Who Was the 1st Black Rhodes Scholar?

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Alain LeRoy Locke 
National Archives and Records Administration

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 90: How did the shattering of the color barrier for the Rhodes Scholarships forever change the black arts movement?


A few weeks ago, I received an intriguing email from George R. Keys Jr., a lawyer in Washington, D.C. Keys told me about a plan to inter the remains of the first black Rhodes Scholar at a special ceremony to be held at the historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington at 11 a.m. on Sept. 13—this coming Saturday! I was moved but also dumbfounded. Not because the first black Rhodes Scholar isn’t deserving of an august burial—far from it. It was because I knew he had shattered that particular ceiling all the way back in 1907. 

One of my Harvard heroes, Alain LeRoy Locke was an exquisitely brilliant black intellectual who, after an enviable career in higher education and the arts, died less than a month after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. In other words, 60 years ago!  


You may know of Locke as the “dean of the Harlem Renaissance,” and for good reason. He was an impresario of taste and erudition who, at the height of the Jazz Age, chronicled the flowering of the black arts movement. He also was, perhaps, the most visible gay intellectual of his generation. And no one among Locke’s contemporaries was a truer champion of young, unknown writers.  

Surveying the scene for Survey Graphic in March 1925, Locke wrote in an essay titled “Enter the New Negro”:

“[T]he mind of the Negro seems suddenly to have slipped from under the tyranny of social intimidation and to be shaking off the psychology of imitation and implied inferiority. By shedding the old chrysalis of the Negro problem we are achieving something like a spiritual emancipation. … 


“The migrant masses, shifting from countryside to city, hurdle several generations of experience at a leap, but more important, the same thing happens spiritually in the life-attitudes and self-expression of the Young Negro, in his poetry, his art, his education and his new outlook, with the additional advantage, of course, of the poise and greater certainty of knowing what it is all about.”

Several generations have passed since Locke helped midwife the Harlem (or “New Negro”) Renaissance, yet, amazingly, despite his contributions to such a rich cultural legacy, the remains of our first black Rhodes Scholar have remained above ground with few of us knowing anything about it. This column is for him, with an invitation at the end to help lay him to rest.


A ‘Civilized’ Scholar

Alain LeRoy Locke was born in Philadelphia in 1885, the only son of a lawyer and teacher, both of whom had been born free. He attended Central High School and the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy en route to a bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude, from Harvard University in 1907. Locke had entered Harvard as a member of the Class of 1908 but completed his undergraduate studies in three years in order to take full advantage of the Rhodes Scholarship he had applied for and been elected to in his junior year.  


Now more than 110 years old, the Rhodes Scholarship in Locke’s day was still an infant phenomenon, and lily white. The Rhodes Trust website states, “[Cecil] Rhodes’s vision in founding the Scholarship was to develop outstanding leaders who would be motivated to fight ‘the world’s fight’ and to ‘esteem the performance of public duties as their highest aim’, and to promote international understanding and peace.”

That Locke, a black Harvard junior from Pennsylvania, was deemed by the selection committee to possess these attributes at a time when the color line in America was deepening everywhere was a testament to his brilliance and self-possession. The first white American Rhodes Scholars had been elected just three years earlier, in 1904. What made Locke’s election ironic was that it (like everyone else’s) had been made possible by the charitable bequest of a recently deceased imperialist British businessman and political leader in South Africa.


Cecil Rhodes had agreed to change the qualification for his scholarships from “white” to “civilized” only “under liberal pressure,” according to Britannica. It was easy for men like Rhodes to assume that “white” and “civilized” were synonymous. But there was Locke, just a few years later, and at the height of Jim Crow no less, ready to destroy Rhodes’s racist logic. It would take decades before the second African-American Rhodes Scholar would be chosen (John Wideman, in 1963).

Here are Locke's own words in the Harvard Class of 1908 Secretary's Second Report in 1914, on his experience, and afterward: 

I took my degree in 1907. I needed it, and had to cash in, losing the compound interest of the Senior year; feeling perhaps at the time that my sentimental wish to be recorded ‘as of the class of 1908’ was a sort of Academic ‘for value received,’ to make the transaction legal, though I now know it to have been as expressive on my part of the right Harvard spirit as a million dollar codicil to somebody’s last will and testament. For three years (1907-1910), I was in residence at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar from my home state, Pennsylvania. There, after a futile struggle with the English pronunciation of the classics, I read for the research degree (B.Sc.) in philosophy.

For me, as for others, Oxford was a college education over again, though naturally a ‘de-luxe’ version, which would have been a waste of time, — considering that I had to put in one and a half years more of post-graduate study at the University of Berlin, but for three reasons that may be of some interest; — first, one had a chance to balance one’s education in the scales of two standard systems, — instead of transferring my allegiance from scholarships to scholarship itself, as would have been best, I temporarily abandoned formal education for the pursuit of culture — yet fortunately, without money enough to collect blue china; second, in the midst of a type of life that is a world-type simply because it is so consistently itself, one had every facility for becoming really cosmopolitan — it was a rare experience in the company of many foreign students to pay Englishmen the very high tribute of not even attempting to be like them, but to be more one’s self, because of their example.


During a 1910-’11 stint at the University of Berlin, writes Leonard Harris in African American National Biography, Locke “studied the works of Franz Brentano, Alexius Meinong, and C.F. von Ehrenfels. Locke associated with other Rhodes scholars, including Horace M. Kallen, author of the concept of cultural pluralism; H.E. Alaily, president of the Egyptian Society of England; Pa Ka Isaka Seme, a black South African law student and eventual founder of the African National Congress of South Africa; and Har Dayal from India—each concerned with national liberation in their respective homelands. The formative years of Locke’s education and early career were the years just proceeding and during World War I—years of nationalist uprising and wars between the world's major nation-states.”

That time abroad afforded Locke what he described in the Harvard Class of 1908 Report as “the very rare opportunity to choose deliberately to be what I was born, but what the tyranny of circumstances prevents many of my folk from ever viewing as the privilege and opportunity of being an Afro-American.”  


Leaving the United States for Europe, away from the day-to-day intractability of the color line, gave Locke a chance to question and consciously embrace his blackness. He and the arts world would never be the same. That is what a Rhodes Scholarship meant to a black man in 1907. (I’ve often wondered whether Locke also felt more comfortable with his sexuality at Oxford than he possibly could have at Harvard.)

Locke wrapped up his Harvard Class Report as follows: “Accordingly, on my return, 1911, I spent six months visiting institutions for the special training of Negro youth in the South and West, a trip requiring all my philosophy and experience, but rich in return. My present job, teaching at Howard University (Washington, D.C.) is a matter of deliberate choice and satisfaction. Teaching, with the race question as in some part a necessary; and in part a gratuitous avocation seems very much like life-work to me at present.” Locke would eventually be the head of Howard's philosophy department.  


Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro

In 1915, Harris writes in the African American National Biography, “Locke began a lecture series sponsored by the Social Science Club of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, titled ‘Race Contacts and Interracial Relations: A Study of the Theory and Practice of Race.’ Locke argued against social Darwinism, which held that distinct races exist and are biologically determined to express peculiar cultural traits.” Instead, Harris says, “Locke introduced a new way of thinking about social entities by conceiving of race as a socially formed category.”


While teaching at Howard, Locke returned to Harvard for his Ph.D. in philosophy, which he earned in 1918, the same year he wrote his landmark essay, “The Role of the Talented Tenth,” a concept popularized (though not coined, recall) by W.E.B. Du Bois. Locke found his calling in the arts and, as a critic, raised his profile writing for Charles S. Johnson’s Opportunity magazine in the early 1920s. Through Johnson, Locke served as master of ceremonies at a 1924 literary banquet at Manhattan’s Civic Club, at which Paul Kellogg, the editor of Survey Graphic, became so impressed with Locke that he invited him to edit a special issue of his popular mainstream magazine.

Locke recognized the opportunity for what it was: a chance to celebrate African-American artistic talent and, in doing so, inspire others to create art in service of a grander vision that would upend painful, and enduring, racist caricatures and replace them with the fullness of “the New Negro.” What happened next solidified the Harlem Renaissance as a recognizable movement.  


After the successful March 1925 release of Survey Graphic’s special issue, which Locke, as editor, subtitled Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro, he strove to reach a wider audience by turning it into a book, The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925), which became the crystalizing anthology of the Harlem Renaissance. In the book’s preface, Locke captured the significance of what was happening:

“[T]he New Negro must be seen in the perspective of a New World, and especially of a New America. … America seeking a new spiritual expansion and artistic maturity, trying to found an American literature, a national art, and a national music implies a Negro-American culture seeking the same satisfactions and objectives. Separate as it may be in color and substance, the culture of the Negro is of a pattern integral with the times and with its cultural setting.”


The New Negro became the who’s who of the Harlem Renaissance. Its table of contents is enough to fill a course’s syllabus, or generate a lifetime of study. For fiction, there was Jean Toomer and Zora Neale Hurston, among others. In his poetry section, Locke included Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, Anne Spencer, Angelina Grimke and others. There were works of drama by Jessie Redmon Fauset, musical selections by Locke, McKay and Hughes, and an essay on the new musical form called “jazz” by none other than our old friend “J.A. Rogers.” 

And I haven’t even gotten to the essays by such leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance as Arthur Schomburg, Walter White and Kelly Miller. Even Melville Herskovits published an essay there, as did Albert Barnes, on black art. Not surprisingly, the last word in The New Negro went to Du Bois, who closed it out with his essay “The Negro Mind Reaches Out.” It was a perfect description of Locke.  


Writes Harris: “The New Negro embodied Locke’s definition of essential features of African American culture, themes such as the importance of self-respect in the face of social denigration; ethnic pride; overcoming racial stereotypes and idioms, such as call-and-response in the spirituals or discord and beats in jazz; and the importance that cultural hybridity, traditions, and revaluations play in shaping cross-cultural relationships. Locke promoted those features of African American folk culture that he believed could be universalized and thus become classical idioms, functioning, for Locke, as cultural ambassadors encouraging cross-cultural and racial respect.”

As I wrote in my 2009 book, Life Upon These Shores, “One cannot overestimate the impact of The New Negro, or of Locke’s role as the veritable dean of the Harlem Renaissance in shaping African American literary history from the 1920s through the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s.”  


In addition, Locke edited Plays of Negro Life (1927, with Montgomery Gregory), Four Negro Poets (1927), The Negro in Art: A Pictorial Record of the Negro Artist and of the Negro Theme in Art (1940) and When Peoples Meet, a Study in Race and Culture Contacts (1942, with Bernhard J. Stern). But perhaps more important than Locke’s own literary accomplishments and philosophical writings (he was an early proponent of both cultural pluralism and cosmopolitanism) was his influence on younger writers, especially Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.   

I count myself among those Locke inspired when I was assigned his anthology in 1969 as a sophomore at Yale. In 1996, I was proud to carry on his tradition of anthology creation, as co-general editor of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. A few years later, I was extremely pleased to serve as editor of a series published by Oxford University Press of uncollected works by various major black intellectuals, including an edition of Locke’s works edited by the scholar Charles Molesworth, The Works of Alain Locke.


Finally Laid to Rest, but Not Forgotten

Alain LeRoy Locke died June 9, 1954, at age 68. His funeral service was held at Bent’s Funeral Home on West 132nd Street in Harlem, and his body was cremated at the Fresh Pond Crematory. Ralph Bunche, W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, Mordecai Johnson (then the president of Howard University) and other notables were among the 110 people who attended the funeral, presided over by Channing Tobias. Locke’s close friend Arthur H. Fauset, the well-known folklorist and half-brother of Jessie Redmon Fauset of Harlem Renaissance fame, assumed responsibility for the arrangements. Locke’s ashes ended up at Howard, along with his papers, which were curated by legendary librarian and bibliographer Dorothy Porter Wesley.


At the time of his death, Locke had been hammering away at what he saw as his magnum opus, a study of African-American culture (it was published posthumously in 1956 as The Negro in American Culture, with Margaret Butcher.)  

In 1993, two years after I joined the Harvard faculty, I was proud to establish the annual Alain Locke Prize to recognize the most outstanding academic scholar graduating in our department of African and African-American studies. Today, the Alain LeRoy Locke Lectures at Harvard (through the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research) bring distinguished scholars to campus to address topics in the fields of African-American culture and history. In this and so many ways, Locke’s legacy as a Rhodes Scholar endures.


Yet until I heard from George Keys, I had no idea that Locke had never been buried. I was only 3 when he died, and since then, as I learned a few weeks ago, his earthly remains have been waiting for those essential rites. Although the reason Locke’s ashes have remained at Howard University all these years is not yet clear, historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham pointed out in an email that Locke was “very specific about the contents of his papers” and may have stipulated in the designation of them that his ashes be included. 

The Rhodes Trust website describes the discovery of his remains and the plans to finally lay them to rest:

In 2007, the Association of American Rhodes Scholars conceived and planned a symposium in conjunction with Howard University on the centenary of the election of Alain Leroy Locke as a Rhodes Scholar from Pennsylvania. … An unexpected outcome of the research was in learning that Locke’s cremated remains were still in the custody of the University.

From this discovery arose the commitment to arrange for a proper interment for this eminent American scholar. With the financial support from African-American Rhodes Scholars, we have purchased a burial plot at Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C. and commissioned a memorial headstone to honor our distinguished predecessor. The interment ceremony will occur on Saturday, September 13, 2014.


For more information, check out the event on Facebook.

If you’re going to be in the Washington area this week, please think about paying your respects. If you don’t, do consider reading Jack Zoeller’s essay “Alain Locke at Oxford: Race and the Rhodes Scholarship” in The American Oxonian, Spring 2007.


The first black Rhodes Scholar paved the way for other black Rhodes Scholars, from John Wideman and my Yale classmates Kurt Schmoke and William Farley to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and Sen. Cory Booker (though after a six-decade drought, The Root reported in 2011).

It is time to bury, with all the honors he so richly deserves, the remains of this great legend of the black past. Rest in peace, Dr. Alain Locke!


As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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