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.
In some ways, the Oxford experience — of winning the pedestal but not sitting securely on it — was emblematic of Locke’s later life.
Locke was convinced that embracing African heritage was key to the emergence of the New Negro, imbued with “renewed self-respect and self-dependency.” But Locke’s name is not as well known as those of Harlem Renaissance writers such as Zora Neale Hurston or Langston Hughes, who expressed the era’s awakenings in more accessible forms. Locke saw himself as the philosophical “midwife” of a generation of black writers.
If the story of Locke’s life has elements of mystery, so does the story of what happened to his ashes after he died in New York in 1954.
Locke was cremated and his ashes given to his close friend and executor, the Philadelphia activist and educator Arthur Huff Fauset.
“They were sacred to him,” recalls Sadie Mitchell, 93, who met Locke with Fauset in Philadelphia when she was a young woman. Fauset took the ashes whenever he moved, Mitchell remembers.
When Fauset died in 1983, his niece Conchita Porter Morison, 91, turned to Mitchell, who says she “acted as an intermediary” and contacted Howard. That’s why her name is written on the paper bag: “Cremains given to Locke’s friend, Dr. Arthur Huff Fauset. Arthur is deceased. I kept the remains to give to Howard. The Rev. Sadie Mitchell. Associate at St Thomas Church.”