The 60-year journey of the ashes of Alain Locke, father of the Harlem Renaissance

“Look what I’ve got!”

Joellen ElBashir is standing, smiling, in front of filing cabinets with two long, low drawers agape. On a counter, she has laid out her finds: typewritten documents and a stained brown paper bag bearing a few faint lines of handwriting. It’s not the first time ElBashir, curator of Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, has seen the bag. But every time she sees it, she’s struck.

“If Alain Locke had known, he … ”

ElBashir chuckles and shakes her head, but it’s clear what she means: If Locke had known his cremated remains had been inside that grubby paper bag, he’d be rolling in his grave.

Locke, intellectual architect of the Harlem Renaissance, chairman of philosophy at Howard University and the first African American Rhodes scholar, was “a fastidious man,” ElBashir says.

She has seen plenty of evidence (the immaculate suits! the crisply knotted ties! the straw boaters!) in the 26 years she has spent here at the center, where Locke’s papers are stored in row upon row of gray boxes. And where, almost two decades ago, Locke’s ashes arrived in a container the size of a coffee can that was delivered to the university inside the crumpled bag ElBashir is now holding.

If Alain Locke knew all that, he would indeed be rolling in his grave … if he had one.

This weekend, 60 years after his death, Locke is finally being given a permanent resting place in Capitol Hill’s Congressional Cemetery, where a polished-granite gravestone will sit across from the sandstone cenotaphs honoring early members of Congress and adjacent to the first director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, Warren Robbins. Sept. 13’s commemorative ceremony and interment were planned and funded largely by African American Rhodes scholars who followed Locke’s pioneering path across the Atlantic to Oxford.

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