Historical Markers
Alain Leroy Locke Historical Marker
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Alain Leroy Locke

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
2221 S 5th St., Philadelphia

Behind the Marker

A man seated, facing front, wearing a white suit and black tie.
Alain Leroy Locke, by Winold Reiss, 1925.
As the leading theorists and interpreters of the black experience in America through the first half of the twentieth century, W.E.B. Dubois and Alain Leroy Locke didn’t always agree, but on this, as Locke insisted in the powerful marker "Forward." to his groundbreaking 1925 anthology The New Negro: An Interpretation, their accord was absolute: for America to understand the black experience, black voices had to be heard. The loudest, clearest, and most artful of those voices belonged to a remarkable group of writers—led by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, markerJesse Redmon Fauset,  and James Weldon Johnson—in the forefront of what would be called the Harlem Renaissance. By introducing their prose and poetry to a wider—and whiter—audience, Locke and his anthology created a groundbreaking forum.
Through the course of a long, illustrious public life, Locke’s own voice spoke loudly, too, and it spoke often, from beneath a variety of hats. He was an intellectual, a philosopher, an essayist, an editor, and an educator, and one of the first—and most important—promoters of black culture and advocates of the ways black culture added to American life. He was one of the first to champion the prose of Ralph Ellison, author of the classic novel The Invisible Man, and the art of Jacob Lawrence, whose abstract paintings were infused with the shapes and colors of Harlem. At Howard University, where he taught for almost half a century, Locke was the first to steer Ossie Davis, later star of several Spike Lee movies, toward a career that would break down important barriers in the way blacks were perceived on stage and screen.
Alain Leroy Locke, portrait in doctoral cap and gown, ca. 1918.
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Alain Leroy Locke, in his graduation gown from Harvard University, 1918.
Indeed, the word "first" had a way of attaching itself to Locke and his family. The first black to cox one of Harvard’s crews, Locke became the first black Rhodes scholar. His father was in Howard Law School’s first graduating class and then became the first African American to take and pass the federal Civil Service exam. And his father, through the sponsorship of Philadelphia's Quakers, was one of the first American blacks to attend Cambridge University in England; he later became the principal of Philadelphia’s famed markerInstitute for Colored Youth.

Alain Leroy Locke was born in Philadelphia in 1886. An only child, he was only six years old when his father died. His mother taught in the segregated schools of Camden, where Locke began his formal schooling. As a boy, rheumatic fever damaged his heart and restricted physical activity, so he worked his mind—rigorously—through reading and music. He graduated from Philadelphia’s Central High School, second in his class, in 1902, and after two years at the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy, entered Harvard, where he studied philosophy with the eminent William James, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1907, before sailing to England to study philosophy, Greek, and literature at Oxford.
Title page
Title page, The New Negro: an interpretation, edited by Alain Locke, book decoration...
Locke’s five years away from the United States—three at Oxford and another two at the University of Berlin—had profound effect on his intellectual path. Culturally, Europe, in the first decades of the twentieth century, was a hothouse of new trends in art, music, and literature. Locke embraced them. Just as importantly, he began to look back at America with new perspective; the more non-whites he met, the more he saw how universal racial discrimination seemed to be.
Convinced that the best way to fight discrimination was through education, Locke returned to the United States in 1912 to join the faculty at Howard as an assistant professor of English. He switched to the philosophy department in 1918, after going back to Harvard in 1916 to complete his Ph.D,  as a full professor.
At Howard, Locke became a leading proponent of the black self-awareness movement that gained momentum in the 1920s. His beliefs only strengthened during a 1924 sabbatical to the Sudan and Egypt (where he was present for the reopening, after several millennia, of King Tut’s tomb). Back at Howard in 1925, his disagreement with the university over its path—he lobbied that black education had a responsibility to develop its own interests and aims—led to a three-year break from academics and Locke’s own emergence as a national figure.
Putting his ideas into practice, Locke moved to New York, where he established the influence that led him to become, as one magazine of the times called him, "the philosophical midwife to a generation of younger artists, writers and poets."  As a writer, he contributed regularly to important publications like Survey Graphic and Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, even editing a special issue of the former that evolved into The New Negro.
Steeping his essays in his philosophy of "cultural pluralism," an idea that suggested each individual culture within a roiling democratic society like America’s has its own unique value and contribution to make, Locke contended that African Americans must strive for artistic excellence, both for their own self-esteem and for whites to take black culture seriously. Such excellence, he held, could only spring from the deep African roots of black ethnicity, not from trying to march along and blend in with white culture.
Group photograph
Alain Locke (far left), with Judge James S. Watson, Nnamdi Azikiwe— the...
Locke’s beliefs resonated with the new generation of artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals that was coming of age around him, and his assertion that black life "was not only establishing new contacts and founding new centers, it is finding a new soul," dramatically infused their aesthetic. Published in 1925, The New Negro so neatly captured the cultural flowering he nurtured, that the flowering itself was first called The New Negro Movement before the sobriquet was supplanted by the more lyrical notion of The Harlem Renaissance.
The anthology's success turned Locke into the accepted voice of authority on black culture to blacks and whites alike, and he used his position through the rest of his career to promote the work of rising black artists and writers. More than promote, he also began collecting black art. He quickly amassed one of the most important collections of African and contemporary African-American art in the United States, and, over time, put together many significant exhibitions and catalogs of these works.
In 1928, through the entreaties of the university’s first black president, Locke was beckoned back to Howard, where he would chair the philosophy department until his retirement in 1953. In the 1930s, he helped restructure the social science department and revamp the liberal-arts curriculum, opening both to deeper study of the black experience. He also acted as secretary and editor of a new university program for adult education. As editor, he was in charge of a series of nine "Bronze Booklets" by black scholars, two of which he wrote himself: Negro Art: Past and Present and The Negro and His Music. He wrote two other well-received books during these years: The Negro in America (1933) and Frederick Douglass: A Biography of Anti-Slavery.
For the next two decades, Locke worked tirelessly to spread his ideas about cultural pluralism. He lectured widely, contributed to a variety of publications, and in 1942, co-edited When People Meet: A Study in Race and Culture Contacts, a landmark anthology in social studies. He also guest edited a special issue of Survey Graphics that linked America’s fight overseas to a plea for ending of segregation at home.  
As Locke’s influence and reputation spread, doors opened. By the end of World War II, he had been named to the editorial board of the Phi Beta Kappa society's The American Scholar and became the first black to preside over the American Association for Adult Education. Beyond Howard, he received visiting academic appointments at the University of Wisconsin, the New School for Social Research in New York, and the City College of New York. Just before retiring, he helped Howard garner the first Phi Beta Kappa chapter ever awarded to a black school.
Locke died in 1954 in New York, a victim of the weak heart that had plagued him since childhood. His unfinished manuscript, The Negro in American Culture, the work he hoped he would be remembered by, was completed posthumously.
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