In Memoriam—Alain LeRoy Locke: The Interment and Honoring of an African American Philosopher, Race-Unity Advocate, and Bahá’í

By Kit Bigelow

The interment ceremony for Alain LeRoy Locke (September 13, 1885–June 9, 1954) was held on September 13, 2014 (the 129th anniversary of his birthday) at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. The ceremony underscored the fact that the life of this philosopher, scholar, educator, and tireless advocate for race unity was a beautiful mosaic and enhanced each participant’s impression that we are only now beginning to understand and appreciate his multifaceted life and contributions.

Alain_LeRoy_LockeThe varied program in the tiny chapel on the cemetery grounds offered a glimpse of “Locke as Bridge Builder.” One speaker, Dr. Jasmine Waddell, a Rhodes Scholar and Resident Dean of Freshmen, Elm Yard, at Harvard College, spoke of Locke’s many different aspects—academic, philosopher, Rhodes Scholar, Bahá’í, teacher, homosexual—each part a facet of a prism, reflecting light that illuminates us yet today. During the ceremony Locke was honored and acknowledged for each of these aspects.

Two Rhodes Scholars, attorney George Keys and executive Jack C. Zoeller, spoke of the long journey of Locke’s ashes to their final resting place and of Locke as the first African American Rhodes Scholar, selected in 1907. Dr. Leonard Harris, a professor of philosophy at Purdue University who has written a biography of Locke, spoke about his intellectual contributions to American philosophy and literature, noting particularly his role as the Dean of the Harlem Renaissance. Dr. Michael R. Winston, Acting Provost and Chief Academic Officer at Howard University, discussed Locke’s numerous and significant academic and administrative contributions to that university.

The National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States asked me to speak at the ceremony about Alain Locke’s life as a Bahá’í. Professor Locke became a Bahá’í in 1918 in Washington, D.C., the same year he earned his doctorate in philosophy from Harvard University. Among the many diverse aspects of Locke’s Bahá’í life, often not well known even to Bahá’ís, was his relationship with Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith. The two men both attended Oxford—Locke in 1907 as a Rhodes Scholar and Shoghi Effendi in 1920–21 as a student. In 1923 they met in Haifa at the Bahá’í World Center. Four of Locke’s articles were published in six Bahá’í World volumes, including one about his impressions of his meeting with Shoghi Effendi.

Shoghi Effendi later asked Alain Locke to review his (Shoghi Effendi’s) translation of the Kitáb-i-Íqán, Bahá’u’lláh’s preeminent doctrinal work. Professor Locke was also deeply engaged in the race-unity work of the Bahá’í community in the United States, including helping to organize and speaking at the first “Convention for Amity Between the Colored and White Races” in May 1921. He served for more than a decade on the National Spiritual Assembly’s National Interracial Amity Committees from the 1920s into the 1930s.

In July 1987, when the U.S. National Spiritual Assembly opened its Office of External Affairs in Washington, D.C., the Bahá’í office was on the first floor, and the law offices of Mr. George Keys were on the second of a beautiful building at Dupont Circle. Mr. Keys and I began a friendship during those days that continues until today.

More than sixty years after Alain Locke’s selection, George Keys would become the eighth African American Rhodes Scholar, kindling his interest in and fascination with the man who had earned the first such honor during a time of deeply embedded institutional and societal racism in the United States and in England. Mr. Keys was the primary organizer of a conference in 2007 at Howard University to honor the centenary of Locke’s having been named a Rhodes Scholar.

Locke had taught at and had been associated with Howard University from 1912 until 1953. Among those who spoke at that 2007 conference honoring Alain Locke’s legacy was Dr. Christopher Buck, who has researched and written extensively about Locke’s life as a Bahá’í. It is a dimension of his life still largely unknown to Locke scholars and the public.1 Without Dr. Buck’s research, my presentation on Locke’s life as a Bahá’í at the Interment Ceremony in September 2014 would not have been possible.

Professor Locke’s ashes had been stored in several places since his death and cremation in 1954. Most recently, they were kept unceremoniously in a paper bag stored inside a tin box at Howard University, where they were discovered. George Keys decided that an appropriate burial and recognition ceremony must be held for this extraordinary man in U.S. intellectual history.2

Locke front of headstoneIt took a number of years to search for a proper place for Locke’s burial and for the Association of American Rhodes Scholars to mount a concerted fund-raising effort before the site at the Congressional Cemetery and the beautiful, polished black-granite headstone, carved with symbols related to Locke’s life, would be brought together on a day of honor and celebration.

As a late summer rain fell steadily, the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, the oldest existing Black organization at Harvard College, honored Locke with African American spirituals, an art form that Locke championed as part of our common national heritage. Then Robert James, a member of the Regional Bahá’í Council of the Atlantic States, offered a Bahá’í prayer for the departed at the gravesite. Dozens lined up to pour scoops of dirt over Locke’s urn. For those of us who attended, the occasion was an awakening to deeper knowledge about Alain LeRoy Locke, a remarkable American intellectual and Bahá’í.3

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  1. See http://bahai-library.com/buck_alain_locke_bsr#f126. See also Christopher Buck, Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy (Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 2005).
  2. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/the-60-year-journey-of-the-ashes-of-alain-locke-father-of-the-harlem-renaissance/2014/09/11/2ea31ccc-2878-11e4-86ca-6f03cbd15c1a_story.html.
  3. For a video of the moving rain-soaked burial of Locke’s ashes, see https://www.facebook.com/BahaiUS. For the National Public Radio’s account of the burial, including a clip of Locke’s voice, see http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2014/09/15/347132309/alan-locke-whose-ashes-were-found-in-university-archives-is-buried.