Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

127: Alain Locke at Oxford 1907-1910 # 2

Alain Leroy Locke (1885-1954) was born in Philadelphia and graduated from Harvard in 1907. His role from the mid-1920s in nurturing African American artists and writers – the New Negro Movement – has been known, as were his decades teaching at Howard University in Washington DC. He believed that African American artistic expression was rooted in the African heritage of black Americans. As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford (the first African American) he was counted a failure – he was sent down in 1910. The excellent education he had received in the USA had left him with ‘elementary’ Greek and Latin (Ziegler, Legacy, p 65) which were then deemed essential for an Oxford education. The university was not offering a post-graduate opportunity: Locke and other Rhodes Scholars had already graduated elsewhere. Like scholars before and since, Locke spent the Rhodes grants on travel and visited Palestine as well as the continent.

We know this from the surviving letters to his mother (Locke Papers, Howard University). In those papers is some very interesting correspondence with two Africans. These indicate that it was at Oxford that the artistic Locke developed a concern for Africa, stimulated by Pixley Seme of South Africa whose letter (Jesus College, Oxford, 4 March 1907) congratulated the American ‘for what you have done for our race by taking so high a rank among American scholars … [in Oxford were] others of your race who have carried first class honours’. As Locke was packing for the Atlantic journey, Seme wrote to him from a Brussels (Belgium) hotel on 28 August 1907 recommending when Locke reached London he looked up ‘Dr Theophilus E. Scholes the great Negro author. I have told him about you and are sure of immediate help. Simply introduce yourself properly to him and tell him that I asked you to go to him. He already knows about you’. Scholes, a Jamaican qualified as a doctor in Scotland, had worked in the Congo and Nigeria and was about to see volume two of his Glimpses of the Ages into print. The two men met (Green, Black Edwardians, p 150).

Locke reached England on 30 September 1907. He went to Hertford College, Oxford, and reported to his mother that he had been rowing on the river and had been snubbed by the other American Rhodes Scholars who did not invite him to their Thanksgiving Dinner. He joined various undergraduate societies and at the end of 1907 went to France. Like most people of his education Locke played the piano, and in January 1908 he told his mother he had purchased ‘some of Coleridge-Taylor’s music – it and he are very popular in England it seems – I shall get round to seeing him bye and bye’ (letter postmarked Oxford 24 January 1908). He duetted with ‘a most lovable Englishman (a sort of contradiction in terms)’ named Garratt who played the clarinet. That summer seems to be when he and his mother went to Palestine. He took riding lessons and French lessons. ‘Seme is here often, almost every day’ (Letter 30 October 1908). Christmas 1908 was in France and in May 1909 he planned to visit Italy.

He met ‘a Gold Coast Negro by the name of Gibson [A. E. Maxwell Gibson]’ who had returned to Oxford to take his BCL and with Seme they went to hear Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha – ‘it stunned me … I shall not stop long in London next time but I must look him up. Strange too that he is of African extraction – the African mind and temperament is not self-divided nor self-despising. Thank God for it’ (letter postmarked 26 November 1908). Days later he and Seme were in Paris, and planned to visit Rome with a wealthy Londoner named Sydney Franklin. Locke’s horse-riding skills improved and he joked to his mother that he would be fox hunting in 1909 (letter postmarked London 16 December 1908). The American ambassador invited all the American Rhodes Scholars to lunch at the Dorchester Hotel when the Southerners asked the Rhodes authorities to get Locke to withdraw his acceptance. He went and was the first to leave – ‘it had quite an effect’.

Seme, who was to be a pioneer in the African National Congress, was based in London where he was preparing to be a barrister. He met Locke in London several times, and the 50 miles (80 km) between London and Oxford led to Seme writing to Locke. An amusing letter on Middle Temple, London, paper dated 30 September 1907 [sic: probably 1909] informed Locke that Seme had again made an introduction to Dr Scholes. The other individual was Dr William Awuner Renner of the Sierra Leone Medical Department. They met outside the British Museum and lunched at the Trocadero with ‘mighty appetites’. The veterans assumed Seme was going to pay but he had ‘only a borrowed 7/6 [7s 6d or under one third of a £] in my pocket’ so he tipped the waiter 6d and told him to present the bill to Renner – and went home with seven shillings.

Commentators on Locke at this period have not used the African contacts – Seme, Renner, Gibson and Scholes the Jamaican – to place Locke in an African ambiance, let alone consider African materials in Oxford’s museums or the London libraries and museums.

Locke’s The New Negro appeared in 1925, and that has kept attention on Locke’s role in the Harlem Renaissance. The Locke Papers contain correspondence with a Gold Coast [today: Ghana] merchant named Kofi Amoah III who had been known as Kwamina Tandoh until his succession in 1919. A London resident for decades, he was often in New York in the 1920s. Not as a patron of the arts, but as a shrewd entrepreneur. He was anxious to develop commercial links between the Africans who grew cocoa and the importers and chocolate manufacturers. The system in the Gold Coast did not allow credit so the farmers sold the beans to merchants who also ran import enterprises and shops. Banks always wanted security but land title was far from simple and with limited use in that colony. If the Africans could control ownership of their produce until it reached the manufacturer, their profits would soar. And if the negotiations were with African Americans, a bond would exist that was likely to be very satisfactory. [see page 126 of this site]

The first Amoah-Locke letter is 12 November 1925, when the African was back at his London home, 3 Highbury Hill, London N5. On 6 November 1927 from 243 West 128th Street, New York City, Amoah wrote to Locke ‘My dear Brother & Friend’. He had delayed going to Africa in order to have a ‘long interview’ concerning ‘the future of our people’ with Sir Gordon Guggisberg, governor of the Gold Coast. Amoah had arranged meetings with ‘financiers, bankers’ and Guggisberg. In the African American monthly Opportunity of December 1928 ‘A Glimpse of the Gold Coast’ by Nana Amoah III noted his view ‘Africa should develop economically but without losing her soul’ [page 378].

Locke made other friends in Oxford and remained in contact with them for years. He left England in 1910, later studied in Berlin 1910-1911, and spent a further year at Harvard. He visited Europe on vacations and wrote several useful books.

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Jeffrey Green, Black Edwardians. Black People in Britain 1901-1914 (London: Cass, 1998).

Pamela Roberts, Black Oxford. The Untold Stories of Oxford University’s Black Scholars (Oxford: Signal Book, 2013).

Philip Ziegler, Legacy. Cecil Rhodes, The Rhodes Trust and Rhodes Scholarships (New Haven: Yale UP, 2008).