Early Tacoma Bahá’ís – Nettie Asberry

 Nettie Asberry c. 1909

Nettie J. Craig Asberry

 

Part 1. Biography

 

          This brief account cannot begin to do justice to the long and accomplished life of Nettie Asberry, a woman who was well educated, intelligent, highly musically gifted, and always socially progressive and active in the pursuit of human rights.

 

Nettie Asberry was born July 15, 1865, in Leavenworth, Kansas, where she went to a segregated school, but later attended the state university, which was free to all races. She began studying the piano where she was eight, showed remarkable ability and took her doctor’s degree in music from the Kansas State Conservatory of music.

 

During her childhood she remembers seeing Susan B. Anthony when Mrs. Anthony came to visit her brother, D. R. Anthony, editor of the Leavenworth Times.  At thirteen years of age, Nettie was secretary of an adult Susan B. Anthony Club. Before coming to the Northwest, Mrs. Asberry taught music in Kansas City and in Denver and gave much time to playing for churches and directing choirs.

 

 

Her family moved to Seattle in 1890, becoming interested in the area after reading news of the Seattle fire of 1889. After three years in Seattle’s music world, she came to Tacoma and married Henry J. Asberry, proprietor of a barbershop. He died in 1939. In 1909, residing in Tacoma, she was described as a music teacher of rare ability who always had a large number of pupils, and was regarded as one of Tacoma’s expert pianists and a woman of great accomplishment, speaking French and German fluently. She taught piano to students of all races for more than 50 years. Very socially active and progressive, she helped found the Tacoma Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said to be the first chapter west of Kansas City.

 

Nettie Asberry died at the age of 103, spending her last few years in a nursing home in Tacoma. Tacoma Mayor A.L. Rasmussen declared May 11, 1968 Nettie Asberry Day and a memorial was planned for her.

           

 

Source of Part 1: Who We Are, An informal history of Tacoma’s Black Community before World War I; written and edited by Gary Fuller Reese, Tacoma Public Library, February 1992. Its main source is The (Tacoma) News Tribune and earlier Tacoma newspapers.

 

 

 

Part 2.  Nettie Asberry as a Bahá’í

 

            Most 79 year-olds are fairly well set in their ways. Their mental and physical powers are diminished. They no longer have the curiosity or ambition or vitality that they once enjoyed. Whatever course they have taken in life is the course that they are on and will remain on, content or not, as they glide toward life’s nearing horizon. One’s values and practices have long since been solidified, especially for fundamentals such as religion and worship. At 79 years of age, Nettie Asberry did a remarkable thing: she changed her religion and resigned from her church. She found Bahá’u’lláh and became one of His followers. This happened in 1944 or ’45 through the friendship of two new Bahá’ís in town, Harry and Marjorie Taylor, who were members of the first Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Tacoma, which was founded in November 1943.

 

Nettie Asberry, seated center, with other members of the Tacoma Bahá'í community in the late 1940s.

 

            She immediately became an active member of the Faith, attending meetings and writing letters to the editor of the local newspaper. In April 1945 the local Bahá’ís sponsored a public symposium on “The Oneness of Mankind” that featured Mrs. Ernest Tanner of the Interracial Council and Nettie Asberry, who was then Treasurer of the local N.A.A.C.P. With an eye on the Resurrection of Christ and the Easter Holy Day, she wrote a letter to the editor in April 1946 that boldly compared the martyrdom of the Báb with the crucifixion of Christ, detailing the circumstances of the Báb’s martyrdom. Underlying her lifelong battle against racism, her letter began with this pointed statement: “On the eve of Passion week, came today the announcement from an Eastern weekly that the Federal Council of Churches has backed an anti-segregation plan. This pronouncement of the Federal Council, though coming several centuries late, is nevertheless welcome news.”  Her letters to the editor promoted the Faith by easily relating its principles to like-minded causes and events. Her February 1947 letter drew attention to Race Relations Week and Brotherhood Week. First, she commented that similar principles were found in all religions – naming Confucius, Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, and Bahá’u’lláh. Next, she referred to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to America in 1912 and quoted His statement that “Religion is an attitude toward God reflected in life by mankind” and finishing with words from His prayer to America.

 Nettie Asberry is a featured speaker for the Bahá'ís

            Between 1945 and 1959 she was elected to the Assembly on ten occasions, sometimes serving as Secretary or Recording Secretary. Elizabeth Johnson was one of her good friends, and would often pick her up and drive her to Feast, Holy Days, and other meetings.

 

            Nettie Asberry was, naturally, less active as she became older. At the age of 97 she suffered a stroke and was admitted to a nursing home. A bedridden condition, however, did not prevent her from seizing upon opportunities to promote the Faith. Her 100th birthday was celebrated with an article and photograph in the local newspaper, and the Faith was mentioned. A newspaper photograph showed her, in bed, posing with Eulalia Bobo (the sister of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis) in 1967 while Ms. Bobo was visiting Tacoma as part of a nationwide speaking tour for the Faith.   

 

            Nettie Asberry did not become acquainted with the Faith until 1944, Nettie Asberry plaque in Tacomaat an advance age, but she is connected to the first glimmering mention of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh in North America.  Gladys Clark, a member of the Tacoma Spiritual Assembly, wrote a biographical sketch about her shortly after her death. Her notes record the remarkable statement that Mrs. Asberry attended the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, where the Faith was first mentioned on the continent. Mrs. Clark states that her notes are based on extensive conversations with Mrs. Asberry. While there is no way to know exactly what Mrs. Asberry said or the accuracy of her memory, some worthwhile comments can be made. Nettie Asberry was a well educated, intelligent woman, spiritually minded and keenly interested in human rights. This auspicious event would almost certainly have captured her interest. It and the much greater event, the World’s Fair, held in Chicago at that time, were, in fact, announced in Tacoma daily newspapers at the time, and those newspapers did contain advertisements of direct train service from Tacoma to Chicago. Did she actually go to Chicago or attend the World Parliament? There are no records of attendance at the World Parliament, so it is unlikely that it will be possible to verify her attendance. She may have actually first heard of the Faith in Tacoma. The Tacoma Daily News of October 21, 1893 (shortly after the Parliament concluded) contains an announcement that the Rev. Alfred W. Martin will present ten free lectures, one each week, at the First Free Church, on the world’s great religions (presumably based upon information from the World Parliament). The subject and date of each lecture is listed. The lecture for December 28, 1893 is on “Mohammedanism – the religion of Turkey and Arabia, etc.”.  The large size of and detailed information in the announcement suggest that a good turnout was expected. It is certainly possible that the Bahá’í Faith and Bahá’u’lláh were briefly mentioned that evening. If one accepts the reasoning that the simplest explanation is the most likely one, then it is likely that Nettie Asberry first heard of the Faith on that date. The name and the memory of that Greatest Name were safely planted in the fertile soil of her mind, where it germinated and blossomed 50 years later. 

 

            Shortly after her passing, the Tacoma Association of Colored Women’s Clubs completed a clubhouse, naming the music room the Dr. Nettie J. Asberry room.  The Asberry Cultural Club is named after her.  Elizabeth Johnson was a guest speaker before the club members in 1977.  The Club continues to host activities.

 

For more, see University of Washington Libraries:

http://www.lib.washington.edu/Specialcoll/findaids/docs/papersrecords/AsberryNettie1081.xml

 

Text to Part 2 prepared by Gary Slone

1 Comment(s)

  1. On Nov 3, 2017, Michael Asberry said:

    Was she related to Aaron Asberry of Baton Rouge. He was born in the 18oo’s too.

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