Alain LeRoy Locke

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Alain Leroy Locke
Alain LeRoy Locke.jpg
Locke circa 1946
BornAlain Leroy Locke
(1885-09-13)September 13, 1885
Pennsylvania, U.S.
DiedJune 9, 1954(1954-06-09) (aged 68)
OccupationWriter, philosopher, educator, and patron of the arts
EducationHarvard University
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Alain Leroy Locke
Alain LeRoy Locke.jpg
Locke circa 1946
BornAlain Leroy Locke
(1885-09-13)September 13, 1885
Pennsylvania, U.S.
DiedJune 9, 1954(1954-06-09) (aged 68)
OccupationWriter, philosopher, educator, and patron of the arts
EducationHarvard University

Alain Leroy Locke (September 13, 1885 – June 9, 1954) was an American writer, philosopher, educator, and patron of the arts. Distinguished as the first African American Rhodes Scholar in 1907, Locke was the philosophical architect —the acknowledged "Dean"— of the Harlem Renaissance. As a result, popular listings of influential African-Americans have repeatedly included him. On March 19, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed: "We're going to let our children know that the only philosophers that lived were not Plato and Aristotle, but W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke came through the universe."[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Alain Locke was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 13, 1885 [2] to Pliny Ishmael Locke (1850–1892) and Mary Hawkins Locke (1853–1922). In 1902, he graduated from Central High School in Philadelphia, second in his class. He also attended Philadelphia School of Pedagogy.[3]

In 1907, Locke graduated from Harvard University with degrees in English and philosophy, and was honored as a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society and recipient of the prestigious Bowdoin Prize.[4] After graduation, he was the first African-American selected as a Rhodes Scholar (and the last to be selected until 1960). At that time, Rhodes selectors did not meet candidates in person, but there is evidence that at least some selectors knew he was African-American.[5] On arriving at Oxford, Locke was denied admission to several colleges because of his race, perhaps because several Rhodes Scholars from the American South refused to live in the same college or attend events with Locke.[4][5] He was finally admitted to Hertford College, where he studied literature, philosophy, Greek, and Latin, from 1907–1910. In 1910, he attended the University of Berlin, where he studied philosophy.

Locke wrote from Oxford in 1910 that the "primary aim and obligation" of a Rhodes Scholar "is to acquire at Oxford and abroad generally a liberal education, and to continue subsequently the Rhodes mission [of international understanding] throughout life and in his own country. If once more it should prove impossible for nations to understand one another as nations, then, as Goethe said, they must learn to tolerate each other as individuals".[6]

Teaching and scholarship[edit]

Locke received an assistant professorship in English at Howard University in 1912.[7] While at Howard, he became a member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.

Locke returned to Harvard in 1916 to work on his doctoral dissertation, The Problem of Classification in the Theory of Value. In his thesis, he discusses the causes of opinions and social biases, and that these are not objectively true or false, and therefore not universal. Locke received his PhD in philosophy in 1918.

Locke returned to Howard University as the chair of the department of philosophy. During this period, he began teaching the first classes on race relations, leading to his dismissal in 1925.[8] After being reinstated in 1928, Locke remained at Howard until his retirement in 1953. Locke Hall, on the Howard campus, is named after him.

Locke promoted African-American artists, writers, and musicians, encouraging them to look to Africa as an inspiration for their works. He encouraged them to depict African and African-American subjects, and to draw on their history for subject material.

The Harlem Renaissance and the "New Negro"[edit]

Locke was the guest editor of the March 1925 issue of the periodical Survey Graphic titled "Harlem, Mecca of the New Negro", a special on Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance, which helped educate white readers about its flourishing culture.[9] In December of that year, he expanded the issue into The New Negro, a collection of writings by African Americans, which would become one of his best known works. A landmark in black literature (later acclaimed as the "first national book" of African America), it was an instant success. Locke contributed five essays: the "Foreword", "The New Negro", "Negro Youth Speaks", "The Negro Spirituals", and "The Legacy of Ancestral Arts".

Locke's philosophy of the New Negro was grounded in the concept of race-building. Its most important component is overall awareness of the potential black equality; no longer would blacks allow themselves to adjust themselves or comply with unreasonable white requests. This idea was based on self-confidence and political awareness. Although in the past the laws regarding equality had been ignored without consequence, Locke's philosophical idea of The New Negro allowed for fair treatment. Because this was an idea and not a law, its power was held in the people. If they wanted this idea to flourish, they were the ones who would need to "enforce" it through their actions and overall points of view.

While his own writing was sophisticated philosophy, and therefore not popularly accessible, he saw himself as inspiring others in the movement who became more broadly known, like Zora Neale Hurston.[5]

Religious beliefs[edit]

Locke was a member of the Bahá'í Faith and declared his belief in Bahá'u'lláh in 1918. It was common to write to 'Abdu'l-Bahá to declare one's new faith, and Locke received a letter, or "tablet", from 'Abdu'l-Bahá in return. When 'Abdu'l-Bahá died in 1921, Locke enjoyed a close relationship with Shoghi Effendi, then head of the Bahá'í Faith. Shoghi Effendi is reported to have said to Locke, "People as you, Mr. Gregory, Dr. Esslemont and some other dear souls are as rare as diamond."[4]

Sexual orientation[edit]

Locke was gay, and may have encouraged and supported other gay African-Americans who were part of the Harlem Renaissance.[10] However, he was not fully public in his orientation[5] and referred to it as his point of "vulnerable/invulnerability",[4] taken to mean an area of risk and strength in his view.[4]

Death, influence and legacy[edit]

After his retirement from Howard University in 1953, Locke moved to New York City.[11] He suffered from heart disease,[11] and after a six-week illness died at Mount Sinai Hospital on June 9, 1954.[12]

Locke was cremated, and his remains turned over to Dr. Arthur Fauset, an anthropologist who was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Fauset was Locke's close friend, and executor of his estate. Fauset died in 1983, and the remains were given to his friend, Reverend Sadie Mitchell. Mitchell ministered at African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia. Mitchell retained the ashes until the mid-1990s, when she asked Dr. J. Weldon Norris, a professor of music at Howard University, to take the ashes to Washington, D.C. The ashes then resided at Howard University's Moorland–Spingarn Research Center until 2007. Concerned that the human remains were not properly cared for, the ashes were given to Howard University's W. Montague Cobb Research Laboratory, which had extensive experience handling human remains. Locke's ashes, which were stored in a plain paper bag in a simple round metal container, were transferred to a more appropriate small funerary urn. They were locked in a safe to keep them secure.[5]

Howard University officials initially considered having Locke's ashes buried in a niche at Locke Hall on the Howard campus, similar to the way that Langston Hughes' ashes were interred at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City in 1991. But Kurt Schmoke, the university's legal counsel, was concerned about setting a precedent that might lead to other burials at the university. After an investigation revealed no legal problems to the plan, university officials decided the remains should be buried off-site. At first, thought was given to burying Locke beside his mother, Mary Hawkins Locke. But Howard officials quickly discovered a problem: She had been interred at Columbian Harmony Cemetery in Washington, D.C., but that cemetery closed in 1959 and her remains transferred to National Harmony Memorial Park—which failed to keep track of them. (She was buried in a mass grave along with 37,000 other unclaimed remains from Columbian Harmony.)[5]

Howard University eventually decided to bury Alain Locke's remains at historic Congressional Cemetery, and African American Rhodes Scholars raised $8,000 to purchase a burial plot there. Locke was interred at Congressional Cemetery on September 13, 2014. His tombstone reads:


Herald of the Harlem Renaissance

Exponent of Cultural Pluralism

On the back of the headstone is a nine-pointed Bahá'í star (representing Locke's religious beliefs); a Zimbabwe Bird, emblem of the nation Locke adopted as a Rhodes Scholar; a lambda, symbol of the gay rights movement; and the logo of Phi Beta Sigma, the fraternity Locke joined. In the center of these four symbols is an Art Deco representation of an African woman's face set against the rays of the sun. This image is a simplified version of the bookplate that Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas designed for Locke. Below the bookplate image are the words "Teneo te, Africa" ("I hold you, my Africa").[5]

Influence and legacy[edit]

In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Locke on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.[13] Similarly, Columbus Salley's book "The Black 100" named Locke as the 36th most influential African-American.[8]

Schools named after Locke include:

Major works[edit]

In addition to the books listed below, Locke edited the "Bronze Booklet" series, a set of eight volumes published by Associates in Negro Folk Education in the 1930s. He also reviewed literature written by African Americans in journals such as Opportunity and Phylon. His works, inter alia, include:

Posthumous works[edit]

Alain Locke's previously unpublished, posthumous works include:

Locke, Alain. "The Moon Maiden" and "Alain Locke in His Own Words: Three Essays". World Order 36.3 (2005): 37–48. Edited, introduced and annotated by Christopher Buck and Betty J. Fisher. [2]. Four previously unpublished works by Alain Locke:

Locke, Alain. "Alain Locke: Four Talks Redefining Democracy, Education, and World Citizenship". Edited, introduced and annotated by Christopher Buck and Betty J. Fisher. World Order 38.3 (2006/2007): 21–41. [3] Four previously unpublished speeches/essays by Alain Locke:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cone, James H. (2000). Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998. Beacon Press. p. 152. ISBN 9780807009512. 
  2. ^ Locke always gave his year of birth as "1886", and many sources give 1886. He was, however, born in 1885. A note in the Alain Locke Papers (archived at Howard University), discovered by Christopher Buck, offers a firsthand clue as to why Locke represented the year of his birth as 1886 rather than 1885: "In the Alain Locke Papers, there is a note in Locke's handwriting that reads: 'Alain Leroy Locke[:] Alan registered as Arthur (white Phila Vital Statistics owing prejudice of Quaker physician Isaac Smedley to answering question of race. [B]orn 13 So. 19th Street, Philadelphia, Pa. Sunday between 10 and 11 A.M. September 13, 1885. Called Roy as a child[.] Alain from 16 on. [illegible] First born son. 2nd brother born 1889—lived 2 months. Named Arthur first selected for me.' . . . As to why he represented his year of birth as 1886 rather than 1885, Locke may have wanted to avoid the embarrassment of having future biographers discover that he was registered as white on his birth certificate." (Buck, Christopher. Alain Locke – Faith and Philosophy," Studies in Bábí and Bahá'í Religions, Vol 18, Anthony A. Lee General Editor, pp. 11–12 – ISBN 978-1-890688-38-7)
  3. ^ Gates, Lacey. Biography: Alain Leroy Locke, Pennsylvania State University Center for the Book. Retrieved October 10, 2008.
  4. ^ a b c d e Christopher Buck (2005). Series Lee, Anthony A., ed. Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy. Studies in Bábí and Bahá'í Religions 18. Kalimat Press. pp. 64, 198. ISBN 978-1-890688-38-7. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Sellers, Frances Stead (Sep 12, 2014). "The 60-year journey of the ashes of Alain Locke, father of the Harlem Renaissance". Washington Post Magazine. Retrieved Sep 12, 2014. 
  6. ^ Locke quoted from Donald Markwell (2013), "Instincts to Lead": On Leadership, Peace, and Education, Connor Court. Also from Also see Jack Zoeller, “Alain Locke at Oxford: Race and the Rhodes Scholarships,” The American Oxonian, Vol. XCIV, No. 2 (Spring 2007). Also
  7. ^ "Alain Leroy Locke Bibliography". Howard University Library System. 1998. Retrieved Sep 14, 2014. 
  8. ^ a b Salley, Columbus (1999). The Black 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential African-Americans, Past and Present. Citadel Press. p. 137. ISBN 9780806520483. 
  9. ^ Appel, JM. St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, May 2, 2009. Locke biography
  10. ^ Clark, Phillip (Oct 6, 2008). "Hidden History: Alain Locke is the Key (Part II)". The New Gay. Retrieved Sep 12, 2014. 
  11. ^ a b "A.L. Locke, Howard U. Professor, 67". The Washington Post. June 11, 1954. p. 22. 
  12. ^ "Dr. Alain Locke, Teacher, Author". The New York Times. June 10, 1954. p. 31. 
  13. ^ Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]