Alexander Kerr was the first of six children born to William and Elizabeth Findlay Kerr. When he was six years old the Kerr family moved to Greenock where his father represented a Glasgow-based family engaged in tea blending.
Kerr attended the Mearns Street Primary School in Greenock and then, in pursuance of a career in education, became a pupil-teacher at the High-landers' Academy in Greenock for four years. He enrolled at Moray House Training College and Edinburgh University, graduating with an MA degree in 1907. He earned first-class certificates in Moral Philosophy and in Logic and Metaphysics.
Kerr's first post after graduating was at Mount Florida Public School on the outskirts of Glasgow. After two years there, he was appointed to teach English and Latin at the Kilsyth Academy.
In the mining community of Kilsyth, Kerr became involved in church work and the YMCA. Poor eyesight prevented Kerr from serving in the army during the First World War.
Instead, in August 1915, he successfully applied for the post of first principal of the South African Native College (now the University of Fort Hare) in Alice, South Africa. Kerr and his new bride, Mary Robertson McBride, left for South Africa on 2 October 1915.
They arrived at Alice on 1 November 1915, having docked at East London the previous day. The only buildings available for the embryonic college were four or five bungalows situated on the lands surrounding the fort. Kerr also learnt that he had only one teaching colleague, D.D.T. Jabavu. Nevertheless the college was declared officially open by the Prime Minister of South Africa, Gen. Louis Botha on 8 February 1916.
From an initial student intake of 20 pre-matriculants in mid-February, the College grew under Kerr's leadership to a roll of 330 post-matriculants in 1948, the year of his retirement.
Kerr's influence in the sphere of black education was not confined to his college or even to South Africa. In 1922 he embarked on a study tour of black colleges in the United States of America at the invitation of the Phelps Stokes Fund. His study focused on the development and funding of black education, principally in the fields of medicine and agriculture. In 1936-37 he served on the De la Warr Commission advising on Higher Education in East Africa and the Sudan.
On a personal level, Kerr's wife Mary Robertson Kerr died on 19 November 1947, leaving two sons, William Findlay and Alastair James. A daughter, Agnes, had died in infancy in about 1918. Kerr married his second wife, Beatrice Dorothy Tooke, in 1949.
In 1951 he was chairperson of a commission inquiring into the system of black education in Zimbabwe and in 1952 - 53 he served on the Carr-Saunders Commission on Higher Education for Africans in Central Africa. This commission resulted in the establishment of the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, now the University of Zimbabwe. The government appointed him to the Union Advisory Board on Native Education and to the Advisory Committee on University Education. From 1952 - 59 Kerr was a member of the Rhodes University Council.
Kerr received a Doctorate of Law honoris causa from two South African universities, the University of South Africa (1936) and Rhodes University (1961), in recognition of his efforts for the development of higher education among the black people of South Africa. Scotland also honoured him. In 1950 Kerr received an honorary Doctorate of Divinity from St Andrew's University.
Kerr was a committed member of the Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa and, though a layman, was elected moderator for 1942 - 43. He served on many of the Church's committees and commissions and on the South African Mission Council of the Church of Scotland from 1926 - 1958. For many years he was on the governing councils of the Lovedale and Blythswood institutions.
In addition to numerous articles and papers, Kerr published Fort Hare 2915 - 48: the evolution of an African college in 1968. He also edited the South African Outlook for a period.
Alexander Kerr died at his home, Moray House, in Alice, on 21 February 1970. The Dr Alexander Kerr Bursary Fund, subsequently called the Alexander Kerr Memorial Fund, was constituted in his memory in 1970 by the Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa to provide bursaries for black students.
There is a portrait of Kerr in the Senate Chamber at the University of Fort Hare.