Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy


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While the visit of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was the watershed event in American Bahá’í history, its long-term effects were probably more profound than its short-term effects. The history of the Washington, D.C. Bahá’í community in the aftermath of “the Master’s” sojourn there is instructive. Around two years after ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s departure, the situation began to revert to the pre-March 1910 state of affairs. Increasingly divided on the issue of race, the Bahá’îs of Washington had begun to split into several groups. “By 1914,” Gayle Morrison observes, “even the pretense of unity had broken down.”189

In her chapter, “A Divided Community,” Morrison chronicles this sad episode in the history of the Washington, D.C. Bahá’í community. For some years, the community maintained a rented Bahá’í Center at Studio Hall (1219 Connecticut Avenue), in which integrated meetings had been held. The crisis was precipitated when the community decided to give up this center, where public lectures and smaller Bahá’í “firesides” had been open to both races. Evidently, this decision resulted from disagreements over the propriety of interracial meetings. The controversy split the community into three distinct camps: (1) those who felt that mixed meetings at the Bahá’í Center posed a serious obstacle to the growth of the Faith; (2) those who supported interracial events at the Bahá’í Center in the true spirit of Bahá’í egalitarianism; and (3) those who believed that “Neither the centre nor the color question retards our activity and the growth of the Cause.”190 It is difficult to imagine how a new religion that promoted the unity of the human race could effectively attract African Americans when such self-segregation was permitted. The Bahá’í message of unity was vitiated in practice, as the Washington community plunged into profound disunity.

On the issue of racial unity, the community had forfeited its moral authority through compromising its core principles. The first group held whites-only meetings in a public hall, a “proper” and prestigious place that would accommodate the conventional values of whites who more or less supported the status quo. The second group, which included Louis and Louisa Gregory, opposed this policy as, in the words of Edna Belmont, this was entirely “against Abdul-Baha’s wishes & commands.”191 The third group, as represented by Louise Boyle (a white Bahá’í) at that time, believed that giving up the Bahá’í center actually freed individual Bahá’ís to live according to their conscience: “Nothing ever happened so happily for Washington as the freeing of individuals through the abandonment of the Center.”192 On Sundays, the Pythian Temple was the site of white Bahá’í meetings. On Wednesdays, the “colored” meetings were held at the Washington Conservatory of Music. And on Fridays, mixed meetings took place in the home of a white Bahá’í. As if this was not bad enough, a fourth group of Bahá’ís followed the blatantly racist views of at least one vocal member, who became estranged from the Faith for some time.193 In response to this grave situation, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote a letter, in Arabic, received on 1 May 1914. It read, in part, as follows:

I know about everything that is happening in Washington. The sad, sombre news is the difference between the white and the colored people. I have written to Mr. Hannen requesting him, if possible, to arrange a special place of meeting for the white people only, and also a special place of meeting for the colored people, and also one for both the white and the colored, so that all may be free. Those who prefer to do so can go to the white meeting. And those who prefer can go to the colored meeting, and those who do not wish to bind themselves either way, they are free, let them go to the meetings of the white and the colored people in one place. I can see no better solution to this question.194

Apart from the obvious principle of “freedom of religion” exercised within a single religion, the wisdom of this decision was the conservation of the community itself. Although it had fragmented into different parties, it had not irretrievably shattered into competing sects. The Master’s decision effectively suspended Bahá’í principles of unity and abandonment of prejudices of all kinds. That these ideals were held in precarious abeyance was contemplated as a temporary measure only. Compromised to the agonizing dismay of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the situation would have to resolve itself in good time. All of this was due to the immaturity of some of the believers. That interracial unity was really the only truly Bahá’í option made it the only viable one in the long run. How could a religion whose core principles were offended and vitiated by the recrudescence of the very social ills it intended to eradicate survive otherwise? The integrity of all that the fledgling Faith stood for was put to the test.

How did this situation finally resolve itself? Joseph Hannen, who had previously led the teaching outreach to African Americans, was asked by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to arrange a new meeting for whites. Hannen chose Lewis Hall as the site for those meetings. The moment the Wednesday night meetings at the Conservatory of Music were labeled “colored” meetings, the blacks stopped attending. A meeting on T Street was organized instead. The mixed Friday meetings fared no better. At last, on 14 October 1914, representatives from each of the four meetings met to try to resolve their differences. Although progress was made, including a renouncing of racist views by the Pythian Temple group on October 25th, the fractured state of affairs persisted well into the next year. At last, in May 1916, the Pythian Temple meetings were dissolved for the sake of preserving unity. The situation was exacerbated through the terrible lack of communication with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, precipitated by Turkey’s entry into World War I, causing the war to spread to the Middle East. Not until September 1918, when British forces entered Haifa, was a free and steady flow of communication restored.195

Clearly, by both personal preference and professional preparation, Locke was predisposed to accept the Bahá’í principles of race unity, if only the Bahá’ís themselves did not pose a barrier through their own compromise of all their Faith stood for. Fortunately, it seems that Locke was protected from this. In the midst of this turmoil, and, remarkably, in spite of it, evidence points to Alain Locke having been introduced to the Bahá’í Faith at around this time. It is a testament to those Bahá’ís who were alive to the deeper social implications of the Bahá’í principles that Locke was shielded from these internecine problems and was exposed to Bahá’í values in a positive and relatively unadulterated light.

Chapter Four

The starting place for a discussion of Locke’s first contacts with the Bahá’í Faith—then known as the “Bahá’í Cause”—is difficult to demarcate. But it makes the most sense to begin where the evidence points to his first contact with the Bahá’ís, from whom he learned the tenets of the new religion, and was attracted to its gospel of interracial reconciliation. Throughout this and succeeding chapters, the historical narrative will follow a year-by-year chronology. Modeled on Locke’s yearly reviews of African American literature, each year will be titled with a major development or theme for that year as it pertains to Locke’s life and work.

Although a philosopher by training, Locke did not have an opportunity to teach philosophy professionally until 1915. There were “practical” demands on him at Howard University. It was at this time that Locke had his first serious problem with Howard’s all-white senior administrators. In the spring of 1915, Locke proposed a course on “inter-racial relations,” with the goal of bringing the scientific study of race to bear on racial pseudo-science, the racial prejudice it buttressed, and the potential impact that American anthropology would have on positive race relations. His rationale for the proposed course was that “a study of race contacts is the only scientific basis for the comprehension of race relations.”196 Locke sent a copy of his proposal to Booker T. Washington.197 But the proposal was roundly rejected by Howard University’s Board of Trustees on 1 June 1915. Why did these all-white ministers reject his petition? It was because they felt that such “controversial” subjects as race had no place at a school whose mission was to educate black professionals. Moreover, Howard was supposed to be, in some sense, a “nonracial” institution.198 Locke eventually succeeded in delivering his lectures as public lectures, since the classroom was closed to him on this topic. Sponsored by the Howard Chapter of the NAACP and the Social Science Club, Locke taught an extension course, first in 1915 and then in 1916. The 1915 lectures were newsworthy. In a letter dated 18 May 1915, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote Locke to say: “We are mentioning the lectures in the CRISIS this month.”199 Since the 1916 lectures are better documented, a description of them is reserved for discussion when reaching that part of the historical narrative.

How did Locke first hear of the new religion? And who was the first Bahá’í he met? When was the first meeting he attended? The Bahá’í Faith was widely known among the black intelligentsia, and Locke could have been introduced to it by any number of people.200 It is quite possible that Locke came into contact with the Faith through W. E. B. Du Bois, who had personally met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and had lectured at Green Acre (a Bahá’í school in southern Maine) as well. It is just as likely that Locke encountered the Faith through Louis Gregory, or through one of the other Bahá’ís or friends of the Faith from among the circle of educated African Americans in Washington, D.C. Or perhaps it was through Mariam Haney.

A Bahá’í “fireside” is an introductory meeting where “seekers” come to “investigate” the Bahá’í Faith. In this sense, it is somewhat akin to a Mormon “fireside.” There is evidence to suggest that Alain Locke attended his first Bahá’í fireside in 1915. This may be deduced from a letter written by Mariam Haney to “My dear Mr. Locke,” in which she urges Locke to attend a meeting at which he would meet Harlan and Grace Ober, and meet some very worthwhile people as a result. Ostensibly (and sincerely), Mariam Haney prevailed upon Locke to consider attending, not only for his sake, but for hers and the benefit of other Bahá’ís as well, as Locke would grace them with his presence:

1791 Lanier Pl. N.W.

Washington, D.C.

My dear Mr. Locke:—
My friends write me that you have never been to see them. I really was quite surprised, for my first thought about it all was that you would be rendering them a service. If you ever go once, I know you will want to go again, even if this first time I should ask you to go just to please me!

I have your interests at heart and theirs as well, so you can gather why I should be anxious for a meeting between you. Through Mr. and Mrs. Ober, you would meet—(if you cared to) some very lovely people, and I should feel proud to have them know you.

I do hope your health is good, and that you are not over-working on the subjects pertaining to the here and now.

What the world needs most is the actual living of Brotherhood—and beside this or in comparison—all else pales into insignificance. Don’t you think so?

With kind greetings

Most cordially yours —

Mariam Haney

February XV201

This is a remarkably effective invitation. One cannot fail to be struck by the graciousness of it. Evidently, this was not the first, because Mariam Haney registers her surprise that Locke has not yet gone to a meeting where he could meet the Obers. (It remains to be determined if Obers were residing in Washington at that time or merely visiting.) Whether or not he could see through her persuasive ploy, in which she asked him to attend as a personal favor to herself and her fellow Bahá’ís, it is probable that Locke went. As the most likely person to have formally taught the Bahá’í Faith to Alain Locke, who was Harlan Ober? Why was he such an effective teacher of African American “seekers”?

Harlan Ober (1881–1962) was a graduate of Harvard University. He also earned a law degree from Northeastern University in Boston.202 In 1905, at the Green Acre conference center in Eliot, Maine, Ober declared himself a Bahá’í.203 At the request of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Ober travelled to India, Burma, and the Middle East as part of an international team of Bahá’ís who mission was to teach the Bahá’í Faith, from 10 Nov. 1905 to 1 July 1906.204 According to Shoghi Effendi, “Harlan Ober traveled, during no less than seven months, in India and Burma, visiting Bombay, Poona, Lahore, Calcutta, Rangoon and Mandalay.”205 To illustrate how proficient he was as a Bahá’í teacher, in 1912 Ober taught the faith to William Gibson, the father of Amoz Everett Gibson (1918–1982), future first black member of the Universal House of Justice. While attending a spiritualist meeting, William Gibson, who had gone through seminary at Howard University and became a Christian Science healer, was directed to a Bahá’í fireside being held in the very same building. He embraced the Faith only five minutes after hearing Ober speak. Deborah Gibson, Amoz Gibson’s mother, also accepted the Faith that same night, convinced that Bahá’u’lláh was the return of Christ.206 On 17th July 1912 in New York, Harlan Ober and Grace Robarts (of Canada) were married by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá himself, in accordance with Bahá’í law. But to comply with civil law, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá requested that the Rev. Howard Colby Ives assist him by performing the necessary legal ceremony, “That all should be done in accordance with the law of the land.”207 After the “Red Summer” of 1919 (in which race riots erupted in Chicago and Elaine, Arkansas, as well as two days of rioting in Washington, D.C., incited by newspaper accounts of alleged assaults on white women by black men), Ober, in a circular letter, recommended that the Bahá’ís organize special meetings on race relations.208

As far as Locke’s subsequent investigation of the Bahá’í Faith is concerned, what happened in the intervening years of 1915–1918 is still a mystery. But there is some record of continued interaction between Locke and his Bahá’í contacts.

However, the Howard chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Social Science Club sponsored a two-year extension course of public lectures, which Locke called, “Race Contacts and Inter-Racial Relations: A Study in the Theory and Practice of Race.”209 As the focus of his lectures, Locke’s social conception of race represented a further development of the thought of cultural anthropologist Franz Boas. Locke viewed Boas, the acknowledged father of American anthropology,210 as a “major prophet of democracy.”211

Boas, who had significant contacts with Bahá’ís, effectively deconstructed the so-called “scientific racism” so prevalent at that time. He was widely regarded by intellectual historians as one who “did more to combat race prejudice than any other person in history.”212 Boas convincingly exploded the myth that race had any real basis in scientific fact. Racism was biological nonsense. Cultural anthropology sought to establish “culture”—as opposed to pseudo-scientific fictions of race—as a “central social science paradigm.”213 Locke began his lectures by asserting Boas’s distinction between racial difference and racial inequality. Racial difference is biological; racial inequality is social.214

Locke himself had a three-tiered conception of race: (1) theoretical; (2) practical; (3) social.215 Like Boas, Locke held that race has no biological significance. At best, it is a social construct that can serve to enhance group identity. At worst, race can be used as a tool of oppression. Indeed, Locke foresaw the “ultimate biological destiny of the human stock” as mulatto, or mixed, “like rum in the punch.”216 Sadly, Locke’s lectures had no influence on his philosophical contemporaries.217

Mariam Haney kept in touch with Locke. She must have been his primary, if not sole contact with the Washington Bahá’ís. In an undated letter that must have been written in 1916, she writes: “Just now I am sending you this brief note that you may have my expression of deep regret because I have been unable, thus far, to attend your lectures.”218 The first of Locke’s “Lectures on Race Contacts and Inter-Racial Relations” took place on 27 March 1916.219 Towards the end of her letter, she promises Locke: “I realize that I have missed much in not being with you all on Monday evenings, for I know I should have received an added valuable knowledge. I am planning to attend the remainder of your lectures.”220 The series of five lectures began on the last Monday of March, and continued to be held on every Monday night through April. According to Jeffrey Stewart, “Locke’s lectures laid out his new sociological theory that race was not a biological but a historical phenomenon.”221 While Locke was introducing this new theory, a new theory was being introduced to him.

On 14 May 1916, Mary Locke wrote her son, evidently about his spiritual search. After telling Alain that she had recently been to a meeting of the “brethren” (Quakers), she urged her son: “You had better make up your mind to become a Methodist—They are certainly loyal to you—I heard your praises sung—by several of them.”222 As Locke’s mother was his confidant, by virtue of their close relationship, Mary Locke must probably have known about Locke’s investigation of the Faith at some point between 1915 and 1918. She would play a crucial role in Locke’s future Bahá’í affiliation.

In a letter dated 17 May 1916, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote Locke to ask: “I understand that there are possibilities of your getting your Ph.D. this year. Is this true?”223 This would indeed become true, soon enough. And, making his year at Harvard all the more possible, the Howard University Board of trustees, in a letter dated 13 June 1916 and signed by George William Cook, stated: “I have the honor to announce that at the annual meeting of the Board of Trustees of Howard University held June 6, 1916, your request for a year’s leave of absence in order to complete the residence requirements of Harvard University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy was granted.”224 This was in response to Locke’s request, made 18 May 1916.225

During the 1916–1917 academic year, Locke was away on sabbatical, writing his dissertation for his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Harvard. Anyone who has gone through that process can testify to the all-consuming nature of that commitment. Undoubtedly it afforded him little or no time to further investigate the Bahá’í Faith. It would be interesting to know whether or not there were any Bahá’ís at Harvard with whom Locke might have made contact. But it was really on his return to Howard University and to Washington, D.C. itself when he would seriously reconsider the Bahá’í religion as an option for him personally.


The year 1918 was just six years after ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had lectured at Howard University and at the NAACP convention in Chicago. This historic visit had lasting effects. One of them would be the conversion of Alain Locke to the Bahá’í Faith.

Previous scholarship had been at a loss to establish the precise date when Locke embraced the Bahá’í Faith. Bahá’ís had assumed that this happened during the early 1920s, although documentary evidence was lacking for that. Non-Bahá’í scholars had reached the same conclusion. In his Yale dissertation on Locke, Jeffrey Stewart writes: “In the 1920s, Locke joined the Bahai movement and formalized his separation from orthodox Christianity.”226 Stewart cites two letters from Locke to Mrs. Charlotte (R. Osgood) Mason (d. 1944), this correspondence dated 12 April 1936 and 26 July 1932, the latter being on the tenth anniversary of his mother’s death.227 Locke wrote:
Again this year I write you a letter on July 26th, mother’s anniversary. It is most appropriate,—for you have continued the work she began, and more and more I associate these two dearest and best creative forces in my life. Only it seems to have taken so long to bring me to anything like spiritual maturity—long after I thought it achieved, you showed me how much still was to be done. […] Mother blesses you from beyond for what you have done for “her little boy.”228
The letter is devoted, almost to the point of being obsequious. His reference to “spiritual maturity” sounds like a perfect lead-in to Locke’s disclosure of his own religious orientation. The results were disappointing. Once I obtained copies of these two letters from Howard University, I found absolutely no mention of the Bahá’í Faith in this or the other letter. To be sure, there are other statements of interest. On page two, for instance, Locke writes: “That is why I am getting so impatient with all this fog in both the white and the black world. For brief moments I can see through it—but then there it is—all around us—and almost every last one of us groping.”229 On page three, Locke reveals his belief in the afterlife and in the living presence of his mother, in saying to his “godmother,” Charlotte Mason: “Mother blesses you from beyond for what you have done for ‘her little boy’.”230

Research is often a painstaking process, and, after all the effort and expense to obtain a copy of Locke’s 26 July 1932 letter, it is discouraging to find out that Stewart’s citation is in error. The same applies to Stewart’s other citation as evidence for Locke’s conversion to the Bahá’í Faith—the letter dated 12 April 1936. In this letter, which Locke mistakenly dates “April 12, 1934,” again there is absolutely no reference to his conversion to the Bahá’í Faith.231 My speculation at this point is that the letters in question are possibly dated 26 July 1922 and 12 April 1926.

Since formal enrollment procedures did not exist at that time, no contemporary archival record of the exact date of Locke’s conversion has yet been found. The academic and religious literature on Locke could, at best, speculate as to the date of his conversion, which had, in itself, been the source of some doubt (outside of Bahá’í circles). But in the course of my research and at my request, archivist Roger Dahl, searching the National Bahá’í Archives for documents relating to Locke, discovered the evidence scholars had been looking for: Dahl found a “Bahá’í Historical Record”232 card which Locke had filled out in 1935, at the request of the National Spiritual Assembly, which, in conducting its Bahá’í census, had mailed the forms in triplicate to all Bahá’ís through their local spiritual assemblies and other channels.233 Locke was one of seven black respondents from the Washington, D,C., Bahá’í community to complete the card.234 In “Place of acceptance of Bahá’í Faith” is entered “Washington, D.C.” Locke personally completed and signed the card, “Alain Leroy Locke” (in the space designated, “19. Signature”). Under item #13, “Date of acceptance of the Bahá’í Faith,” Locke entered the year “1918.”235 This date is significant in that it predates previous estimates that, as mentioned earlier, had placed Locke’s conversion in the early 1920s.236 The discovery of Locke’s Bahá’í Historical Record card confirms what was already evident from a host of other sources. (Those sources, however, failed to pinpoint the date of Locke’s conversion.) As previously indicated, the card does not, shed any light on the precise circumstances surrounding his conversion.

The discovery of the date of Locke’s conversion does not throw any light on the next two years of Locke’s activities as a Bahá’í. It was the usual practice at that time for new believers to write to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in the Holy Land. Indeed, there is indirect evidence that Locke, following his conversion, did write to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Haifa. That same evidence directly points to the existence of a Tablet that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá revealed in reply. Such evidence rests on the testimony of Louis Gregory who, in 1933, wrote: “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.237 This “lead” was the clue that launched my quest to find that missing Tablet. In the Alain Locke Papers, I did discover a Tablet, dated 1919, from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, but its recipient was someone other than Locke himself.238 To date, the Tablet to Locke has not been found.

Was Locke’s conversion a lasting one? Curiously, Locke’s name does not appear on an October 1920 list of the Washington, D.C., Bahá’ís.239 But his name does appear in at least twenty subsequent lists,240 from March 1922 to 1951, showing a Bahá’í affiliation of at least thirty consecutive years, or thirty-four years dating back to 1918, and probably thirty-seven years, assuming Locke maintained his affiliation until his death in 1954. But the nature of his relationship to the Bahá’í Faith at the end of his life is also unknown, since in July 1953 Locke moved to New York, where there is no record of his contact with the Bahá’í community there.

Chapter Five

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