Helen Elsie Austin was born in Alabama in 1908 and grew up in Cincinnatti, Ohio. Her life dedication to righting wrongs began at an early age when she pointed out to her 98-percent-white classroom in Cincinnati that the textbook they were reading disparaged the contribution of Africans in world history. Austin was a pioneer in the civil rights movement, and in 1930 was the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Cincinnati College of Law and the first African American woman to serve as Assistant Attorney-General of the State of Ohio.
She was the first African-American woman to serve as an assistant to the Attorney General of any state. Austin later worked in the legal divisions of several federal government agencies. After retiring from government service, she spent nearly a decade in Africa, working with the United States Information Agency. She helped found and operate several educational and cultural programs for the people of Africa.Austin had a successful legal career with several U.S. government agencies, including the U.S. Information Agency.
Austin joined the Bahá’í Faith in 1934 at the age of 26. Inspired by the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá she spent a decade in Africa as a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Information Agency. In addition to working on cultural and educational programs, she created the agency’s first women’s activities program in Africa. She served as a member of the National Spiritual Assemblies of the Bahá’ís of the United States (1946-53) and North and West Africa (1953-58), and of Local Spiritual Assemblies in five countries — the United States, Morocco, Nigeria, Kenya, and the Bahamas. She earned the title of “Knight of (Ghusnu’lláhu’l-Athar)” for introducing the Bahá’í Faith to Morocco.
After Austin’s death in San Antonio, Texas in 2004, at age 96, the Universal House of Justice described her as a “dearly loved, keen-sighted, stalwart promoter and defender of the Cause of God,” and “the shining example of her sacrificial life will remain a source of inspiration to her fellow believers for generations to come.” (Read more about H. Elsie Austin from the Bahá’í World News Service. Download a pdf profile on Elsie Austin from the Bahá’í children’s magazine, Brilliant Star. Watch a memorial video on Elsie Austin: A Life of Faith, Progress and Service.)
1 “Selected Profiles of American Bahá’í Women” bahai.us
2 “H. Elsie Austin” ohiohistorycentral.org