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Alain LeRoy Locke’s Birth Date

Who2’s biography of African-American editor, philosopher and educator Alain LeRoy Locke lists his birthdate as 13 September 1886. Alain Locke was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He went on to be an important influence on the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

During his life Locke claimed 1886 as his birth year. Most biographies use that date. some sources however, say that Alain Locke was born in 1885.

The earlier date seems to come from the 2005 book Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy, by Christopher Buck. The biography of Locke (which you can download at Buck’s site) includes this bit of information:

“For reasons that have eluded historians, Locke always represented his year of birth as 1886,” says Buck. The documentation he provides seems fairly compelling at first blush — a note “in Locke’s handwriting” with the 1885 date, and what appears to be documentation from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health Charities.

We have to take it on faith that the note is in Locke’s handwriting. And it’s possible he was registered as a white person — but it’s not at all clear what “owing prejudice of Quaker physician” means, and it appears the note has at least one part that is illegible. Weighing one uncertain note against Locke’s lifetime of saying he was born in 1886, I remain unconvinced of the 1885 date.

But wait, you say! There seems to be confirmation in the form of “a city hall note by the chief clerk.” Yet that note seems to be from 1909. Why would that be? And anyway, this means the argument for 1885 is made up of a note and another note, not necessarily actual birth records.

Furthermore, I don’t buy the suggestion that Locke “may have wanted to avoid the embarrassment of having future biographers discover that he was registered as white on his birth certificate.”

Alain LeRoy Locke was a Harvard graduate, the first African-American Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and a professor at Howard University for nearly four decades. Does it seem likely that a guy with his education and experience would think he could fool future biographers simply by lying about his age? I mean, maybe — people lie about their age all the time for a lot of different reasons.

Christopher Buck’s book on Alain LeRoy Locke has a foreword by Leonard Harris, of Purdue University. Harris, according to The Alain Locke Society, is a top Locke scholar (he’s on the society’s board, too). The birth date issue is not mentioned in Locke’s foreword — instead his focus is on Buck’s handling of Locke’s religious beliefs.

And Leonard Harris, with Charles Molesworth, is the author of a different biography of Locke, Alain L. Locke, Biography of a Philosopher, published in 2008. That biography says Locke was born in 1886. And Harris states plainly in his article The Genius of Alain Locke, “Alain Leroy Locke was born in Philadelphia on September 13, 1886.”

To further confuse matters, the review of the biography by Harris and Molesworth that’s included at The Alain Locke Society parenthetically mentions Locke’s birth year as 1885. Sheesh! Still, I find it easier to dismiss that as an innocent mistake, given that Harris himself says 1886 on the same site.

Who2 welcomes any new information on the matter. We’d love to get it right. Sometimes, though, it boils down to comparing the evidence and deeming one date more believable than another. In this case, we’re willing to go with Alain Locke’s pronouncement that he was born in 1886, especially given the recent biography by Leonard Harris and Charles Molesworth.

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