Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy

Louis Gregory’s Appeal to Locke

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Louis Gregory’s Appeal to Locke: For three years in a row, it certainly appears that Locke had practically vanished from the sight of Bahá’ís. Locke was an “isolated believer” precisely because he had isolated himself. This was his own choice, his own doing. But is Locke’s “estrangement” from the Faith a premature conclusion, based on an argument from silence? It could be argued, just because there is no evidence that he had distanced himself from his local Bahá’í community—and, with a few exceptions, from the Bahá’í community in general—that he was not necessarily “estranged” from the Faith. But the same sources of evidence for Locke’s Bahá’í activities are really the very same sources for his periods of inactivity. Therefore the thesis of “estrangement and rededication” still makes the most sense as the best (although not the happiest) interpretation of the existing documents. There is another issue as well: Whether fully active or inactive, there was still one thing that Locke had not yet done—and that was to fully identify himself publicly—nationally—with the Bahá’í Faith. This is why Louis Gregory wrote Locke—with an appeal to Locke to rise to the level of a public Bahá’í, to become a nationally known adherent, and to use his fame and prestige for that noble purpose:

Phone Kittery 1009-M

Louis G. Gregory

Little Akka

Eliot, Maine

6 April 1949

Dr. Alaine [sic] Locke

Howard University

Washington D.C.
My well beloved Brother:
My thoughts which have followed with appreciation and admiration your career for well nigh forty years are now intimately drawn to you by two notations, one of which is current: The Bahá’í News contains, among questions, the following: “What eminent Negro Bahá’í visited and wrote about Haifa?” The other is the dedication to me of that highly prized volume, “The Story of Philosophy,” which follows: “To my dear friend and brother, Louis Gregory, with Bahá’í love. —Alaine [sic] Locke / Nov. 10, 1928.”

Although your Bahá’í spirit has been admirably shown by so many traits and activities, yet I have the deepest longing that you will see the wisdom of wholly identifying yourself with the Faith, thereby increasing both your joys and usefulness, perhaps twenty-fold.

All the great events happening in a world-wide regeneration will take a longer time. But both are the promises of God Who alone knows His whole creation and by the appearance of His Manifestation [Bahá’u’lláh] makes His Plan known.

How I long to talk with you, but after forty years my travels are well nigh over. I am nearly 75. In my eagerness to share the knowledge discovered, I have been through all the States save the Dakotas and into ten other countries in two Hemispheres[.] Mrs. Gregory likewise through her knowledge of foreign tongues has carried the Message to various European countries. Jim crow cars, busses, poverty, hardships, privations, calumnies have been our lot, all of which by [missing rest of letter].

[On p. 1:] P.S. Another friend whom you will find very congenial is a Persian, Mr. Ala’i. The secretary is Miss Hopper, 2220 20th St. Wash. D.C.699
This is a particularly moving appeal. It reveals a great deal about Louis Gregory himself, and of his life of total dedication to the one value system that he hoped would bring healing to the races, religions, and nations of the world. In turning his attention to Locke, Gregory was far from speaking just personally. He echoed the wishes of a great many other Bahá’ís, who, too, patiently hoped that Locke would make more of a commitment to serving the interests of the Faith in a direct way, just as he had done so admirably in an indirect way. Even though it could have been more, Locke’s service to the Bahá’í Faith is invaluable in its own right.

In October 1994, Dr. Robert Stockman, Director of the Research Office at the U.S. Bahá’í National Center, interviewed the late Dr. Elsie Austin (d. 2004), a prominent African American Bahá’í, about Alain Locke. This is the substance of her personal memories of Locke, sketchy though they are:

I finally was able to reach Elsie Austin on Friday night; she is a very busy woman, at age 86 or so! She is the only living person I know of who knew Alain Locke. Elsie is quite sure he was a Bahá’í, mostly because he went on pilgrimage and wrote about it; something we already knew. She said he spoke at many race unity conferences, which I knew already. Whether he left the Faith later in his life she did not know. She said the [19]50s were a time when there was relatively little commitment to race unity in the American Bahá’í community, and consequently many Black Bahá’ís were discouraged.700
If “many Black Bahá’ís were discouraged” over the relative lack of priority given to race relations within the Bahá’í community during the 1950s, as Elsie Austin claims, then surely Alain Locke was among them. Locke was one of 77 members of the Washington Bahá’í community in 1950, according to the “State or Electoral District Voting List—1950: Washington—District of Columbia.”701 No other Bahá’í records have been found of Locke’s Bahá’í activities, if any, for this year. To what extent was Locke swayed by Gregory’s appeal? After all, Gregory had asked Locke to “wholly identify” with the Faith, not vote in a Washington election when he might have been in New York. If more information on Locke’s Bahá’í activities during this time comes to light, adjustments will have to be made in properly assessing Locke’s relationship to the Faith.

Whether due to health problems or other reasons, Locke’s general level of activity seems to have suffered entropy. Information on Locke’s speaking engagements is considerably less than in previous years, indicating. On 4 May 1950, for instance, we know that Locke spoke in Andrew Rankin Chapel on the Howard University campus, on the occasion of the Initiation Ceremonies of the Alpha Delta Chapter of Pi Beta Lambda Society. In the summer, Locke left for Salzburg, presumably for heart treatments.702 Later that fall, he presided as chair of panel on “Literature and Art” at the Washington Humanities Club on 14 November 1950, at the Whittall Pavilion, Library of Congress. This is a markedly diminished level of activity overall. Probably Louis Gregory’s appeal to Locke had some impact, even if it was a delayed impact.

Cultural Pluralism: A New Americanism”: What is most significant about this year is the title of a lecture Locke gave at the Nov. 8th meeting of the Philosophy Club, held in the faculty lounge of Douglass Hall on the Howard University campus. The meeting was sponsored by the Department of Philosophy. Locke lectured on “Cultural Pluralism: A New Americanism” (program, ALP). In itself, this event was comparatively insignificant. Probably just a handful of students and faculty attended. But the title of this lecture seems to say it all, for “Cultural Pluralism: A New Americanism” expresses the very essence of Locke’s personal philosophy. An explanation is in order.

The Harlem Renaissance was history. It was now a thing of the past. Although this grand episode immortalized Locke’s name in the annals of U.S. history, the New Negro movement, of which he was the primary spokesman, was now little more than an artifact, a cultural icon. The Harlem Renaissance was a stroke of genius, and Locke was the one who saw its potential. He fully and eloquently articulated its vision. But time marched inexorably onward, and Locke’s subsequent role was that of a cultural pluralist. Just as Immanuel Kant had coined the term “pluralism” in opposition to “egoism,” Locke opposed “pluralism” to “absolutism”—following the lead of American pragmatist philosophers, from Charles Peirce onward. History will also remember Locke as present at the birth of “cultural pluralism,” which term his friend Horace Kallen had coined during his conversations with Locke at Oxford. Therefore, while Kallen started the movement, largely as a way to accommodate Judaism within American society, Locke gave voice to cultural pluralism in a slightly but significantly different fashion, applying it to the ethnic and racial diversity in America. More than recognizing this as a demographic fact, cultural pluralism was a way to value that diversity, consciously and positively. Cultural pluralism was thus an extension of Locke’s theory of values. One could even go so far as to say that cultural pluralism was Locke’s secular faith. Just as the Bahá’í Faith has a distinctive vision of “America’s Spiritual Destiny,” so did Locke. “Cultural pluralism” was the secular counterpart of the Bahá’í principle of “unity in diversity” which, in his Bahá’í World essay, Locke called “unity through diversity”—a more dynamic way of communicating the same principle. To call cultural pluralism “A New Americanism” was another stroke of genius. And while the cultural pluralist movement was more loosely configured, and never succeeded in capturing the popular imagination, its essentials are still being kept alive by American philosophers today. This is one way in which Locke remains relevant for today. One of the main purposes of this book is to broaden our historical appreciation of Locke, to get beyond the one-to-one correspondence between Locke and the Harlem Renaissance. To this day, cultural pluralism remains “A New Americanism.”


As famous as he was among African Americans, Locke was not always the guest speaker or the focus of attention. At the Dunbar Hotel on 9 February 1951, on the occasion of a “Benefit Dinner in Celebration of Brotherhood Week” sponsored by the Howard University Alumni Association, Locke merely introduced the guest speaker. But there were numerous occasions when Locke was invited as the featured speaker. On 29 March 1951, Locke was a guest lecturer at Texas State University, in an event sponsored by the Department of Philosophy (program, ALP). In April 1951, at a conference on “Progressive Education,” Locke participated in a panel discussion that focused on the theme of “The Arts and Education” (program, ALP). Locke also served on the editorial board for the journal, The American Scholar. On 30 April 1951, an editorial board meeting took place at The Biltmore Hotel at Madison and 43rd Street (program, ALP). In the “American Scholar Forum”—featured in the Summer 1951 issue of The American Scholar—Locke’s reflections on “Changing Values in the Western World” appeared alongside those of seven other scholars (including Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.). Noticeably absent in all this activity is any record of participation in a Bahá’í event.

Gregory’s Last Appeal to Locke: In the last year of his earthly life, Louis Gregory tried one last time to encourage Locke to fully identify himself with the Faith, and to lend his time, talent and prestige to it. Locke’s status as a Bahá’í was as before for the past decade or so: Alain Locke’s name appears on the “State or Electoral District Voting List—1951: Washington—District of Columbia.”703 This is the last year for which a record of Locke’s membership in the Washington, D.C. Bahá’í community exists. Some notable Bahá’ís on that list include Elsie Austin, Jamshed Fozdar, and Charles Mason Remey (before he became a Covenant-Breaker). There were 83 voters in the District. But, as with this and similar Bahá’í voting lists, not everyone listed was an active Bahá’í. (In fact, the number listed as “not voting” was 39, close to half of the eligible members of that list.) Such was probably the case with Locke at this time. This was far from an ideal situation, as Locke’s potential as a Bahá’í had never been fully realized. And Louis Gregory—Locke’s older Bahá’í brother, and his most faithful Bahá’í friend and mentor—had been painfully aware of this for years. In a letter dated 21 January 1951, Gregory writes:
My noble Brother:
I turn with heart and mind with admiration to you for your great accomplishments and services to humanity; but especially as I recall your services to the Plan of God to unite and guide a troubled world, my longing is, that you identify yourself fully with it. May I ask that you go deeply, carefully, and prayerfully into the Teachings and as never before, ask God about it through the medium of prayer? It is too tremendous a reality to be grasped by mind alone, however brilliant, but the Holy Spirit must illumine the heart, to make one[’]s assurance doubly sure. As fine as your work has hitherto been, your power to aid mankind will be increased a hundred fold. Spiritual joys are unimaginable and indescribable. My most earnest hope is that you will see clearly the way to unite with the Baha’is in either Washington or New York, in the latter of which, I am told, you maintain a residence.

My discovery of the New Revelation harks back to 1908 in Washington where I then lived. The sacrificial devotion of two southern white friends, held my attention, until under their tutelage, I could make a very thorough investigation of the great Truth. This in part consisted of a journey to the Orient to meet ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Living in a city where great men abound, I yet found Him greater than all others put together. Although over many years I have abandoned so much of what are considered the wealth, honors and even comforts of life to serve, yet now I feel that what I may have done for God, is infinitesimally small in contrast to what He has done for me.

My hope is that you will also partake of this great favor. The outpouring of the Spirit of God makes all things new, and creates immortality without death. It may make us conscious of worlds beyond as clearly as of this world of change.

If I can in any way serve you, please count me

Your willing servant

Louis G. Gregory704

Locke had little time to respond, for Louis Gregory passed away on 30 July 1951. One might say that this was an important death-bed wish for Gregory. There is evidence to suggest that Locke did, after all, respond to Louis Gregory’s appeal in at least two significant ways: (1) an article published in Ebony magazine; and (2) a Bahá’í “fireside” in Toronto. This latter event in Locke’s personal history was practically unknown until now. One could say, perhaps, that Louis Gregory’s appeal was successful in the end. But it had a delayed public value.


Locke was approaching the twilight of his life, and probably knew it. Although at the height of his cognitive powers, Locke’s heart condition was worsening. In a letter dated 30 June 1952, long-time friend Horace Kallen referred Locke to Dr. Joseph Wolffe of the Valley Forge Heart Hospital and Research Institute.705 Locke would at last find a physician in whom he had absolute trust and confidence. Although he had written at least three wills—indicative of Locke’s acute sense of mortality sharpened by his lifelong heart condition—is the fact that he had established a scholarship fund in his name. On 12 June, 1952, the Epsilon Chapter of Phi Beta Sigma held “The First Annual Benefit of The Alain Locke Scholarship Fund” (program, ALP). This was a semi-formal event.

In a letter dated 24 June 1952 to long-time friend and colleague Horace Kallen, Locke refers to the commencement at Howard University that took place on May 13th, which was “certainly the most significant in all my forty [years] here.” The commencement speech was given by President Harry S. Truman, which Locke praised as an “excellent civil rights speech.” Not the least significant occurrence at this event was what Locke referred to as “incidentally my official emeritus exit.” On May 14th, the very next day, Locke suffered another episode of heart trouble, which confined him to his home in Washington, D.C.:
I came down with another recurrence of the heart trouble next day, with confinement to the apartment and constant medical attention since. Just out from under to the extent of being able to do a few things other than trade complete inaction for slowly reduced blood pressures and heart beats [sic]. The old enemy has been in the saddle off and on since January first, which accounts for my not having seen you.706
His heart trouble notwithstanding, Locke says that “the year has been happy nevertheless in many ways.” That the students at Howard University had “dedicated the class year book [sic] to me” must have been personally rewarding. The dedication was as follows:
Through the years you have brought to the Negro youth of Howard University the inspiration that can come only from a great and brilliant teacher […] [T]hrough your personal achievements in scholarship you have proved that genius is sufficient to surmount all barriers of race and color. Because of your eminence as a scholar, philosopher, and teacher, we […] proudly dedicate this […] effort to you.707
Although this was his official exit from Howard, Locke states his intention to stay for a little longer: “I actually will hang on the rolls for another year but nominally in order to qualify for social security benefits, which it seems I’ll need if I am to have additional expenses of continuous medical care.” As though he had forgotten what he had previously written, Locke goes into more detail about his medical condition in a subsequent letter to Kallen. This time, the letter, dated 30 July 1952, was written from Fort Valley Heart Hospital in Fairview Village, Pennsylvania:
Just after commencement, my condition became near critical, and nothing several physicians could do would bring my pulse rate much below 130. I was beginning to have to sleep sitting up in a chair, and the least effort was an ordeal. Of course, my main anxiety , since I had always anticipated a quick end with a heart attack, was how on retirement income to afford a wheel chair and attendant.708
Locke also discloses that he had suffered from hyperthyroidism, an evidently recent diagnosis by his attending physician, Dr. Wolffe, who managed to cut his thyroid activity and metabolic rate nearly in half, and bring his heart rate down to around 90 and occasionally lower. The good doctor inspired such optimism, such a “psychological transformation” in Locke that he “calmly and confidently” contemplated “ten or so years or so of leisurely writing, lecturing and travel.” Evidently, Kallen had referred his colleague to Dr. Wollfe. “Can you imagine,” Locke wrote, “my gratitude to both of you!” That Kallen would do this for his long-time friend is perfectly in keeping with the record of their friendship. In a letter dated 15 August 1952, Kallen signed it, “Affectionately,” with obvious sincerity. Locke seemed to be on friendly terms with Kallen’s wife, Rachel, as well.

Fireside in Toronto: But what about his legacy as a Bahá’í? Apparently, Louis Gregory’s last letter had some effect. This, combined with his failing health, must have had an impact on his self-reflective thinking as a Bahá’í. This is Locke’s last-known speaking engagement at a Bahá’í-sponsored event, and represents a discovery made in the course of this research. The account is published here for the very first time, because until now, this singular event was previously unknown to all the experts on Locke. The significance of this event will be evaluated after the facts have been given first.

On reading my article, “Alain Locke: Bahá’í Philosopher,” Dr. Michael Rochester, former member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada and Professor Emeritus of Mathematical Physics at Memorial University of Newfoundland, sent me the following e-mail message, shared with his permission:

Dear Christopher Buck,
I have just scanned your article on Alain Locke in the just-arrived Bahá’í Studies Review v. 10, and look forward to reading it more thoroughly. But I noticed, and was intrigued by, your description of his withdrawal, at least for a decade or so in the latter part of his life, from “active involvement in” the Bahá’í community, and his having later “publicly identified himself as a Bahá’í […] as late as 1952.”

A personal recollection of Alain Locke near the end of his life may be of interest to you.

Having been strongly attracted to the Bahá’í teachings in November 1951, as a student at the University of Toronto, I vividly remember attending a fireside held in January or February 1952, in a home in what was then a suburb of Toronto, at which Alain Locke was the speaker. Unfortunately Elizabeth Manser (later my wife) who organized that fireside, no longer remembers how Dr. Locke came to be in Toronto, to be invited to the fireside or the title of his talk. His persona made a great impression on me, not only because what I understood of the Bahá’í stand on the oneness of the human race and the importance of efforts to free ourselves from racial prejudice was immensely attractive to me, but because his modest demeanour, and the wisdom and thoughtfulness with which he expressed himself, were so consonant with what I had already come to appreciate in and expect from the best Bahá’í speakers. He certainly clearly identified himself—indeed was introduced—as a Bahá’í to all of us there, Bahá’ís and seekers.

I spoke with him briefly after his talk, but sadly no memory now remains of what we talked about. I do remember how excited I was, a few months later, to find an article by him in a Random House anthology of American Negro literature. It was not until a few years later (after his death), when my wife and I acquired all the earlier Bahá’í World volumes, that I discovered and relished his articles there. I have always felt privileged to have met and talked with this great but too-little-remembered figure in American intellectual history, this wise and fine Bahá’í.

With best wishes,

Michael Rochester709

Michael Rochester served on the National Spiritual Assembly of Canada from 1963 to 1992. His future wife, Elizabeth Manser (Rochester) was also elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of Canada and was a member of that council from 1966–1967 and 1972–1983. Trained as a social group worker at the University of Toronto, she became one of the most effective teachers of the Faith in Canada and one of the wisest counselors to troubled Assemblies (local Bahá’í councils) and individuals. In 1967, Elizabeth and Michael pioneered to St. John’s, Newfoundland. They both now serve on Regional Bahá’í Council for the Atlantic Provinces (one of six such councils in Canada).

Historians are going to ask: Exactly when did this fireside take place? Can a date be fixed? The answer is now, yes. Elizabeth distinctly remembers that Locke spoke on Sunday, 23 March 1952. Why does she recall this so clearly? Because it was her birthday.

Apart from this determination of the date when it happened, the story of how Locke came to speak at this fireside is quite sketchy. From 1949–1953, Elizabeth, together with her mother, Jessie Harkness Manser, hosted a very successful fireside in their apartment in Forest Hill Village (a former suburb of Toronto), where they had lived since 1940. Neither of Michael nor Elizabeth can recall just how she and her mother discovered that Locke was (or would be) in Canada, or how they contacted Locke to invite him to give that particular fireside.

The reader will recall that a Bahá’í fireside is an informational meeting in which “seekers” can “investigate” for themselves the truth of the Bahá’í Faith. The search for truth is a root Bahá’í principle, a moral imperative. While in theory non-Bahá’ís may be invited to give a presentation, followed by informal discussion, in practice it is almost always the case that the guest speaker is a Bahá’í. And, while anyone is free to give such a presentation, the most effective and well-known speakers are typically the ones invited by the fireside host or hosts. From this well-established practice, we may presume that Locke was speaking as a Bahá’í. That fact is confirmed by Michael Rochester’s account. The important point to bear in mind is that, as late as 1952, we have evidence that Locke continued to identify himself as a Bahá’í. And perhaps Locke’s image of Canada changed as well, for in 1936, he characterized Canada as “the country (if half-civilized).”710 Colleagues had advised him that Montreal was an exception. Doubtless his visit to Toronto gave Locke a first-hand look at one of the major cities of North America. While Ottawa is Canada’s counterpart to Washington, D.C., Toronto complements New York, but without a Harlem of its own.

Perhaps, after the publication of this focused biography, more information on Locke’s contributions as a Bahá’í will come to light. Almost all of Locke’s previous Bahá’í speaking engagements were highly visible, public events. In the instant case, Locke spoke at a private fireside—one that was by invitation only and, most likely, not publicized. This episode shows that Locke was willing to participate in private as well as public Bahá’í events. It shows a dimension of Locke’s life as a Bahá’í that was hitherto unknown to us. Perhaps the greatest significance this new information holds is that it dispels the notion, held was some authorities, that, late in life, Locke was a “freethinker,” uncommitted to any religion. It can now be argued, based on this fresh evidence, that Locke remained a committed Bahá’í until the end of his life.

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