Early Tacoma Bahá’ís – Elizabeth Johnson, Part 3

Elizabeth visiting the Wilmette Temple c. 1953 - 1955

Mark Tobey, the American painter, was a Bahá’í who Elizabeth met while he was living in Seattle in the 1940’s and early 50’s and with whom she developed and maintained a warm friendship and a correspondence for many years. She was always proud of her association with him and talked about it with friends for the rest of her life. She may have first met him in 1947 through one of the speaking engagements that he gave on behalf of the Faith. She collaborated on one project with him, which formed the basis of their friendship. Tobey’s long-time friend, Pehr Hallsten, had translated the Arabic portion of The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh into Swedish, from Shoghi Effendi’s English translation. A number of Swedish friends of Mark Tobey had read the translation and expressed enough pleasure with it to convince him that it was ready for publication, so, working formally through the auspices of the Seattle Spiritual Assembly, he obtained approval from the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States to have the translation published, which approval was given on condition that the book not be sold (copies could be given away). 

 

            Elizabeth was happy to do something to bring the Bahá’í teachings to Sweden. Efforts to have the translation printed in Seattle did not happen – there was one small Swedish language newspaper being published in Seattle, and apparently that was not a satisfactory source. She accomplished it by having the printing done in Stockholm when she attended the Stockholm Conference the summer of 1953. Five hundred copies were printed (at Mark Tobey’s expense). Tobey requested that she take some copies to present to the Guardian when she went on pilgrimage in 1954.

 

            Their correspondence began in 1952 and lasted through at least 1967. Many of the letters are undated, so it is difficult to be certain how long they kept in touch. Mark Tobey’s letters are amiable, discussing mutual friends and religious activities, his or Pehr’s medical or living conditions, his travels and business activities as an artist in demand – the sort of things that one would write about to a friend. He presented her with two paintings as gifts, one of the Seattle market place from 1940, and an impressionistic work that he gave to her in 1964.

 

Mark Toby

 

            Dr. Nettie J. Asberry, a woman of African -American ancestry, was one of the early Bahá’ís in Tacoma and one of Elizabeth’s friends.  Dr. Asberry found the Faith at the age of  79, in 1944, shortly after Elizabeth’s arrival to Tacoma. Born in Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1865, just after the end of the Civil War, she studied music as a child and graduated with a Ph.D. in music from the Kansas State Conservatory of Music, probably one of the first women of her race to earn a doctorate in the United States. She moved to Tacoma in 1893, married Henry Asberry, the owner of a barber shop, and taught music from her home until about 1961. A lifelong advocate of human rights, at the age of 13 she was a secretary for the adult Susan B. Anthony Club in Leavenworth and saw the famous suffragette, and later, in Tacoma, was a local founder in the Northwest of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 

 

            The Tacoma City Association of Colored Women’s Clubs completed a two-story clubhouse at 2316 South Yakima Avenue in 1970, after 15 years of effort. The center was opened as a place for culture and community service in June. The music room was named after Dr. Asberry. Elizabeth wrote to the organizers and expressed her regret that she could not attend, because she was going to be in Sweden, but she indicated that she had helped Dr. Asberry by giving her rides to meetings, had visited with her in her home “on the occasion of many silver teas for the advancement of the black people”, and often visited her in her nursing home until her death (in 1968). In 1977, the Asberry Cultural Club met at the clubhouse to honor the late Dr. Asberry with a tea, and Elizabeth was the featured speaker. Her friendship with Dr. Asberry was one that Elizabeth continued to cherish: her papers include a program for a February 1981 meeting of the Asberry Cultural Club.

 

Tacoma Bahá'ís in the 1940s. Nettie Asberry is seated center, Elizabeth is standing center.

 

            Eulalia Bobo, a Bahá’í, who was the sister of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, visited Tacoma on a teaching trip to speak to the public about the Faith in the spring of 1967. Elizabeth actively promoted her visit, made meeting arrangements, and provided transportation for Mrs. Bobo. A photograph appeared in the daily newspaper of Mrs. Bobo visiting Dr. Asberry at her nursing home, with the caption noting two of her speaking engagements in town. An official letter thanking Elizabeth for her efforts reads, in part, “We are all so happy about it and Mrs. Bobo was very pleased. She said she had more publicity here than any place she has ever been.” It’s been said that we all have one thing in life at which we are best: for Elizabeth, her specialty was getting publicity for the Cause of God to which she was devoted. Wherever she went, she worked to make publicity for the Faith happen. She did this even in her travels. Her papers contain a number of Swedish language newspaper clippings that came about because of her visits to that country in both 1953 and 1970, and they are invariably accompanied by a photograph of herself (or the Shrine of the Báb, in the 1953 article). 

 

            In the early 1960’s Elizabeth became less active. She would sometimes write to the Assembly, informing the members in advance that she would be unable to attend Feast regularly or serve on a Committee due to her health. That formality is an interesting contrast to our present custom – no one writes such letters anymore – and seems even more remarkable because there were so few Bahá’ís in the community. Everyone knew one another well. For example, on October 31, 1961, Elizabeth sent a letter to the Tacoma Assembly saying, “Please accept my resignation as a member of the Program Committee …” due to her poor health. On November 3, the Assembly wrote in reply, “The Assembly accepted your resignation from the Program Committee as you requested ….”; to which Elizabeth replied by letter dated November 22nd, “Thank you for accepting my resignation from the Program Committee ….” Why the formality? It may be that the very fewness of numbers created an expectation of active participation in the community, and that the failure to do so created a social obligation for a conscientious person to place her reasons on the record.

 

Eulalia Bobo, left, with unidentified friend, in Tacoma.

     Those Bahá’ís who can share their recollections of her today knew her only in her later years. Her friends remember her as a plainspoken woman with a forceful personality, a “real character”. Although Elizabeth arrived in the United States as a young woman, she never lost her Swedish accent. She had a thick accent until the end of her life that could sometimes make her hard to understand. She pronounced Hand of the Cause Ugo Giachery’s name “U Gary” and her friends Victor and Juliette Frank were “Vic and Yulie”. Those male Bahá’ís who made the effort to understand her and came to know her became her “boyfriends”.   She enjoyed talking to people and would tend to move very close to the person to whom she was talking. She would talk about her early life in Sweden (she loved the Lord’s Prayer that she learned as a child), her days in Chicago (she would feed the poor who came to her back door), her family, her friendship with Mark Tobey, and her meeting the Guardian on Pilgrimage. She was an excellent cook and made Swedish dishes and brought them to Feast.  She was always thinking of others: making sure that the sick had food and checking on the elderly, although she was one herself. She drove until she was 85, after which she relied on friends or took the taxi. Elizabeth enjoyed the theatre and dance, and liked eating Chinese food, eating at the lobster restaurant, and ice cream. Her favorite flower was the lily of the valley.

 

            Elizabeth spent her last years in a nursing home, where friends would visit her and help care for her. She left this world on February 21, 1994 at the age of 98, and is laid to rest in a mausoleum at the New Tacoma Cemetery.

 

Prepared by Gary Slone

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