004: Alain Locke, black Rhodes Scholar at Oxford 1907-1910
Born to a Philadelphia family descended from free blacks, with his paternal grandfather’s education at Cambridge University, Alain Leroy Locke (1886-1954) was a widely respected literary and artistic commentator in the 1920s and 1930s, famed for the seldom out-of-print The New Negro (1925). A 1907 graduate of Harvard, Locke was awarded one of the Rhodes Scholarships that funded him to study at Oxford University. He was the first black Rhodes Scholar.
His surviving correspondence (Howard University, Washington DC) includes many letters to his widowed mother Mary Locke (“We are so far away from each other” he told her in October 1907). He told her that he had joined the French Club (conversation only in French), had seen Bernard Shaw’s play Candida, hoped to meet “the famous mathematician” Bertrand Russell, had met “many East Indian Brahmins – they are men of remarkable refinement and culture”, told her that the white Americans had not invited him to their Thanksgiving banquet, and that he had spent the turn of the year in France.
On 24 January 1908 he told his mother he had purchased some of the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (“it and he are very popular in England it seems”) and hoped to meet him. In the summer of 1908 it seems he was joined by his mother.
What is clear from his letters is his close association with Africans at Oxford. Indeed, on 4 March 1907, writing on Jesus College letterhead, a onetime herdboy in South Africa, the New York graduate Pixley Seme, wrote asking: “allow me to congratulate you for what you have done for our race by taking so high a rank among American scholars”. He was advised “you will meet here the best blood of India, Japan and of the world”. In July Seme told him “Rhodes Scholars are simply a drop in the ocean here. They have no influence whatsoever”.
Seme and Locke were good friends at Oxford. There was a West Indian named J. Williams who joined them in the African Union Society. Seme told Locke to visit “the great Negro author Dr. Theophilus E. Scholes” when in London – “I have told him about you”. He also made contact with the Sierra Leonean doctor, William Awuner Renner, and A. E. Maxwell Gibson whose father was a solicitor in the Gambia.
Gibson had read law at Wadham College 1894-1897, worked in Nigeria and Ghana, and contributed to the Journal of the African Society. Gibson had been a pupil of the brilliant lawyer and major politician F. E. Smith (Lord Birkenhead) whose life he had saved when drowning. Gibson, Seme and Locke all attended a concert of Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha.
Locke told his mother that the Rhodes Scholars from Southern states of the U.S.A., when they were all entertained by the U.S. ambassador at the Dorchester Hotel, London, in January 1909, “even asked the Rhodes authorities to urge me to recall my acceptance”. Locke was the first to leave the event which “had quite an effect”. One of Locke’s friends, at the Oxford Cosmopolitan Club, was Lionel de Fonseka, one of the “East Indians”. Another was Hamed el Alaily, an Egyptian.
The baritone and composer Harry T. Burleigh, whose son Alston was being educated in England, was in contact when in London in 1908.
Locke seems to have left England on the Mauretania on 12 March 1910. Ten days before Seme had had dinner with Locke, and was “very anxious to get me to Africa – I am too – but not anxious to stay there”.
The letters of Locke and his friends deserve publication. It is difficult to think that Dr Scholes, who wrote to Locke saying “It was very agreeable to me to have had your company” could not see the potential in the 23 year old American. Scholes had already published several books: years later he was to influence the generation of black leaders who gained political independence for their people. Seme became a leading member of the African National Congress in South Africa. His entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is very useful.
Locke told his mother that Oxford “is a training-school for the governing classes – and has taught your son its lesson”.