“Look what I’ve got!”
Joellen ElBashir is standing, smiling, in front of filing cabinets with two long, low drawers agape. On a counter, she has laid out her finds: typewritten documents and a stained brown paper bag bearing a few faint lines of handwriting. It’s not the first time ElBashir, curator of Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, has seen the bag. But every time she sees it, she’s struck.
“If Alain Locke had known, he ... ”
ElBashir chuckles and shakes her head, but it’s clear what she means: If Locke had known his cremated remains had been inside that grubby paper bag, he’d be rolling in his grave.
Locke, intellectual architect of the Harlem Renaissance, chairman of philosophy at Howard University and the first African American Rhodes scholar, was “a fastidious man,” ElBashir says.
She has seen plenty of evidence (the immaculate suits! the crisply knotted ties! the straw boaters!) in the 26 years she has spent here at the center, where Locke’s papers are stored in row upon row of gray boxes. And where, almost two decades ago, Locke’s ashes arrived in a container the size of a coffee can that was delivered to the university inside the crumpled bag ElBashir is now holding.
If Alain Locke knew all that, he would indeed be rolling in his grave ... if he had one.
This weekend, 60 years after his death, Locke is finally being given a permanent resting place in Capitol Hill’s Congressional Cemetery, where a polished-granite gravestone will sit across from the sandstone cenotaphs honoring early members of Congress and adjacent to the first director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, Warren Robbins. Sept. 13’s commemorative ceremony and interment were planned and funded largely by African American Rhodes scholars who followed Locke’s pioneering path across the Atlantic to Oxford.
“He was an inspiration,” recalls Kurt Schmoke, who read Locke’s landmark 1925 anthology, “The New Negro,” as a sophomore at Yale in the late ’60s and went on to win a Rhodes scholarship in 1971.
Black, gay and short, Locke hardly fit the stereotype of the strapping Rhodes scholar, says Jack Zoeller, who wrote a 2007 article about Locke for the scholarship’s quarterly magazine to mark 100 years since the graduate of Philadelphia’s Central High and Harvard College won the prestigious award. Some don’t believe the 1907 selection committee members knew Locke was black, though Zoeller found evidence they did. For all founder Cecil Rhodes’s Anglo-Saxon imperialism, his will stated, “No student shall be qualified or disqualified ... on account of his race or religious opinions.”
That didn’t save Locke from suffering. Many of his fellow Americans were “not ready to share their pedestal with a black man” and refused to live in the same Oxford college, Zoeller writes.
In some ways, the Oxford experience — of winning the pedestal but not sitting securely on it — was emblematic of Locke’s later life.
Locke was convinced that embracing African heritage was key to the emergence of the New Negro, imbued with “renewed self-respect and self-dependency.” But Locke’s name is not as well known as those of Harlem Renaissance writers such as Zora Neale Hurston or Langston Hughes, who expressed the era’s awakenings in more accessible forms. Locke saw himself as the philosophical “midwife” of a generation of black writers.
“Take a look at his writings on race,” says Howard Dodson Jr., director of Moorland-Spingarn, who has dedicated his career to preserving black history. “It’s some of the most sophisticated writing on the subject,” he says, pulling a volume of Locke’s work from the shelves. But these are essays about ideas, not popular stories.
Even as a philosopher, argues Locke’s biographer Leonard Harris, Locke is often treated as if his work should be understood within the construct of his race.
“He was one of the founders of pragmatism, but the pragmatists didn’t include him in their history,” Harris says. “White, you could be a philosopher. Black, you couldn’t be a philosopher; you had to be a representative or exploring your kind, and what you had to say was a reflection of your kind.”
As for Locke’s sexual orientation, Harris writes about letters Locke exchanged with other gay men but also says he lived his personal life in semi-secrecy. Harris found a 1949 note in which Locke refers to the irony of being born in America with his three minority statuses:
“Had I been born in ancient Greece I would have escaped the first [homophobia]; in Europe I would have been spared the second [U.S. racial segregation policies]; in Japan I would have been above rather than below average [height].”
The 150 linear feet of personal papers Locke bequeathed to Howard are among the most used of Moorland-Spingarn’s celebrated collections, according to ElBashir, and sought out by scholars from all over the world. But stroll across campus and ask students walking in and out of Locke Hall whom the building is named after, and they have no idea.
Schmoke, who served as dean of Howard’s law school and then the university’s legal counsel before becoming president of the University of Baltimore this year, hopes that the new grave will mean more people learn about Alain Locke.
For many people today, Schmoke says, “he’s a figure lost in history.”
If the story of Locke’s life has elements of mystery, so does the story of what happened to his ashes after he died in New York in 1954.
Locke was cremated and his ashes given to his close friend and executor, the Philadelphia activist and educator Arthur Huff Fauset.
“They were sacred to him,” recalls Sadie Mitchell, 93, who met Locke with Fauset in Philadelphia when she was a young woman. Fauset took the ashes whenever he moved, Mitchell remembers.
When Fauset died in 1983, his niece Conchita Porter Morison, 91, turned to Mitchell, who says she “acted as an intermediary” and contacted Howard. That’s why her name is written on the paper bag: “Cremains given to Locke’s friend, Dr. Arthur Huff Fauset. Arthur is deceased. I kept the remains to give to Howard. The Rev. Sadie Mitchell. Associate at St Thomas Church.”
But Mitchell didn’t actually take the ashes to the university. That fell to J. Weldon Norris, now the university’s coordinator of music history, who remembers visiting the Philadelphia church in the mid-’90s for a concert. He was eating dinner with friends when “a little lady walked up to me, and she says, ‘Dr. Norris, could you please do me a favor?’ ”
When Norris heard she wanted to give him the philosopher’s remains, “all our forks stopped in midair,” he says.
Norris took the ashes back to Howard, where they stayed in the safekeeping of then-Moorland-Spingarn director Thomas Battle until 2007. That’s when Zoeller and a fellow Rhodes scholar, George Keys, visited the archives on a mission to “re-present Locke to the community” on the 100th anniversary of his selection. They knew what a groundbreaker he was: There hadn’t been another black Rhodes until 1963, when John Edgar Wideman (who went on to become an award-winning author) and J. Stanley Sanders (a lawyer and Los Angeles mayoral candidate) were picked. Keys was intent on honoring such a forgotten trailblazer for black Rhodes scholars, whose ranks he joined in 1970, one year before Schmoke. And Zoeller, who is white and went to Oxford in 1972, says he was captivated by the man “who routinely overcame the odds.”
Battle recalls opening a credenza and showing Keys and Zoeller the bag and the tin, with its pre-printed label from the crematorium.
“We were flummoxed,” Keys recalls. And determined to help find Locke a more fitting resting place.
Later that year, the ashes were transferred to Mark Mack, director at the time of Howard’s W. Montague Cobb Research Laboratory, which, as Battle says “had experience dealing with human remains,” including those from New York’s African Burial Ground and 699 largely African American skeletons housed at the lab.
Mack, who died in 2012, had the ashes repackaged in a simple urn, says his successor, Fatimah Jackson. It was the right thing to do, she says, for human remains that had been stored for years “like canned goods.”
And that’s where Locke stayed, in a safe in the main office, until this spring, when his strange posthumous journey took its final turn.
Schmoke, as Howard’s legal counsel, retrieved the ashes in May, once he was satisfied that there were no legal impediments to burying them and that a suitable place had been found.
The original thought, Keys says, was that Locke should be interred on campus, in what ElBashir terms “a nice niche in Locke Hall.”
Moorland-Spingarn’s Dodson had arranged a similar interment in 1991 when he was director of New York’s Schomburg Center for Research into Black Culture and Langston Hughes’s ashes were entombed there beneath a tiled design inspired by Hughes’s poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
But there’s no tradition of interring people at Howard — and Schmoke raised concerns about setting a precedent. People including Thurgood Marshall and Vernon Jordan are associated with Howard, and, Jackson muses, “you can’t turn the quad into a cemetery.”
Keys and Zoeller looked into reuniting Locke with his mother, but Mary Hawkins Locke, a teacher who died in 1922, was buried at Columbian Harmony Cemetery at Ninth Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE, where a Metro station now stands. After the site was sold in 1959 to developers, 37,000 graves were transferred to Landover — without grave markers. There’s no knowing where Mary Locke now lies, Keys says.
They settled on Congressional Cemetery, and donations to pay for the $8,000 plot came from other African American Rhodes scholars, who now number more than 80.
Harris, the biographer, is pleased with the symbolism of seeing Locke laid to rest in the historic D.C. cemetery. “ ‘The New Negro’ comes out of Washington,” Harris says. “The poetry readings were in Washington. ... His first lecture series on race? He does this in Washington.”
I can walk to the spot with my eyes closed,” says Keys one late-August morning. “I’ve thought about it so much.”
He is strolling with Margaret Puglisi, vice president of Historic Congressional Cemetery, to the prominent plot they picked out, going over last-minute logistics such as grass seeding as well as estimating how many people might attend the weekend’s ceremony.
Howard University; the Alain Locke Society, which supports scholarly work on the philosopher’s life and writing; and the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States, the religion Locke espoused, will all be represented. And about 25 to 30 members of the African American group Kuumba Singers are planning to travel down from Harvard, Locke’s alma mater, to perform at his interment.
The cemetery was never restricted by race, but not many blacks are buried here, says Puglisi; those who are include slaves and maids entombed with the families they worked for. But there is a strong tradition of recognizing minority rights, she explains, with supporters of the underground railroad here, as well as civil rights leaders, LGBT advocates, suffragettes and American Indians. And Locke will soon be featured on historical tours that will introduce all-comers to his life story.
Keys pauses by the grassy plot and then pulls out an illustration of the stone.
Alain Leroy Locke, it reads, 1885-1954: “Herald of the Harlem Renaissance, Exponent of Cultural Pluralism.” On the reverse side are four symbols: a nine-pointed Baha’i star representing the religion that emphasizes the spiritual unity of humankind; a Zimbabwe bird, the emblem of the African country formerly called Rhodesia, which the American Rhodes community adopted; a lambda, symbolizing gay and lesbian rights; and Phi Beta Sigma, the fraternity Locke joined at Howard.
In the center is a simplified reproduction of a bookplate made by Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas for the man who recognized that embracing African cultural heritage was key to advancing the cause of the New Negro. It’s a dramatic art deco depiction of an African woman’s face set against a sunburst.
“Teneo te, Africa” it reads. “I hold you, my Africa.”
Frances Stead Sellers is senior writer at the magazine.
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