Attorney for Racial Justice: The Story of Elsie Austin

I love the Change Maker biography series for preteens that Bellwood Press, an imprint of the US Baha’i Publishing Trust, have released and Attorney for Racial Justice: The Story of Elsie Austin is their latest title. It is penned by Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis and she kindly agreed to tell us about it.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I am a retired university professor (Miami University, Oxford, Ohio) and I live in the West Chester, Ohio Baha’i community outside of Cincinnati.

I co-authored Historical Portraits of Black Baha’is in North America, 1898-2000 with my colleague and friend Dr. Richard Thomas.

Can you tell us a little bit about Attorney for Racial Justice?

The book is a fictional account of actual events in the life of Helen Elsie Austin, Knight of Baha’u’llah and a talented attorney who sought to eliminate injustice wherever she found it, especially with regard to Civil Rights. As an African American woman who earned her law degree in 1930, Elsie successfully confronted sexism and racism head-on.

Why did you use a fictional approach?

Author Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis

This book is based on a true story, but I used a fictional approach in order to have the freedom to imagine details of events that actually took place. Creating conversations, sounds, smells, thoughts, and dreams add substance to the telling of a story and makes meaningful connections for readers. In other words, telling the story was fact-based with creative adaptations for characters/personalities and scenes that most likely occurred.

What inspired you to write the book?

I met attorney Austin in the 1980’s and was immediately impressed by her poise, grace and encyclopedic knowledge. I wanted to know more about this amazing woman, so I arranged to interview her for several hours at a time. I was spellbound! I could not get enough of Elsie Austin. I could sit at her feet and listen to her talk about her life indefinitely.

And I wanted others to know this extraordinary person who traveled throughout the world proclaiming the Faith at a time when few women as well as few Americans of any race ventured outside of their home states.

Could you tell us about the spiritual principles that informed either the plot or your writing practice?

Service to mankind is the spiritual principle that shapes the plot. Elsie was at the height of her career when she decided to give up everything and pioneer to Morocco. She never expressed any doubts about her decision and from that point on, dedicated her life to teaching the Faith.

I also would like to mention Elsie’s love and respect for her parents. She always spoke about them with deep reverence. Their loving guidance provided her with a firm foundation that sustained her throughout her long life. Elsie’s sweet memories of her parents reminded me of this quote from Baha’u’llah: “Say, O My people! Show honour to your parents and pay homage to them. This will cause blessings to descend upon you from the clouds of the bounty of your Lord, the Exalted, the Great.”

Generally speaking, the acquisition of knowledge informs my writing practice. There are many African American heroes in the Faith that we do not know about and I want to be part of the solution to this problem. How can we bring about a new civilization if we are ignorant of our past? I am reminded of this quote: “Truly, I say, whatever lessens ignorance and increases knowledge, that has been, is and shall be accepted by the Creator.” –Compilations, Baha’i Scriptures, p. 132

What did you learn in the process of writing the book?

I learned so much that it is difficult to decide on just one thing. From the story of Elsie’s life, I learned many things, but I will mention only a few that immediately come to mind. I learned the importance of family history and how telling and retelling that history provides guidance and inspiration for future generations. And I learned the importance of committing to one’s Faith. At a moment in Elsie’s life, she questioned herself. She thought if she truly believed in the Faith that she must live her life accordingly. So, she gave up everything and went pioneering. Finally, I learned that reliance on God gives us courage to persist in difficult situations.

Who is the audience?

The primary audience for the book is young adult readers (middle school and high school). And anyone else who wants to know more about Elsie Austin.

What do you hope readers will take away with them long after they’ve finished reading?

First and foremost, I hope that readers are inspired by Elsie’s story and read or tell her story to others so that they too can learn about this incredible woman. Secondly, I would like readers to think of Elsie Austin as a role model and know that they, like Elsie, can make a difference.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share this with us!

You can purchase a copy of Attorney for Racial Justice from a variety of online and local book retailers, including the US Baha’i Bookstore.

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Sonjel Vreeland

In her innermost heart, Sonjel is a stay-at-home parent and a bookworm with a maxed out library card but professionally she is a museologist with a background in English Literature. She currently lives on Prince Edward Island, an isle in the shape of a smile on the eastern Canadian coast. Sonjel is a writer who loves to listen to jazz when she’s driving at night.

Sonjel Vreeland

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