On this day in history, September 13, 1885, Alain LeRoy, Harvard University graduate, Locke was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Locke was the first African American to win the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. He also received a doctorate in philosophy from Harvard and taught at the university. Locke publicized the Harlem Renaissance to a wide audience. After he died, June 9, 1954, in New York City, he was laid to rest in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington DC.
Alain LeRoy Locke was born Pliny Ishmael and Mary Hawkins Locke. He was a gifted student who graduated from Philadelphia’s Central High School second in his class in 1902. He attended the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy before heading to Harvard University where he graduated in 1907 with degrees in both literature and philosophy.Despite his intellect and talent, Locke faced significant barriers as an African American. Though he was selected as the first African-American Rhodes Scholar, he was denied admission to several colleges at the University of Oxford because of his race.
Alain Locke taught English at Howard University before returning to Harvard to complete his graduate studies. He completed his dissertation, “The Problem of Classification in the Theory of Value,” in 1918, graduating with a doctorate in Philosophy. Locke then returned to Howard University as chair of the school’s Department of Philosophy—a position that he would hold until his retirement in 1953.Locke promoted African-American artists and writers, encouraging them to look to Africa for artistic inspiration. Author Zora Neale Hurston received significant support from Locke. He also reviewed the work of African-American scholars in the pages of the periodicals Opportunity and Phylon, and published work on African-American art, theater, poetry and music.
Much of Locke’s writing focused on African and African-American identity. His collection of writing and illustrations, The New Negro, was published in 1925 and quickly became a classic. He also published pieces on the Harlem Renaissance, communicating the energy and potential of Harlem culture to a wide audience of both black and white readers. For his part in developing the movement, Locke has been dubbed the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance.” His views on African-American intellectual and cultural life differed sharply from those of other Harlem Renaissance leaders, however, including W.E.B. Du Bois. While Du Bois believed that African-American artists should aim to uplift their race, Locke argued that the artist’s responsibility was primarily to himself or herself.