.

3. The first person will offer a brief response. As they speak, they place their fruit in the bowl in the center of the table. Their idea now belongs to the group.

4. Going around the circle, the next person must honor the last idea stated, by repeating it and then adding to it. For example, “I hear you saying..., and I would like to add ....” (If they have nothing to add yet, they can pass and respond at the end.)

5. When everyone has spoken, the fruit bowl will be full again. All will have been heard, and all will have shared ideas that now belong to the group. Competition must be replaced with a feeling of unity and belonging before washing and eating the fruit.

That Lonesome Road

Assume the role of Robert, coming of age as the son of an enslaved American in a Southern State in the last half of the nineteenth century.

The family who wants to keep you onsite may have imagined all the roles you could play, as a stronger, younger version of your parent. You may not have had much time to play, but you have developed skills useful in that household.

On the streets, however, you had surely suffered indignities from strangers for the color of your skin —and possibly resentment from peers who felt you were being groomed for inside work. You may have wondered, at times, what would become of you.

The Thirteenth Amendment, proclaimed final on December 13, 1965, abolished slavery and involuntary servitude when Robert was about ten years old. Enforcement became a complex task, however.

The state of Virginia, in its interpretation of the law, deemed that freed slaves should eventually prepare to leave the state. As a youth who saw harsh treatment on the streets, Robert surely faced urging from relatives to go.

Listen to the attached song of the period, arranged by Jester Hairston, the grandson of an enslaved American. Mr. Hairston arranged and taught music as a US ambassador of goodwill throughout the twentieth century. He talked about plantation culture, spirituality, and the dialects that influenced the speech and music derived from African families transported to America.

He talked about the Reconstruction era and told of young men facing new choices in places such as Virginia. Listen as he directs a choir at one of the hundreds of schools he visited across America in the 1060s and ‘70s.

Song: Going Down that Lonesome Road

Jester Hairston lived for a century and passed away in Los Angeles at the dawn of a new Millennium.

Middle-aged adults of all races from across the country came to his funeral.

If you were a young person traveling the route Robert took, do you think you would have felt the emotions expressed in the song? Why or why not?

Becoming a Motherless Child

Robert’s aunt and uncle decided they had to leave but did not want to risk the uncertainties of the Northern states. Instead, they headed all the way to the West Coast, where people had heard of plentiful jobs in the cities. Robert went along.

When Robert left Virginia, his mother remained behind. She did not keep a diary to explain the reasons why, but you can explore some possibilities by later traveling through the Door of the Past. Meanwhile, return to Robert’s plight. Imagine what it took to leave his mother.

On the long train ride, he must have had time to miss his mother’s comfort as he faced an unknown future. Many children and parents were separated before emancipation. He now faced separation after his emancipation.

Have you ever felt homesick? What were the circumstances? Did you ever leave by choice and still feel homesick? Listen to a traditional song that captures those feelings, recorded here by the legendary singer Odetta (at Carnegie Hall in 1963).

Song: Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child

On the long train ride, he must have had time to miss his mother’s comfort as he faced an unknown future. Many children and parents were separated before emancipation. He now faced separation after his emancipation.

Map of a Transcontinental Route of the Atlantic and Pacific railroad.

Library of Congress image of an 1883 railway route from east to west.

Time on a Train to Think

The railway made the West more accessible than it would have been in an earlier era. Look at the map and study one of several routes that skirted the country. Day after day on a train, he must have watched the sun rise and set, leaving behind the rivers that laced the South – the James River’s wake rippled by warships, the Potomac’s view of the US the Capitol the Ohio River’s symbolic path to freedom, the James River’s wake rippled by warships—to careen across vast empty prairies, wan deserts, and strange cityscapes hemmed with distant peaks. Each sunset must have beamed mysteries into Robert’s eyes through the train window as he dreamed about his new life in this strange new world. What new vistas would he see? Would he ever return to his childhood again?

Illustration of the time period's railroad scene.

1874 Currier and Ives print - Train leaving the station in Detroit

If you had left your hometown to live in a new place with relatives, would you feel timid or bold about taking new risks and trusting new people?

Imagine that you feel an invisible path leading to a doorway, drawing you to see others from the inside out, not to leap to easy conclusions but to gain insights that create sincere bonds.

You will choose whether to listen to their stories as you try to redefine a sense of family or whether to remain lonely and bitter about the past.

Activity: Role Playing a Moment of Panic

Write down your basic belief about humanity. Do most people sincerely want the best for others? Do many people stand in the way of your success? Do you believe people are either good or evil? Think about the one-sentence belief that prompts your reactions in your daily life. Write it in your journal.

Next, your facilitator will hand you a slip of paper with one of these beliefs written on it, without your classmates knowing who holds which belief. You will play a role based on this mindset.

Now you will draw a position out of a hat. One person will serve as a doorman, one as a wealthy hotel guest and one as a hotel manager.

You are all trying to solve the mystery of the hotel guest’s missing luggage. The guest must catch a train and cannot find an important bag that stood in the lobby a moment ago.

Perform an impromptu two-minute skit based on the motivations of your character. Because you interpret every comment as a reinforcement of your beliefs, your reactions will become stronger over the duration of the scene.

(To the Facilitator: In the end, you solve the mystery by rushing up to say that you picked up the bag by mistake, as it looked just like yours.)

Second Chance:

Evaluate the roles played. How do our subtle interactions and beliefs about each other escalate a dramatic situation?

Now scramble the papers with the basic beliefs and redistribute them. Reenact the scene with the same people acting as the doorman, the guest and the manager, only with alternate belief systems.

Now scramble the papers with the basic beliefs and redistribute them. Reenact the scene with the same people acting as the doorman, the guest and the manager, only with alternate belief systems.

Ask the audience, Did the outcome, or at least the tone of the dialogue, change when the characters shifted their thinking? Ask the characters, Did your actual feelings change between the first and the second round?

Ask everyone, How do our subtle interactions and beliefs about each other actually affect our daily lives?

On the basis of this activity, you have a chance to rewrite your own personal belief about life and people—the one that will most influence your actions and spiritual identity.

Revise it as needed in the future.


At what point do you think Robert developed a personal belief about humanity? How do you think it came about? What do you think it was?

Some human traits do not depend on race or class. Others are cultivated by the conditions of birth or heritage. Imagine Robert looking for the most transcendent quality in each person in the room and befriending them on the basis of that quality.

Name a time when you saw someone overcome such a challenge by reaching out in empathy to others, to help them feel they belonged.

A pair of old shoes on a step.

Art installation by Masu Olufani

Robert may have done just that. We do not know whether he shined his old shoes or whether he simply shined a light on his own best qualities to develop the amiability that became his trademark.

Working in the City

Robert arrived in San Francisco during its heyday. The bloom and prosperity of gold rush fever still clogged the streets with shoppers and fortune seekers.

One of the first doors Robert entered proved fortunate for him, if you measure wealth in terms of future friendships. His uncle landed him a job in the Palace Hotel, a showplace that rivaled the hotels of Europe. As San Francisco’s first premier luxury hotel, it became the largest in the world. Brand new in 1875, restored in 1989, and rebuilt after the earthquake of 1906, its rotunda still serves as an upscale restaurant.

A door made of glass and lined with metal  ornamentation.

Entryway of the Palace Hotel pictured.

Robert’s skills as a waiter at the Palace soon caught the attention of guests, especially a railroad man named Mr. Brown who frequented the Palace Hotel.

Black and white view outside of the Palace Hotel.

Library of Congress photo of Palace Hotel, circa 1906, and in contemporary times.

Interior view of the Palace Hotel dining area.

Mr. Brown noticed Robert’s kindness, efficiency and courtly service and offered him higher wages to come and work for him. Eventually, he recommended Robert to his friend George Hearst, a successful businessman who had made his money in the mining industry and owned several large properties.

Robert Meets the Hearsts

Robert became the personal valet for George Hearst, who had married a much younger woman, Phoebe Apperson. She indulged his businesses by establishing her own humanitarian causes. When George briefly served a senate seat, she entertained in Washington, D.C.,developing friendships among a cast of socialites there. Primarily, she sought out the worthiest causes in education, health and culture and funded projects and endowed them. Streets, libraries,schools, and even a museum on the UC Berkeley campus are named after her. The funding of the Hearst Free Library, in Anaconda, Montana, typifies her philanthropic gifts to the intellectual development of even the more rural communities.

Phoebe also loved to travel. She had only one child, William, and she lavished every advantage upon him, but after he grew, she enjoyed mentoring young women who saw her as a role model of independence and character.

Portrait photo of Mrs. Phoebe Hearst and "Buster"

Phoebe appears in this photo with their only son, William Randolph Hearst.

View from the street of the Library

Hearst Free library in Deer County, Montana

Respect Brings More Responsibility

When George became ill and passed away, Phoebe inherited the task of running the family businesses and directing the fortune so as to preserve and grow the assets. George had given their son William a newspaper to run, the San Francisco Enquirer, but Phoebe worked late into the night to keep the books for the other businesses George had acquired, finding that she had the skills and work ethic to maintain the empire. She had a hacienda built in Pleasanton California, while keeping the San Francisco and Washington, D.C. apartments. She couldn’t do all this alone, however. She needed a right-hand man.

Robert had married a girl named Melissa and they had one daughter, Emily. They lived on Sutter Street in San Francisco in the 1890s.

Phoebe Hearst invited Robert and Melissa to her husband’s funeral in 1891, grateful for the help he had given over a decade. He soon received an offer to extend that same service to the Hearst households in George’s absence and to accept increasing responsibilities running the operation for Phoebe, whether in the city or the country or during her travels.

What an immense surprise this must have represented, and yet Robert had prepared for it throughout his life, without even realizing it.

Horse and carriage with driverInterior view with paintings filling the walls.A more faded image of the interior room view with paintings filling the wallsInterior dining room with a fully set dining table.Photo of the house at the end of a driveway

Properties Robert Turner helped manage would include the main house in San Francisco, featuring these scenes from the library, the hacienda, with sweeping grounds, guest lodging, tennis courts, and formal dining rooms, as well as the house in Washington, D.C., where he appears with the horse and carriage in front. 

Robert had served George Hearst with devotion, standing beside the man, known as a messy eater, and picking up his napkin or replacing his dropped bread without ever causing humiliation--and usually without George even noticing the quiet action had occurred, as Robert did not call attention to faults. He showed sincere kindness to guests, especially children, and strived for excellence in his work. None of it had gone unnoticed.

Phoebe noticed. Now she needed his organizational instincts, along with his people skills.

Phoebe invited Robert and his wife along, whether in Washington, D.C., in San Francisco or at the California Hacienda where she had built a large guest retreat. She described him not only as one who kept the staff organized and the equipment oiled but as:

“... Well, the most glorious, the most important, the most absolutely indispensable, was Robert...for If he has a marked fault, it is his aptitude to extend, to swell, far beyond the need and size of the occasion.” (6)
An old lithograph named Centenaire de la Lithographie.A traveling group pictured in front of the Pyramids and the SphinxTwo people in period clothing of the time in the black and white photo.

Travel Expands Vision

Phoebe wanted to treat her friends to a life- changing journey. Imagine the excitement of travel in an age when the first commercial airliner had not yet flown. The photos show a poster for a gallery exhibit celebrating the hundredth anniversary of lithography (high quality printing). In another, two celebrities, Marlena Dietrich and Erich Maria Remarque, walk the streets of Paris. Phoebe’s friends planned extended travels in three parts of the world, with Paris as the jumping off point.

When she decided to travel internationally, Phoebe paid for Robert’s ticket, as his employer, and he reported to the passport office that he may be gone up to two years. He would soon see the world with Phoebe’s entourage as she traveled to Paris, Haifa, and Egypt.

Activity: See the World through the Eyes of Another

Robert’s initial train ride had broadened his world. His new adventures would lead to far more distant shores. Do you think inventions and technology have a purpose in society beyond the practical?Phoebe appears in this photo with their only son, William Randolph Hearst.

Think about your experiences on a subway, a plane or even a face-time call. Transportation and technology in this century have had the potential to unite rather than divide people in a world- embracing vision.

Just as travel exposed Robert to new social circles, we see challenges every day to send and receive messages of belonging rather than alienation through our travels and our technology choices. The outcome of our efforts may depend not on the medium we choose as much as on our communication style.

Do you think it possible to find a shared experience with almost everyone you know?

Try this initial challenge.

Turn to the person next to you. Use your listening skills to deeply empathize as you hear each other’s stories. Compare at least one similar experience such as these:

1. A time when you were reunited with someone you love after a long wait.

2. A time when you were hesitant to speak out in a group or felt you did not belong.

3. A time when you met someone completely unlike yourself and learned something new about them.

If the experiences of your partner differed from yours, discuss the reasons why, to share deeper understanding without judgment. Acknowledge the thoughts, feelings and human experiences you shared.

Next, introduce your partner to the larger group as your sister or brother. Share the connecting points you noticed that bound you, along with the positive discoveries you made about your partner.

A Mesmerizing Moment

Imagine you are Robert Turner now, traveling to Paris. Mrs. Hearst has lodged all her friends in apartments, visiting some who have moved to the city. You have carried her bags and carried the teapot, but the saucers on the table are no bigger than the saucers of your eyes as you step into this magical city and see the images you’ve heard about for so long. Mrs. Hearst is only too happy to share the arts and beauty of the city with everyone and has even paid the way of young women who could not otherwise have come along.

The Eiffel Tower in a fog seen through an opening

 Eiffel Tower, Paris. Library of Congress.

Phoebe had always taken an interest in mysticism. Although a Presbyterian, she read widely about many theories, including the works of Swedenborg, a scientist turned mystic who redefined Christianity in less literary terms. She had an open mind and had even paid for the establishment of a Methodist church in a town where her husband had owned a mine, and she found an imbalance between the number of saloons and the number of sanctuaries. Her friends felt equally impassioned about the spiritual topics of the day.

Picture of Lua Getsinger

One afternoon in Paris, a delightful friend named Lua Getsinger sat at tea, engaging Mrs. Hearst about her newfound faith. (You will learn more about the Religious Movements of 1893 in the Doors of History section.)

Imagine yourself as Robert. You have always felt reverence for things spiritual, but now you hear something new and captivating in the mystical message of this young woman. You earnestly want to know more about the new religion she describes to Mrs. Hearst. She tells of her recent trip to the Chicago Exhibition of World Religions and the study classes she has taken as a result.

Image of the atriums of Exhibition Hall.

Exhibition Hall in Chicago, 1893. Library of Congress; Souvenir Photo Co.

This new faith she describes seems to honor the original messengers of the religions of the past, recognizing their common truths as inspired according to the needs of their times, while inviting a new age in which humankind progresses in spiritual, not only material, degrees. Lua describes the coming age of equality in a way that speaks to your heart. She says that this Faith recognizes the oneness of all humans of every race and nation and considers them worthy of divine love. It sees all as children of one God, despite gender, creed, or color, with capacities to fulfill in the path toward universal peace. It seeks harmony between science and religion. It honors love and unity rather than competition, fault finding and judgement.

An ornate teacup.

 Photo by Elizabeth Fuchs

You keep returning to hover near Lua’s elbow, eager to refill her cup. You hope she doesn’t notice you pouring the teapot again and again, just to hear the next snippet of conversation. You fear either she will float away, drowning in tea, or you will float away, doused in your own curiosity.

At last Phoebe invites you to join in as an equal participant. Animated, Lua has just doubled her audience—and as such, launches a wonderful adventure for the three of you. By the following summer, two of Lua’s new students, Phoebe and Robert, will both have become Baha’is.

Activity: What Would You Say to Your Partner?

Why do you suppose Robert felt elated? Do you think he had ever been invited into a conversation about the oneness of all religions, races, and nations?

Without knowing exactly what Lua said, how do you think this experience reinforced his hopes, instincts, or spiritual perceptions? How did the new concepts relate to the realities he had already witnessed seen in the world? How did he respond?

Imagine yourself as Robert, returning to your wife Melissa to tell her the good news. Turn to the person next to you and role play the conversation the two might have had about the relevance of this new Faith in the context of your own life.

The sea on the left meets the wall on the right.

Who Brought the Message?

Certainly, parallels exist between the early followers of Baha’u’lláh and people of Robert Turner’s time.

They had to learn to suspend prejudice not only based on race but on social class and religion.

Bahá’u’lláh, born into wealth, gave up position and money in preference for service. Because of his charitable deeds, He became known as the Father of the Poor. Before becoming the founder of the Baha’i Faith, he had been expelled from his homeland. His government sent him farther and farther away, eventually exiling him from Persia to Palestine (present-day Israel). The clergy in His country felt threatened by the rising popularity of His message. They did not realize His pure intentions for humanity and feared He would upstage their political and clerical positions, as the power of church and state coalesced in that region.

His oldest son, Abbas Effendi, had been a boy of nine when soldiers marched the family into a vile prison in the city of Akka. This son established good relationships with officials and later arranged for Bahá’u’’lláh’s release with the promise that they would not circulate in the broader society. The prison was evacuated and cleaned up as a barracks for Turkish soldiers and the family moved, remaining under house arrest.

Abbas Effendi directed the affairs of the religion in His father’s stead, as Baha’u’’lláh remained restricted, and He served as a role model of the Faith’s teachings. He did not want to divert attention away from His father to Himself, so rather than go by His given name, he used the title ‘Abdu’l- Bahá, which translates as Servant of the Light.

Six years after Baha’u’llah’s passing, no group of Americans had yet taken the risky venture to visit the Baha’i Holy family in their place of exile. They needed special permission to know when they could do so without endangering the Bahá’is in that region.

From Paris to Palestine

After her exciting conversation with Lua, Phoebe Hearst felt that a pilgrimage to visit ‘Abdu’l-Bahá would help strengthen her understanding and that of her friends.

Few Baha’i books or materials had been translated into English, and she suspected He could illuminate many mystical truths for the group of friends who so desperately wanted to know, to help them understand and better serve this newfound faith.

Phoebe made a change in her travel plans, to go to Israel on the way to Egypt. She extended the rent on the Paris apartments while she wrote to ‘Abdu’l- Baha, asking permission to come for a visit. She learned that He resided in the upstairs of the House of ‘Abdu’lla Pasha, as a religious prisoner.

Lua and her husband Edward would, of course, accompany the travel party, along with Lua’s original Baha’i teacher, Dr. Ibrahim Kheirolla. Phoebe’s sister Anne, an artist named Marion Jack, and a young Paris Baha’i, May Bolles, would come along, and the guest list, of course, would include Robert!

Including a servant as an equal travel partner was not a typical choice on the part of such an entourage, but this was not a typical religion.

Robert, who had become a Baha’i at the same time as Phoebe, in the summer of 1898, may still have thought of himself primarily as the baggage carrier, there to run errands and to make sure there were enough male companions to keep the ladies safe and to move the valises of dresses from ship to shore to carriage. He could not have been more surprised to see what happened once he arrived.

An Arduous Journey

The journey into the prison city of Akka in those days proved long and difficult. Entering the bay required docking at a distance and hoisting passengers and luggage into lifeboats. Boatmen would pick up the travelers, in fact, as if they too were suitcases, and thrust into the boats. Once ashore, a messenger would meet them, where they would discretely go to the house where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá lived. This first group of pilgrims undoubtedly welcomed a stalwart steward such as Robert.


If you were Robert, would you have felt simply glad to be useful and intrigued to see the local sights?

Might you have wondered whether you would feel a sense of belonging once you arrived?

In Jerusalem, another Palestinian city, the Ethiopian priests were cast out of the holiest church and forced to perform their functions high on the rooftop. In Akka, although the range of Arab backgrounds created a diverse palette of faces, people were not yet accustomed to seeing Africans walk the streets. Do you think his excitement and commitment overcame any trepidation Robert felt?

Overlooking the sea from a high point in the city of Akka.

 Akka from the Bay, circa 1900. Library of Congress; Matson Collection.

A man is standing along side old cannons in front of a sea way looking toward Akka. The photo is black and white, aged.

 Haifa, looking toward Akka, from Mt. Carmel

Entering the Doorway

The pilgrims finally approached the house of ‘Abdu’llah Pasha, which had derived its name from the Governor of Akka, who lived there from 1820-1832. Because ‘Abdu’l-Baha had to be kept under close watch of the officials, He rented this home from 1896 until 1910, when He moved to Haifa. Here, he interviewed seekers after truth, met visiting Baha’is, and wrote his Will and Testament. ‘Abdu’l-Baha and his wife and his sister, titled the Greatest Holy Leaf, lived with other members of the extended family. His grandson, Shoghi Effendi was born in this home.

Shoghi Effendi and Bahiyyih Khanum.

 Shoghi Effendi and Bahiyyih, the grandson and sister of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, members of the household.

Stairway leading up at the House of Abdu'llah Pasha. The railing is a bright blue and the steps are bricks of stone.

 Steps to house of ‘Abdu’llah Pasha.

The courtyard was visible by officials, who could break up any large gatherings and monitor those who came to call. A long stairway led to the doorway where they would enter into the upper house.

Interior room of the House of Abdu'llah Pasha.

Thornton Chase, the first lifelong American believer, later wrote about what it was like to visit the home.

“We did not know we had reached our destination until we saw a Persian gentleman, and then another and another, step out at the entrance and smile at us. We alighted and they conducted us through the arched, red brick entrance to an open court, across it to a long flight of stone steps, broken and ancient, leading to the highest story and into a small walled court open to the sky, where was the upper chamber assigned to us, which adjoined the room of 'Abdu'l-Bahá. The buildings are all of stone, whitewashed and plastered, and it bears the aspect of a prison.

“O House! Who climbed your stairway? When the Master was a prisoner our spiritual forbears came to you in the night, hearts pounding, souls reaching and hoping: Lua and Sarah, and Phoebe and Robert, and Louis, and Laura, and Thornton -- the first in the West to hear the voice of their Shepherd, Christ, in His "New Name." (7)

We hear their footsteps now, the dust crackling beneath their feet. We hear their spirits, crushing doubt, opening the doors of their hearts to the Light of the New Jerusalem.”

Meeting the Master

The pilgrims traveled in three separate groups until at last, all arrived in Akka. Robert would stay with them and then move on when the Hearst party went on to Egypt to travel down the Nile.

What do you think he felt, sailing into the bay after the long journey, not knowing what to expect next? Perhaps he wondered whether he would be allowed to experience any of the benefits of the trip at all.

Would he ever see the face of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá up close?

You have come on pilgrimage as the only Black American in the very first group of visitors. Why? Because the moment you heard the message of Bahá’u’lláh about a new age in which every star shines from the same height of glory, you immediately embraced this message. Now here you are, standing with these three women and one man, at the foot of the stairs, waiting for the exemplar who has born a lifetime of persecution for his beliefs and yet beams with love and conviction and compassion. He has freed himself from the prison of self and does not spend time in judgement, nor does he consider it forced servitude to remain here, but only strives to build unity and hope with every encounter, to reflect unconditional love and honor as his service to a divine cause.

What must He be thinking about as you stand in the presence of this exemplar?

What are the parallels between His life and yours? Try to envision the scene as if you were Robert Turner.

Activity: Envision a Spiritual Process

Picture the scene you have longed to see, hoping to meet ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in the doorway for the first time.

What expression do you expect to see on His face? What do you expect Him to say to you?

Take a few minutes and sketch the stairs in your journal. Write the words you hope to hear.

Thornton Chase referred to the pilgrimage experience as “opening the doors to the new Jerusalem” in order to “uplift, to chart your destinies, to answer questions and to grant certitude.” (7)

Why do you think he referred to it this way?

If you were to stand in that doorway now, what questions would you hope to hear answered?

What questions would you ask?

How would you chart your destiny accordingly? Discover what happened next to Robert Turner.

A Soul Embraced

A blue framed window looking out across the sea.

“On the first day of the pilgrimage, the guests refreshed themselves and were called into a long room overlooking the Mediterranean Sea,” As one journal told the story.

“ ‘Abdu’l- Baha sat in silence, gazing out of the window, then looking up He asked if all were present. Seeing that one of the believers was absent, He said, ‘Where is Robert?’

“ .... In a moment Robert’s radiant face appeared in the doorway and the Master rose to greet him, bidding him be seated, and said, ‘Robert, your Lord loves you. God gave you a black skin, but a heart white as snow.’” (6)

‘Abdu’l-Baha’s gazed melted Robert, especially as He reached out his arms to embrace this humble soul. What love He exchanged in that glance!

Portrait of Abdu'l-Baha.

How do you think this experience affected the rest of his day, his journey and, indeed, his life’s journey? Perhaps this song will suggest some possibilities. Read the lyrics and hear the spiritual. Determine whether someone wants to learn it for performance.

Play the Song: My Soul

(To be sung in the style of a soulful spiritual, a cappella)

What are these words I hear
—my life’s new message coming clear? I’m more
than just my skin, my kin,my givin’ up and gefn’ up again.
I’m more than this.
These Writings make it clear.
No, we’re not measured by
the master’s pay,
except that Master whom I met today. He sees us not by
our clothesor by the holes
in our shoes,
but by the love within our souls—
our soul—he sees our soul.
So Lord, please let it grow.
Let my love grow.
Let it grow
until the Master smiles at me
just like He did today,
until my love gives way
for other souls
to grow, to grow.

The Question of Freedom

It was extremely difficult for each of the pilgrims to leave the presence of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá when at last their pilgrimage ended, as He honored each one with such a sense of love and belonging. Each day, they hungered for His words, but he also gave them deeds of service. As time permitted, He enjoyed cooking a dish with rice, lamb, currants and nuts for his visitors, starting with those early Americans who came to call. Throughout that first pilgrimage, at every dinner, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also personally placed the dishes in front of each guest, as an example of how to offer loving service and to prefer others above self, regardless of perceived role or station.

The pilgrims kept insisting that Robert be allowed to act in his professional capacity and to serve the meals instead of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. after their incessant cajoling, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá finally consented that the two of them could serve together, side by side. Thus, in some ways, Robert received a greater blessing than anyone seated at the table, for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá granted him the gift of equal service. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explained to him the nature of this joyful service in the face of trial:

“...We are like a piece of iron in the midst of the fire which becomes heated to such a degree that it partakes of the nature of the fire and gives out the same effect to all it touches...” (5)

Robert had come to Palestine expecting to make the party of pilgrims comfortable, as always, and on some level, maybe he simply hoped to be near enough to hear the inspiring stories told by ‘Abdu’l- Bahá, to watch as He passed out coins, food or clothing or gave tutoring, and to visit the historic landmarks where the Holy family had sacrificed so much in order to bring their message of hope to the world. Without enough food or water, living in sewage, their first home in Akka had been a prison cell. If they had recanted their faith, they could have left.

A group photo of Americans on pilgrimage.

American pilgrimage to Akka

Robert had grown up in a battle zone where people fought over the right to view humans as mercantile. A generation had finally won legal freedom of the body, but what of the soul?

Here in the Holy Land, ‘Abdu’l-Baha lived in a prison cell as a boy and still could not freely move about as an elder, and yet he relished the joy of serving guests. What did this mean about freedom of thought and spirit? Does it make a difference when freedom is sacrificed for conviction? What do you think Robert felt when he first heard the following passage—a passage he had now seen in action?

Freedom is not a matter of place. It is a condition. I was thankful for the prison, and the lack of liberty was very pleasing to me, for those days were passed in the path of service, under the utmost difficulties and trials, bearing fruits and results. Unless one accepts dire vicissitudes, he will not attain. To me prison is freedom, troubles rest me, death is life, and to be despised is honour. Therefore, I was happy all that time in prison.

`Abdu'l-Baha in London, p. 120

Activity: Freedom from Self

Take a careful look at your challenging choices in life, and think about “honor” the way ‘Abdu’l-Bahá lived it.

In your journal, make three columns. Label the first one, Freedoms I Enjoy. Add some items. Label the second column, Freedoms I Would Like. Here, include skill sets you have not taken advantage of, such as the freedom to choose positive thoughts or to turn a difficult relationship into a friendship.

Below these columns, make a third list called Action Steps. Include actions you can take that will help you move items in Column 2 to Column 1 and thus feel a great sense of freedom from the prison of self.

Keep checking the list over the coming weeks and star any item you’re able to move.

Abdu'l-Baha walking on the road.

Departing from Palestine

On the day when the first African American pilgrim, Robert Turner, along with the rest of the small entourage, prepared to leave His presence. ‘Abdu’l- Bahá said:

“Now the time has come when we must part, but the separation is only of our bodies, in spirit we are united. Ye are the lights which shall be diffused; ye are the waves of that sea which shall spread and overflow the world. Each wave is precious to me...
.... Another commandment I give unto you that ye love one another even as I love you. Great mercy and blessings are promised to the people of your land, but on one condition: that their hearts are filled with the fire of love, that they live in perfect kindness and harmony like one soul in different bodies. If they fail in this condition, the great blessings will be deferred. Never forget this...
...Look at Me and be as I am; ye must die to yourselves and to the world, so shall ye be born again and enter the kingdom of Heaven. Behold a candle how it gives its light. It weeps its life away drop by drop in order to give forth its flame.“
A lit candle

Candle photo by Dominick Gwarek

Lua Getsinger and others with Abdu'l-Baha greeting children.

Lua Getsinger (right) joins the Master in greeting the community’s children.


Do you think ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s counsel holds just as true today as it did for those who lived a century ago?

What blessings in America have been deferred due to disunity?

What blessings in your own life have been fulfilled due to kindness and unity?

How would you translate ‘Abdul-Baha’s instructions to act as one soul in many bodies?

An image of Abdu'l-Baha from the side.
Robert C. Turner in a suit facing to the left.

A Fount of Light

Robert never seemed to forget the message, and likewise, he must have hoped ‘Abdu’l-Bahá would not forget him either. At one point, he dressed in his best suit for a photo, and a friend—presumably Sarah Farmer—sent it to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Perhaps the Master heard Robert’s inner voice wondering, Does ‘Abdu’l-Bahá remember me, after so many people have come to him seeking strength? Does He still know of my heart’s desire?

One can almost envision the look upon ‘Abdu’l- Bahá’s face as he cradled the photo in his palm and, through it, saw Robert’s future. He sent a tender reply, asking that the recipient relay it to Robert:

“O thou who art pure in heart, sanctified in spirit, peerless in character, beauteous in face! Thy photograph hath been received revealing thy physical frame in the utmost grace and the best appearance. Thou art dark in countenance and bright in character. Thou art like unto the pupil of the eye which is dark in colour, yet it is the fount of light and the revealer of the contingent world.
“I have not forgotten nor will I forget thee. I beseech God that He may graciously make thee the sign of His bounty amidst mankind, illumine thy face with the light of such blessings as are vouchsafed by the merciful Lord, single thee out for His love in this age which is distinguished among all the past ages and centuries.”
Selections From the Writngs of `Abdu’l-Bahá

In this great age of expeditious change, Robert received the promise that if he were faithful to the end, he would become a portal through which others would follow, so they too would become founts of light. His “open-door challenge” now belongs to all of us.

Imagine the vibrant notes of Robert’s soul as it must have sung out upon hearing the words in this letter from his beloved ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

Why might Robert have wanted to sing such a hymn?

Read the lyrics on the following page. Listen to the song and sing it as an anthem in your group, if you like.

Play the Song: The Portal

The Portal

(To be sung as a solo hymn, with a chorale on the second chorus)

First Verse:

I’d opened wooden doors for men,

Ever wond’ring what path lay behind them. Then at last, in the vast, distant Holy Land,

You stood on that threshold and lent your hand.

First Chorus:

Humbled by your warm embrace,

I now felt one with the human race. Honored by your soa, sweet call,

I could open that portal unto all.

Second Verse:

My people you wanted to bless

with nobility and oneness and fairness.

And when I heard your message, I found it true, so you bade me welcome others to come to you.

Congregational Chorus: 

Humbled by His warm embrace,

we all feel one with the human race. Honored by that soft, sweet call,

we can open that portal unto all.

Humbled by His warm embrace,

Faithful to the End

The group departed after those glorious days of pilgrimage, moving on to Egypt before returning to the United States. Robert accompanied them, assisting with travel arrangements and ensuring the comfort of the group, as always.

Imagine how changed now he perceived his role. What had ‘Abdu’l-Bahá told him about the spiritual station of the servant?

Did it depend more on the actual occupation and class or on sincerity, oneness and the exalted station of the spirit of service?

From the reports of his friends, Robert continued to work and help others, to speak kindly to all alike, and to offer his wit, charm and service to humanity, no matter their class, race, gender or age.

He continued to “weep his life away like a candle”-- so much that he was later named one of the 19 “Disciples of ‘Abdul-Bahá” by Shoghi Effendi, who became the Guardian of the Faith after ‘Abdu’l- Bahá’s passing.

Robert had outlived both his wife and daughter. Eleven years after his pilgrimage, in his late 50s, he became quite ill with a kidney disease called Bright’s disease.

A portrait of Abdu'l-Baha seated.

What do you think consumed his thoughts as he lay there, preparing to pass from this life? Do you think the promise of ‘Abdu-l Bahá came back to his mind, that if he were faithful, he would open the door to all other souls of African American descent?

Ali-Kuli Khan, a Persian diplomat in America and a well-known Bahá’í, came to visit Robert during his illness and spoke of his face, still shining as he recalled his pilgrimage. He took down a message to send ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, assuring him of Robert’s deep love and asking for His prayers. Robert did not live long enough to receive the reply in this world:

O thou servant of God!

Thank thou God that from the day of the meeting until now ‘Abdu’l Bahá has not forgotten thee. He remembers thee always. I ask of the Lord of the Kingdom that He make thee dear in this world and the world to come; crown thee with the love of God and make thee an ignited and enkindled candle among the colored race...” (11)

When he passed away on July 28, 1909, he did so while whispering words of devotion with his dying breath.

Robert was buried at first in Woodlawn Cemetery but later moved to Cypress Lawn in Colma, California. His humble family grave received a small stone monument years later. In 2020, plans ensued to erect a sculpture at his gravesite honoring his role in African American and Baha’i history.

Dear Robert Turner received the loving praise and prayers of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in death, as he had in life:

As to Mr. Robert [Turner], the news of his ascension saddened the hearts. He was in truth most devoted. Gracious God! What a shining candle was lighted within that black-coloured lamp. Praise be to God that this candle ascended from its earthly lamp unto the immortal Kingdom, to gleam and shine in the assemblage of heaven.

... O Thou Provider, O Thou Forgiver! Exalt dearly loved Robert in Thy Kingdom and, in the garden of the Abhá Paradise, make him an intimate of the birds of the meadow. O All Knowing God! While that innocent soul was black in colour, he was, like unto the black pupil of the eye, a source of radiant light.

O Thou Forgiving Lord! Enable that yearning soul to behold Thee and cause that thirsty one to drink his fill of the water of life. Thou art the Bestower, the Pardoner, the Loving.

Robert was buried at first in Woodlawn Cemetery but later moved to Cypress Lawn in Colma, California. His humble family grave received a small stone monument years later. In 2020, plans ensued to erect a sculpture at his gravesite honoring his role in African American and Baha’i history.

Activity: Self-Reflection

Draw a circle together. Around its edges, list all the qualities that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá praised in Robert Turner, such as sincerity, radiance, and devotion.

In pairs, draw figures around the circle showing interactions that reinforce these qualities. Include thought bubbles, conversations, and actions.

In your journal, each student will record the interactions that will help them strengthen these qualities, cultivate an honorable character and create strong bonds.

Optional Arts Activities: Ubuntu Landscape

In your journal, each student will record the interactions that will help them strengthen these qualities, cultivate an honorable character and create strong bonds.

“The diversity in the human family should be the cause of love and harmony, as it is in music where many different notes blend together in the making of a perfect chord,” wrote ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

Think about how the arts will enhance the harmony you reflect in the closing ceremony at the end of the symposium. You may want to harmonize a song based on the music you hear in the stories—or you may want to envision an art piece all groups can create together.

For example, each delegation can bring together the colorful puzzle pieces created on the first day. Glue them onto poster paper in the shape of a human family (a cluster of people). Write “I am because we are” beneath it. Or look at a picture of the monument erected in 2022 and have several people each sketch a portion of the scene, then compile them like a puzzle.

Art pieces can become part of your table display. By reaching out to others, each of you now collectively belongs to a whole.