May 1953: A Knight of Baha’u’llah arrives in Morocco

Austin Elsie Helen was a Baha'i pioneer, diplomat, administrator, and distinguished lawyer. She was the first black woman graduate of the law school at the University of Cincinnati and in 1937 became the first black woman to serve as assistant attorney general in Ohio. She became a Baha'i in the mid-1930s. During these years she rose through positions of increasing responsibility within the District of Columbia and the U.S. government. From 1939 to 1944, she served as national president of Delta Sigma Theta, a public service sorority. Her Baha'i service included membership of the local Spiritual Assembly of Cincinnati. In 1945 she was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada. In 1953 she went on pilgrimage and met Shoghi Effendi. On returning to the United States she resigned from the National Spiritual Assembly to fulfill a pioneer goal of the Ten Year Crusade. She arrived in Morocco in May 1953 and in so doing earned the title Knight of Baha'u'llah for that country.
She was elected to the first local Spiritual Assembly of Tangiers. She was appointed a member of the first contingent of Auxiliary Board members. She assisted Hand of the Cause of God Musa Banani and served in that capacity for 4 years. In 1956 she was elected to the Regional Spiritual Assembly of North and West Africa, serving on that body until ill health necessitated her return to the United States in 1958. In 1960 she returned to Africa, this time settling briefly in Nigeria and then Kenya. During the next 10 years she worked as a foreign service officer for the U.S. Information Agency. She retired from her government position in 1969 and resettled in suburban Washington, D.C. It was around this time that she received honorary doctoral degrees in recognition of her services from the University of Cincinnati and Wilberforce University. In 1971 she moved to the Baha'i World Centre to assist in a research project. In 1977-1978 she again pioneered to the Bahamas. In the later years of her life she served as a member of the board of trustees of the Huququ'llah. On her passing in October 2004 the Universal House of Justice sent the following message to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States: “We grieve at the passing of dearly loved, keen-sighted, stalwart promoter and defender of the Cause of God Elsie Austin. Having distinguished herself in her early Baha'i career by outstanding administrative services in North America, she arose in response to the Guardian's call for pioneers during the Ten Year Global Crusade and earned the accolade of Knight of Baha'u'llah for Morocco. We recall with deep admiration her wise and dignified teaching and proclamation initiatives on both continents. The shining example of her sacrificial life will remain a source of inspiration to her fellow believers for generations to come. (Adapted from the ‘Historical Dictionary of the Baha’i Faith’ by Hugh Adamson)