Find out who Alain Leroy Locke, the first known gay Rhodes Scholar and the first black Rhodes Scholar, inspired a generation, including the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Alain Locke: Intellectual colossus epitomized ‘The New Negro’

Alain Leroy Locke, born in Philadelphia in the late 1880s, is heralded as the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance” for his publication in 1925 of “The New Negro”  an anthology of poems, essays, plays, music and portraiture by white and black artists, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

“The New Negro” had a significant impact on the dialogue of Black cultural achievements, which brought Locke national recognition, according to blackhistoryheroes.com. In “The New Negro,” Locke examined the famous Harlem Renaissance for the general reading public. It also became a platform where he attacked the legacy of European supremacy by pointing out the great achievements of Africans. The publication of the book and its acclaim would place Locke at the forefront of “The New Negro Movement.”

Alain Leroy Locke, in doctoral cap and gown, circa 1918. (Addison N. Scurlock / National Museum of American History)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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According to the Stanford Encyclopedia, Locke saw black aesthetics differently than some of the leading Negro intellectuals of his day. Most notably, his friend W.E.B. Du Bois, a fellow Harvard Ph.D., thought it was a role and responsibility of the Negro artist to offer a representation of the black experience that might help in the quest for social uplift. Locke, however, argued that the primary responsibility and function of the artist is to express his or her own individuality, and in doing that to communicate something of universal human appeal.

Sigma Royalty. In this 1949 photo, two of the fraternity's founders A. Langston Taylor (second from left) and Leonard F. Morse (wearing the religious collar), attend a dinner with the brothers. Scholar Alain Leroy Locke is second from right.
Photo: Photos courtesy of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc.

Locke taught philosophy at Howard University for more than 40 years, most of it as chairman of the department. He helped organize the Gamma Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa there and was one of the early members of the emergent Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity founded in 1914.

Locke was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard University, where he earned undergraduate and doctorate degrees and became the first known gay Rhodes scholar, as well as the first black Rhodes scholar. It would be 50 years before there was another black Rhodes scholar.

Locke was a mentor to Ossie Davis, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, among others, according to blavity.com. According to NPR, he also inspired Martin Luther King Jr., who praised him as an intellectual leader on par with Plato and Aristotle.

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