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Alain LeRoy Locke
September 13, 1885 – June 9, 1954
Writer, Philosopher, Educator and Patron of the Arts


Alain LeRoy Locke was an African-American writer, philosopher, educator, and patron of the arts. He is best known for his writings on and about the Harlem Renaissance. He is unofficially called the "Father of the Harlem Renaissance". His philosophy served as a strong motivating force in keeping the energy and passion of the Movement at the forefront.

Alain Locke was born in Pennsylvania on September 13, 1885 to Pliny Ishmael Locke (1850-???) 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. In 1907, Locke graduated from Harvard University with degrees in English and philosophy. He was the first African-American Rhodes Scholar. He formed part of the Phi Beta Kappa society. Locke was denied admission to several Oxford colleges because of his skin color before finally being 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 attended the College de France in Paris in 1911.

Locke received an assistant professorship in English at Howard University, in Washington, D.C. There he interacted with W. E. B. Du Bois and Carter Woodson, who helped develop his philosophy.

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 Ph.D. in philosophy in 1918. Locke returned to Howard University as the chair of the department of philosophy, a position he held until his retirement in 1953. At Howard, he became a distinguished member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc.

During these years Locke was a major contributor to Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life and Survey Graphic. He edited a special issue of the latter publication devoted to the Harlem Renaissance, the flourishing of African American art, literature, and music in New York City during the 1920s and 1930s. Expanding it into a book and shifting the focus from Harlem to overall African American cultural life, Locke authored The New Negro: An Interpretation in 1925. It was an outstanding collection of the leading African American fiction, poetry, drama, and essays written by himself and others describing the changing state of race relations in the United States.

Locke became the leading authority on modern African American culture and used his position to promote the careers of young artists. He encouraged them to seek out subjects in African American life and to set high artistic standards for themselves.

Locke's Cultural Influence

Locke served as secretary and editor of the newly established Associates in Negro Folk Education. Between 1936 and 1942 this organization published nine "Bronze Booklets" written by leading African American scholars. Locke wrote two of these, Negro Art: Past and Present and The Negro and His Music, and edited a third, The Negro in Art: A Pictorial Record of the Negro Artist and of the Negro Theme in Art. The latter reemphasized his belief that African American artists should look to the works of their African ancestors for subject matter and styles to apply to modern painting and sculpture.

Locke continued his work in philosophy, actively promoting his theory of cultural pluralism (a society made up of several different cultures and their beliefs). This interest led to his pioneering 1942 social science anthology, coedited with Bernhard Stern, When Peoples Meet: A Study in Race and Culture Contacts, an examination of dominant and minority populations in various countries around the world.

In Demand as a Visiting Dcholar

By the middle of the twentieth century, Locke was a member of the editorial board of the American Scholar and, in 1945, the first African American elected president of the American Association for Adult Education, a mainly white national organization.

During the 1945 and 1946 academic year he served as visiting professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin. The following year he was a visiting professor at the New School for Social Research in what had become his second home for many years, New York City, and held a similar appointment the next year at the City College of New York (CCNY).

After 1948 Locke began teaching at both CCNY and Howard. His final achievement was to secure a Phi Beta Kappa chapter at Howard in 1953, a major milestone in the history of African American education.

Locke retired later that year and was awarded an honorary doctorate (a degree given without the usual proceedings) by Howard. He moved permanently to New York City and continued working on his magnum opus (highest achievement), The Negro in American Culture, a definitive study of the contribution of African Americans to American society. Unfortunately his recurrent heart problems returned in the spring of 1954, causing his death on June 9, 1954, in New York City. His unfinished manuscript was completed by Margaret Just Butcher.

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