Nettie Asberry – early Tacoma Baha’i

Nettie J. Asberry (1865 – 1968) was one of Tacoma’s most accomplished early residents. She may have been the first African-American woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D., which was in music from the Kansas State Conservatory of Music. She was a founder of our region’s first chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. During a long life in Tacoma, she taught music to hundreds of people. She moved from Kansas to Seattle in 1890, and then moved to Tacoma in 1892 or ’93.

Baha’u’llah, who died in 1892, was first mentioned in the United States in October 1893 at the World Parliament of Religions, which was held in Chicago in conjunction with the World’s Fair in Chicago that year. Late in her life, Nettie told her Baha’i friends that she first heard of the Faith that year! It may be so, for a series of lectures about the presentations made at the World Parliament was given in Tacoma late in 1893, including a lecture delivered on December 28th of that year on “Mohammedanism – the religion of Turkey and Arabia, etc.” It was not until 1944, however, at the age of 79, that she became acquainted with the Faith and within a short time declared her belief in Baha’u’llah, enrolling as one of the early Baha’is in Tacoma and Pierce County. Nettie served Baha’u’llah faithfully for the remainder of her life.

Sources: 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. Tacoma newspaper records from 1893 found at the Tacoma Public Library. And archives from the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Tacoma.

Top Photo: Nettie Asberry, seated in the middle, poses with other members of the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Tacoma in an undated picture from the 1940’s.

Lower right photo: a plaque mounted in the sidewalk at North 30th and McCarver in Tacoma in honor of Nettie Asberry. It is part of a series of plaques honoring early women of Tacoma that runs for several blocks. Photo by Barry Ewing.

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