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This weekend, Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. held a funeral for a man who died 60 years ago, author and philosopher Alain Locke. He was widely known as the father of the Harlem Renaissance. Locke inspired Martin Luther King Jr., who praised him as an intellectual leader on par with Plato and Aristotle. But until now, he had not received a proper burial. Gabrielle Emanuel of NPR's Code Switch team was there at the funeral.
GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: Inside the cemetery, beneath the stained glass, the chapel is full. Well over a hundred mourners line the walls and spill out the door into the rainy morning. They are all there to remember Alain Locke.
UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) We've come a long way. We've come a long way. There was a time when life was not so certain.
EMANUEL: A group of college students sings African-American spirituals. Locke advocated for recognizing these songs as a key part of America's musical history. Here he is speaking at the Library of Congress in 1940.
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ALAIN LOCKE: The very elements that make them spiritually expressive of the Negro make them, at the same time, deeply representative of the soil that produced them. They belong to a common heritage.
EMANUEL: Many at the funeral believe Locke made a serious contribution to that common national heritage.
LEONARD HARRIS: Locke was one of the most important philosophers of my era.
EMANUEL: Leonard Harris is a philosophy professor at Purdue University and wrote a definitive biography of Locke. Locke was among the most academically accomplished African-Americans of his time. He earned a PhD from Harvard and was the first black Rhodes Scholar. There actually wouldn't be another for over 50 years. Harris says Locke's pioneering ideas about identity are still relevant today.
HARRIS: He argues that race is a fabrication. That was shocking at the time. How can you claim race is a construction when all you see is segregation? Locke says it's culture that creates our visions of race.
EMANUEL: While many black academics have long studied Locke's work, he had been largely forgotten by the time he died in 1954. For decades, his ashes were stored in a tin at a friend's house and then at the archives in Howard University, where he was once a professor. But after a researcher discovered Locke's remains, a group of scholars decided it was time to bury him and to re-examine his work.
IDA JONES: OK, so let's see here.
EMANUEL: Ida Jones, a curator at Howard University, is working in the basement of the archives building. She pulls out Locke's papers. From one folder falls a letter from famed poet Langston Hughes, a testament to their lifelong friendship. Locke was a key force in mentoring African-American artists and writers in the early 20th century.
JONES: From a generation who were the first born out of slavery. Those individuals now said, who are we?
EMANUEL: Locke compiled many of these answers in an anthology titled, "The New Negro." Published in 1925, it was an instant success and included essays by Zora Neale Hurston and W.E.B. Du Bois.
JONES: This book is the standard-bearer for how the 20th century African Americans going to see themselves. This volume is dedicated to the younger generation. Oh rise, shine, for thy light is a coming.
UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Rise. I'll rise. I'll rise.
EMANUEL: Professor Leonard Harris hopes to introduce a new generation to Alain Locke. He says giving Locke a final resting place is the first step.
HARRIS: It is a place to go to commemorate him, to remove him from obscurity, to see him as a person worthy of appreciation and recognition.
EMANUEL: Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR News.
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