Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy

Annual Progress Report on Interracial Work, 1929–1930

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Annual Progress Report on Interracial Work, 1929–1930:508 The annual report discloses that all committee decisions were reached by consensus: “No committee action has been taken upon matters referred to this committee by its chairman that has not had unanimous approval.”509 Green Acre was site of a third annual race amity convention. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the committee this year was its draft letter (requested by the National Spiritual Assembly) to First Lady Mrs. Herbert Hoover, who held a reception for black Congressman Oscar DePriest, in which the committee “pointed out that interracial amity is the basis of universal peace.” The annual report states:510
By instructions from the National Spiritual Assembly, this committee prepared the draft of a letter to Mrs. Herbert Hoover, felicitating her upon her entertainment in the White House of the wife and daughter of Oscar DePriest, the colored Congressman and the only representative of the colored race in that great body, along with the families of other Congressmen, for which she received censure in some quarters. This letter, which explained the Bahá’í teachings on race relations, was adopted by the N. S. A. and by its secretary sent to Mrs. Hoover along with a copy of the Bahá’í World. This letter commended Mrs. Hoover and her distinguished husband on their stand for peace and humanitarian service. It was pointed out that interracial amity is the basis of universal peace.511
The significance of this letter is that the committee on which Locke served drafted a formal statement of Bahá’í teachings on race relations, for the benefit of the First Lady. It is not known whether or not President Hoover, whose term of office was 1929–1933, personally read the letter.

Hiatus: According to Gayle Morrison, in the following Bahá’í administrative year (1930–31), no independent amity committee was appointed. All amity activities were subsumed under the National Teaching Committee. Louis Gregory served as NTC secretary for amity activities.512 So far as can be determined, this period was something of a hiatus in Locke’s Bahá’í-related race relations activities. This time, the relative inactivity was through no fault of his own.

For the 1931–1932 Bahá’í administrative year, Locke was appointed to the National Racial Amity Committee, whose members included: Loulie Mathews, Chairperson; Louis Gregory, Secretary; Zia M. Bagdadi, Mabelle L. Davis, Frances Fales, Sara L. Witt, Alain Locke, Shelley N. Parker, Annie K. Lewis.513 This was Locke’s seventh and final national Bahá’í committee appointment. Of his acceptance, Locke, in a handwritten letter to Louis Gregory, writes:

June 6, 1931

Alain Locke

1326 R. St., N.W.

Washington, D. C.

[sic, letterhead]
Dear Friend and Brother:
We are just completing a trying year at the University, but with effort, substantial progress goes on, but there is far too much controversy in the air. It has grieved and exhausted me.

Your letter about the Interracial committee was welcome and enheartening. I have written Mr. Lunt my acceptance, and hope next year to be called upon to participate more actively in the Amity conferences and consultations.

I am very sorry that I must again miss the Green Acre convention—as I go [end p. 1] abroad for the summer, on what seems an urgent combination of health treatment, and business engagements. I wholly agree with your plans and activities, and think the work is gradually reaching wider and wider circles. I wish James Weldon Johnson and Mr. Hubert of New York could be persuaded to come to Green Acre—and while the visit would do Dr. Woodson good—his temperament is rather acid as you know—and might not keep the cause—although he is first and last a truth-seeker—and I would rather [end p. 2] have this element even with some irritation than the deceptive platitudes of some of our friends, including even Dr. Leslie P. Hill.

Please accept these reactions as constructively meant, and with my keen regret—accept my prayerful wishes for great confirmation at Green Acre this summer.

Sincerely yours,
Alain Locke514
Locke recommends that certain non-Bahá'í contacts (James Weldon Johnson and Mr. Hubert) should be invited to Green Acre. From the context of the letter, it seems that Locke was critical of certain Bahá’ís who were involved in the race relations work. The reader should bear in mind that, while Dr. Woodson is spoken of as a Bahá’í, this has yet to be confirmed. However, we do know that Dr. Leslie P. Hillwas a Bahá’í. This raises the issue of the Bahá’í proscription against saying anything negative about another person (“backbiting”) and the need to preserve full and frank consultation, with unimpeded candor. Bahá’ís are forbidden to backbite, as this poisons human relationships. However, it would not be backbiting, in the context of committee business, to express opinions as to whether someone should or should not be invited to an event, and why. That is essential information for the committee to consider in making its decision. The honesty and forthrightness of Locke’s criticism of “the deceptive platitudes of some of our friends, including even Dr. Leslie P. Hill” suggest that the latter’s expressions of continued commitment as a Bahá’í were equally genuine. Positively, this letter reveals the way in which Bahá’í committee work at a national level operated. It was conducted primarily through correspondence, with occasional telephone calls and meetings. The decision-making process involved Bahá’í principles of consultation, with the goal of achieving consensus in every decision.

Presumably (having discussed other possible reasons as well) because he was already on the national committee, Locke had not been appointed to the local amity committee. In a community list “Showing committee assignments for the year 1931–1932,” Stanwood Cobb, Coralie Cook, Mariam Haney, and Agnes Parsons were identified as the members of the local “Inter-Racial” committee.515

Asked to Write George Cook’s Obituary: on 25 Sept. 1931, Mariam Haney, on behalf of the editors of The Baha’i Magazine, asked Locke to write a memoriam for Howard professor, George William Cook (1855–1931). This Locke did.516 Haney’s appeal to Locke reveals how he was perceived by his fellow Bahá’ís at that time. For instance, she writes: “We know you are very busy. Life is that way of course. And we would not have it otherwise. However, it is often said that if one wants anything done, ask the busy person.” After giving her reasons why Locke was “the logical person to write this article” and stressing the importance of writing this tribute to an illustrious Bahá’í, Haney’s grace and tact continues to shine through: “The article need not be long, and so we feel sure, with your gifts and graces, you will not be taxed in strength or time.”517

Unity through Diversity: A Bahá’í Principle”: Locke’s Bahá’í literary contributions continued apace. Locke’s article, “Unity through Diversity: A Bahá’í Principle”518 was solicited in 1931. On 29 Dec. 1931, Mrs. Wanden M. La Farge, on behalf of the editorial board, prevailed upon him to complete and submit his manuscript: “Dear Doctor Locke: No article for the Bahai [sic] World has appeared from you and this is merely a warning that the next step will be not one but a series of telegrams collect. With very best regards.”519 This important essay, published in 1933. It functioned not only as effective Bahá’í propaganda in a positive sense, but as a further public testimony of Locke’s continuing identification with the Faith.


It appears that Locke was not appointed to the 1932–1933 National Inter-Racial Amity Committee, whose members included Loulie A. Mathews (Chairperson), Louis G. Gregory (secretary), Mrs. Witt, Dr. Zia Bagdadi, Mabelle L. Davis, Coralie Cook, Mrs. Shelley N. Parker, Dorothy Richardson, and Mrs. Edwin Horne.520 It would be interesting to know why. This was the National Spiritual Assembly’s prerogative entirely. The decision was not Locke’s. (After being appointed to a committee, however, an appointee may decline or resign. The exception is election to the National Spiritual Assembly: “No one should decline or resign if elected.”521) That Locke was not appointed to the 1932–1933 National Inter-Racial Amity Committee is an unsolved, albeit minor, mystery. This did not prevent Locke from continuing to contribute to the Bahá’í race relations work, however. If anything, it may have made him more available as a speaker at a major Bahá’í event in December (see below).

Racial Amity Convention (New York): On 27 February 1932, the Bahá’ís hosted an interracial banquet in honor of the NAACP and the National Urban League. Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the illustrious African Americans present, and gave a short speech.522 According to a story published in the Chicago Defender on this event, Walter F. White, secretary of the NAACP, hailed “the Bahá’í movement” as “one of the great forces of human understanding.”523 But, so far as we know, Locke was not part of this event.

Encyclopedia of the Negro: As Gayle Morrison points out throughout her biography of Louis Gregory, the Bahá’í Faith had made significant inroads among the black intelligentsia. W. E. B. Du Bois’ wife Nina, for instance, became a Bahá’í in 1936 (see below). Of course, Locke had already been in contact with Du Bois prior to becoming a Bahá’í. So, despite the fact that Du Bois and Locke had their ideological differences, it comes as no surprise that Du Bois asked Locke to serve in an advisory capacity for the Encyclopedia of the Negro, of which W. E. B. Du Bois was unanimously elected editor-in-chief.

In his letter of invitation dated 10 September 1935, Du Bois prefaces his request by explaining how the project originated: “About three years ago, a number of persons representing institutions of learning and other organizations, met in Washington and laid tentative plans for publishing an Encyclopaedia of the Negro.” After stating that the Depression had delayed the project, and that funding was not yet secured, indicated that the project was going forward notwithstanding and was in need of scholars like Locke: “I have, therefore, been asked by the Board of Directors to correspond with a number of persons whose interests we want to enlist and to ask for their cooperation.”524 Locke responded: “I believe the project more timely than ever, and hope some way will be found to finance it adequately.” As to his own expertise, Locke specified: “My own special fields of interest would be African Art,—the recent developments in Negro music, art and poetry, and possibly some biographical sketches of late or contemporary figures in these fields.”525 A historic photograph of the board, taken sometime between 1932 and 1937, features Locke standing almost next to Du Bois, with Eugene Kinkle Jones (executive Secretary of the National Urban League) standing in between.526 The project came to partial fruition in 1944, with the publication of The Encyclopedia of the Negro: Preparatory Volume with Reference Lists and Reports.

Mentor to Ralph Bunche: Evidently, Locke been a mentor to Bunche for awhile. But, while in Paris in the summer of 1932, Locke wrote: “I have been glad to get Bunche oriented somewhat—but doubly glad I took your advice and didn’t take him under my wing for half the summer,—Geneva included. From now on, he will go his way and I mine.”527 They may have been roommates, for Locke writes: “I wrote it [his previous letter] under poor circumstances—I go to bed or read while Bunche writes his letters: he whistles, talks or just raises college boy atmosphere while writing mine.”528 Speaking of the Germans, Locke remarked: “Anyhow, my anatomy needs their science.”529

Racial Amity Convention (New York): At the end of the year, however, Locke did speak at the Racial Amity Convention in New York, which took place on 9–10 December 1932. Part of the conference was held in Harlem. The event was planned by the National Inter-Racial Amity Committee in cooperation with a local Bahá’í committee and, significantly, with the New York chapter of the National Urban League. The local “Committee of Arrangements” was chaired by Samuel A. Allen, who presided over the first session.530 As with many conferences in general, this was divided into several sessions.

The first session was devoted to economics. The first speaker was Ira De A. Reid, director of the research department of the National Urban League. He was followed by Dr. Genieve Coy of Columbia University and Elsa Russell, both of whom were Bahá’ís and who presented a Bahá’í “vision of the new economics.”531 Since there really is no such thing as “Bahá’í economics” as a distinct field or discipline, it is somewhat of a misnomer. This does not mean that the Bahá’í teachings are not relevant because they do not conform to professional standards. While there has been much discussion over the years since this event as to what defines Bahá’í economics, one can say that the fundamental Bahá’í economic principle is that, at the level of public policy, economic values must always be informed by human values. This is analogous to another Bahá’í principle—the harmony of science and religion—in which science ought to be constrained by ethics, and belief protected against lapsing into superstition when balanced by science. In a word, economic values must also be human values.

With Philip A. Marangella presiding, Locke spoke at the second session, which “covered many phases of racial amity.” Here, Locke was once again on the same platform with his long-time friend, Louis Gregory. The other two speakers were “Mrs. Wanden M. LaFarge and Mr. James H. Hubert.”532 A musical presentation was held in the auditorium of the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library. Mrs. Ludmila Bechtold presided over this session. As Gregory reports: “One of its special charms was African music.”533 This was followed by a special session devoted to art. “Mr. Saffa Kinney” urged African America musicians to refine their “wonderful native gifts in music” and to develop a distinctive music “uninfluenced by foreign masters,” so as to “make a great contribution.” In the literary field, Arthur A. Schomberg, director of the Schomberg collection “of books about the Negro,” discoursed on “his fascinating studies.” The final session was an “interracial social,” which included a dinner banquet.534

In his 1933 report on behalf of the National Bahá’í Committee for Racial Amity, Louis Gregory was delighted with Locke’s public declaration of his Bahá’í identity and his open endorsement of its principles:

For a number of years, in fact since the first amity convention in Washington, Dr. Alain Locke has during the years been a contributor to the work of the Cause, without formally identifying himself with it. Perhaps the most significant feature of this conference was his strong, eloquent and beautiful address, in which he took a decided and definite stand within the ranks of the Cause. This attitude we believe will increasingly with the years influence people of capacity to investigate the mines of spiritual wealth to be found in the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh. It will also make what has long been a grandly useful life more glorious, serviceable and influential than ever before. It is to be hoped that the friends both locally and nationally, will largely make use of the great powers of Dr. Locke both in the teaching and administrative fields of the Cause. He has made the pilgrimage to Haifa. The Master in a Tablet praised him highly and it is known that the Guardian shares his love for our able brother.535
This tribute is superlative.

Louis Gregory’s disclosure that Locke had received a “tablet” (letter) from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá—presumably in response to a letter that Locke had sent—is yet another important piece of the puzzle in reconstructing this lesser known dimension of Locke’s life. During the ministry of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, it was customary for new converts to write directly to “the Master” as a testimony of faith. This was more of a precedent than a protocol, yet the practice was widespread enough to warrant the probability that Locke wrote to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1918, the year Locke indicated that he had become a Bahá’í. In researching the Alain Locke Papers, an original Tablet from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá did turn up. But, on close examination, Locke does not appear to have been the intended recipient.536

In the Alain Locke Papers, there is a compilation of tablets from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on race relations, including several letters addressed to believers in Washington, D.C., among whom were: Louis C. Gregory (17 November 1909), J. A. Hannen (17 November 1909), Robert Farrell (19 April 1910), Marie Watson (12 July 1911), Charles Mason Remey (no date),

Evidently, judging by several factors, this event was a success, as Gregory reports: “An overwhelming number of the speakers and workers were Bahá’ís and there was a fine and enthusiastic response on the part of the most cultured circles of Harlem and other parts of the city.”537 Locke was key to that success. As a Bahá’í, Locke was not a self-promoter, although he was a public figure. Louis Gregory understood that Locke was someone who responded, more or less, “by invitation only.” Gregory was Locke’s elder spiritual brother. He nurtured Locke, and kept him engaged with the Bahá’í Faith. While some may have criticized Locke for his reticence in publicly identifying himself as a Bahá’í, he visibly associated himself with Bahá’ís. On this particular occasion, Locke gave a public and unequivocal testimony of faith. Credit for that signal act is Locke’s. But to Louis Gregory is probably owed credit for his encouragement.


This year saw the publication of Locke’s book, The Negro in America,538 which was a bibliography that he compiled to advance adult education and interracial understanding. It is interesting to note that Locke uses the term “reciprocity” as an alternative model for the “Melting Pot” that has come to define the American social paradigm, in posing the question as to “whether America is to acknowledge the ‘melting-pot’ conception or the ‘reciprocity’ notion.”539 “Reciprocity” is one of Locke’s core concepts and a key term for understanding Locke’s social thought. A counterpart to this term, in Bahá’í parlance, is “unity in diversity.” Locke made this expression dynamic in the turn of phrase, “unity through diversity.”

Unity Through Diversity”: In 1933, the local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Washington, D.C. incorporated.540 During this time, Locke transitioned into a more literary phase of Bahá’í activity. Except for his essay on “Cultural Reciprocity,” which was never published, there is no instance in which Locke declined an invitation to write for the Faith. Given his overworked and overextended work and lecture schedule, not to mention his frequent international travels, whatever Locke was able to write for Bahá’í publication was worth its weight in gold. A public speaking engagement might, at best, be summarized in a newspaper story, although there were several published transcripts of his talks on radio. There is practically nothing of substance from his first amity speech as session chair—that much is to be expected. But there are simply no transcripts of his other Bahá’í lectures. Yes, they are part of Bahá’í history. But they contribute very little to our understanding of the way in which Bahá’í principles would pass through the philosophical and value-oriented prism of Locke’s mind. His real claim to conceptual immortality resides in his published Bahá’í work. That is his more enduring legacy. Locke’s article, “Unity through Diversity: A Bahá’í Principle,” in The Bahá’í World for 1930–1932 was published this year. Although he had previously contributed essays and articles for publication, this was perhaps his most outstanding Bahá’í essay to date. It was a conceptual and literary jewel in its own right. This essay will be discussed in Chapter Nine

Locke was part of the ebb and flow of Bahá’í race relations efforts generally. Agnes Parsons, who started it all at the instructions of her “Master,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, was struck and killed in a car accident in January 1934, at the age of seventy-three.541 In a way, her death symbolized the end of an era.

Membership and Voting Record: Although his name does not appear on the “List of Recognized Believers of the Bahá’í Community of Washington, D.C., January 14, 1934,”542 Locke shows up in “The record of meeting 4/16/34” written above the “List of Recognized Believers of the Washington Bahá’í Community […] (April 12, 1934).” Locke’s name has no code beside it, indicating that he neither was present at the meeting nor had he mailed in his ballot.543 Whatever the immediate reason, this data reinforces the pattern of a personal distancing from his local Bahá’í community. However, Locke continued to make significant contributions to the Bahá’í community at the national and international levels.

Second Pilgrimage to Haifa (July 1934): Locke’s second pilgrimage was quite brief and incomplete, lasting just one day. For reasons not yet clear, Shoghi Effendi was unavailable at that time. In determining the date of his second pilgrimage to Haifa, key evidence comes from a letter Locke wrote to Shoghi Effendi on 1 August 1934, who received it on 18 August 1934. From the Research Department’s summary of it, we are told:
The letter is written on board the ship “Roma”, following Dr. Locke’s brief visit to Haifa and the Bahá’í Shrines. He spent “a beautiful day” and visited “all three shrines” in the company of Ruhi Afnan, and as was the case on his first visit some 10 years ago, he was “deeply inspired, and spiritually refreshed.”544

Late July 1934 can now be established as the date of Locke’s second pilgrimage. According to a Research Department memorandum: “With regard to Dr. Locke’s second visit, as noted above, it was very brief, lasting one day. While the actual date is not known, one can deduce that it took place just prior to 1 August 1934, the date of Dr. Locke’s letter to Shoghi Effendi.”545 Although he compares the effects of this visit with his first, undoubtedly the first had greater effect. Locke continues (in paraphrase):

Dr. Locke expresses pleasure at seeing the beauty and care with which Shoghi Effendi has developed the Bahá’í properties on Mount Carmel and in ‘Akká, and he comments that the Guardian’s “nurture of the principles in concrete symbols is a great contribution.” He states that he plans to share his impressions with the friends.546
Did Locke “share his impressions with the friends [Bahá’ís]”? Evidently, this never happened, unless in person without a written record. He did not, so far as the evidence permits us to say, ever write or publish a sequel to his extraordinarily well-received “Impressions of Haifa.” It is quite possible that Locke’s Bahá’í World essay, “The Orientation of Hope” (1936), was written partly as an overflow of his second pilgrimage experience. Consistent with his first visit, however, was Locke’s appreciation of Shoghi Effendi’s continued work in creating a garden out of a desert. For the Bahá’í Gardens, nearly as much as the Shrines themselves, created the atmosphere of spiritual uplift so crucial to the effectiveness of the pilgrimage experience. Locke continues his letter, expressing his regrets over having missed the opportunity to see Shoghi Effendi:
Dr. Locke laments not having had the opportunity of seeing Shoghi Effendi. However, the “deciding factor” was “the chance of another visit, even though a glimpse.” He hopes to return for a lengthier visit “as soon as practically possible.”547
Obviously, his contemplated return for a lengthier visit happened neither sooner nor later. As such future plans to meet the Guardian never materialized, nothing would ever make up for this lost opportunity. Precisely why Shoghi Effendi was not able to meet with Locke at this time is not known. It raises the question as to the place of this visit in Locke’s itinerary: Was this more of a spontaneous visit rather than one planned well in advance? The short duration of the visit may have been a factor. It seems to have been more on the order of a stop-over than a prime destination. But this may be grossly unfair to Locke. This misadventure still has historic significance, however, for it tells us what the consultative purpose of the visit might have been. Since a conversation never took place, what would Locke and Shoghi Effendi have discussed had they met this second time? The next part of Locke’s letter clearly indicates what was on his mind:
He indicates that he would have welcomed the chance to talk to Shoghi Effendi about some of the difficulties under which he had been working during the last several years. He mentions the impact on him of the “factionalism of race.” He explains that as a teacher, he has tried to be “a modifying influence to radical sectionalism and to increasing materialistic trends—and in this indirect way to serve the Cause and help forward the universal principles,” which he supports without reservation. He foreshadows seeking guidance from the Guardian on this matter in the future.548
In speaking of the “factionalism of race” and of its personal impact on him, Locke assesses his own contribution to furthering the Bahá’í cause through his effort to exercise “a modifying influence to radical sectionalism and to increasing materialistic trends—and in this indirect way to serve the Cause and help forward the universal principles” that he wholehearted espoused. The key word here may be “indirect.” Clearly, Locke opted to promote the Bahá’í principles of racial and ethnic, religious and international unity through what Bahá’ís refer to as “indirect teaching.” But, contrary to what his letter had promised, it appears that Locke never formally sought the Guardian’s advice on race relations. According to the summary of it, Locke’s letter ends as follows:
The letter ends with “cordial greetings, gratitude and brotherly affection” addressed to the Guardian, and Dr. Locke expresses the hope that “the dawn of Truth [may] come nearer through this terrible dusk of transition and strife.”549

There is record of a letter Shoghi Effendi wrote in reply to Locke. Written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, this letter was dated 25 August 1934. The date is derived from the notation on the envelope of Locke’s letter. (It was Shoghi Effendi’s practice to write the receipt date on the back of each envelope, and also the date of his reply.) This letter has yet to be located, and remains as a task for further research. Assuming it was sent while Locke was still traveling, that chances of the letter having never reached Locke, per misadventure, are increased.

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