Helen Elsie Austin

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Helen Elsie Austin
Helen Elsie Austin.jpg
OccupationAttorney; Foreign Service Officer

Helen Elsie Austin (1908–2004) was an American attorney, US Foreign Service Officer, and member of the Bahá'í National Spiritual Assemblies in the United States and North West Africa. She was among the first African Americans admitted to the practice of law in the United States.[1]

Personal life[edit]

Austin was born in Alabama. Both her parents worked at the Tuskegee Institute; her father served as Commandant of Men.[2] When the family moved to Ohio, her mother worked at Stowe School. Austin graduated from Walnut Hills High School, Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1924. She is known to have interrupted a class on an extended description of the contributions of Africans after correcting a textbook.[3] She received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1928 and a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1930 from the University of Cincinnati, becoming the first black woman to graduate from the UC Law School as well as the 8th president of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.[4] Austin was on the staff of the Rocky Mountain Law Review and of the Cincinnati Law Review.[2] In 1938 she received a Doctor of Laws degree from Wilberforce University. She lived in Silver Spring, Maryland before moving to San Antonio, Texas in June 2004. She died of congestive heart failure on 26 October 2004. Public memorial services were held at the Bahá'í House of Worship in the United States and in Uganda.

Governmental service[edit]

She was the first black woman to serve as Assistant Attorney General in Ohio (1937–38) and became legal advisor to the District of Columbia government in 1939. As a US Foreign Service Officer from 1960–1970, she served as a Cultural attaché with the United States Information Agency in Lagos, Nigeria and later in Nairobi, Kenya. Austin retired from the Foreign Service in 1970.

Bahá'í Faith[edit]

Austin joined the Bahá'í Faith in 1934 and met Hands of the Cause Dorothy Beecher Baker and Louis George Gregory. She was elected to its United States governing body in 1944. After pilgrimage to Haifa, Austin pioneered to Morocco in 1953,[5] gaining status as a Knight of Bahá'u'lláh.[3] While teaching at the American School of Tangier in Morocco (1954–57), she helped establish Baha'i communities in northern and western Africa. In 1955 Austin wrote Above All Barriers: The Story of Louis G. Gregory reprinted in 1964, 1976.[6] Austin was elected to the regional National Spiritual Assembly of North West Africa and helped elect the first Universal House of Justice in 1963.[7] Ultimately Austin served on Local Spiritual Assemblies in five countries: United States, Morocco, Nigeria, Kenya, and the Bahamas and also served as one of the first members of the Auxiliary Board, assisting the Hand of the Cause Musa Banani.[3]

In 1958 she was appointed executive director of the National Women's Council. In 1975 Austin chaired the Baha'i delegation to the International Women's Conference in Mexico City.[3] In 1982 Austin worked with the Phelps Stokes Fund in China inspecting schools, businesses and community services affecting education and opportunities for minorities.[8]

Honors and awards[edit]

She received an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Cincinnati in 1960.[9] The same university named a scholarship in her honor in 2000.[10]


  1. ^ First African American Lawyers, Just the Beginning Foundation
  2. ^ a b Ohio History Central » History » People » Austin, Elsie
  3. ^ a b c d Standing up for justice and truth
  4. ^ Women of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Changing America and the World Archived 2007-09-28 at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^ MESSAGES TO THE BAHA'I WORLD: 1950-1957, © (U.S., 1971) page 52
  6. ^ The Babi and Baha'i Religions: An Annotated Bibliography entry 57
  7. ^ THE MINISTRY OF THE CUSTODIANS 1957-1963, 1992 The Universal House of Justice ISBN 0-85398-350-X p.411
  8. ^ Dr. H. Elsie Austin, 98, diplomat, pioneer Civil Rights worker, dies, Nov 22, 2004
  9. ^ Honorary Degree - Chronological List Conferred by the University of Cincinnati
  10. ^ Blest Be the Tie That Binds Us Archived 2006-09-12 at the Wayback Machine.