Joseph A. Towles papers
Scope and Contents
The collection contains eight different series of materials that document various aspects of the lives and careers, both separately and together, of Colin Turnbull and Joseph Towles. Anthropological research files focus mostly on their field work on the Mbuti and Mbo pygmies of the Congo area and the Ik of Uganda. Professional papers document their work in academic and museum settings. There are personal papers of their domestic life; fictional writings of Joseph Towles; a professional and personal photograph series; personal and professional films and audio tape, including materials documenting their African fieldwork; slides documenting African fieldwork and travels; and a series documenting the collection itself. Despite the fact the majority of materials document the life and achievements of Colin Turnbull, the collection holding both his and Joseph Towles' papers, is named for Joseph Towles at Turnbull's request. There is also a separate collection of African, religious and domestic artifacts collected by them.
1. Anthropological Research (26 linear feet). Includes field notes and related research materials, including correspondence, maps, diagrams, and publications connected with Colin Turnbull's and Joseph Towles' academic pursuits. The series begins with a large amount of material (circa 1928-1982, bulk 1965-1972) collected by Towles, Turnbull, Patrick and Anne Putnam, and others regarding the Mbuti and Mbo people of the Ituri forest (also known as pygmies) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) -- formerly known as Zaire and the Belgian Congo. Kept in original order when possible, materials include a study of Congolese languages, social structure, environment, life stages, music, villager relations, and rituals (such as the Nkumbi circumcision ritual, the elima menstruation ritual, and the molimo spiritual ritual). Drafts of publications resulting from the research, such as copies of Towles' and Turnbull's dissertations on the Mbuti, are included in this series.
The series also includes similar material collected by Towles and Turnbull on the Ik of Northern Uganda, whom they studied in the field from 1965-1966 and from 1970-1972. In addition, the series contains material collected for their Tourism as Pilgrimage project (1978-1979), Turnbull's work on the US prison system (circa 1976-1986) and Towles' work on Judaism and religion (1980s). The series also includes miscellaneous anthropological research, mostly related to Africa, which includes copies of scarce East African newspapers (1965-1971); galleys and uncorrected proofs on African and anthropological subjects sent to Turnbull; an edited copy of The Human Cycle (1983); and publications and research on subjects such as archeology, psychology, homosexuality, black power and racism in the United States including the 1968 New York University race controversy. Also included are reproductions of materials regarding American slavery such as a slave bill of sale, correspondence, and advertisement for slave sales as well as articles on the Jonestown, Guyana mass suicide (1978). Includes miscellaneous correspondence (1952-1966) and an interview (circa 1979) with a WWII Japanese internment camp detainee.
2. Professional Papers (11.5 linear feet). Includes materials relating to both Towles and Turnbull's (but mostly the latter's) employment (1960-1965) at the American Museum of Natural History, including the 1967 installment of the
Man in Africa permanent exhibit. With materials regarding their employment and roles as professors and faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University, Vassar, Pace, and SUNY Buffalo, Hofstra, and George Washington University, consisting of academic correspondence, lectures, grant proposals, reports, news clippings, and student work. Also included in the series are academic critiques by Turnbull and those of Turnbull's work on the Mbuti and Ik, including a 1973 critique of The Mountain People by Frederick Barth with Turnbull's response. Correspondence and documents pertain to the publishing of academic works of Towles and Turnbull, including letters from editors rejecting Towles' work. Miscellaneous materials regarding Towles and Turnbull as students, including material from Towles' studies at Makerere University in Uganda (1965-1967). Printed material regarding formal lectures and conferences, such as
An Interdisciplinary Approach to Planned Social Change (1971), conclude the series.
3. Personal Papers (9.5 linear feet). This series includes Towles' diaries (1960-1988) and transcribed copies, annotated by Turnbull, which detail their relationship. Also includes correspondence from Towles/Turnbull as landlords; financial papers; legal papers; cards, letters and notes between Towles and Turnbull, as well as documents pertaining to Towles' death. With publications that document Towles' life such as yearbooks and school textbooks; and scrapbooks with published reviews of Turnbull's works. Miscellaneous items include documents regarding Towles' bequest to the United Negro College Fund; maps; receipts; and other papers pertaining to household items. Other biographical data (1863-1961) is recorded in the Towles family Bible.
4. Fictional Writings (3.5 linear feet). This series contains unpublished short stories, novels, and plays written by Joseph Towles (1959-1988).
5. Photographs (6.5 linear feet). The photograph series consists of personal and professional photos including negatives, positives and proofs (circa 1920-1989). Images include Towles and Turnbull with various friends and family members and on trips abroad as well as in their New York, Virginia and Connecticut homes, including the last image taken of Towles in St. Croix and his burial site. Also included are images from Turnbull's travels to India and his first trip to Africa (1949-1952). Professional photos include anthropological related images from work in the Congo with the Mbuti people, Camp Putnam, Uganda with the Ik people, and regions from their Tourism as Pilgrimage research. Images used for Turnbull publications of The Forest People, The Mountain People, and Wayward Servants are also included. In addition, copies and originals of American Museum of Natural History images are included from various exhibits such as
Man in Africa and
Lute, Flute, and Drum.
6. Audio-Visual and Other Materials (10.25 linear feet). The audio-visual series contains professional and personal audio and film footage as well as other magnetic media. It includes data disks from Towles and Turnbull's computer presumed to contain material mostly available in hard copy throughout the collection but also Turnbull's diaries (1988-1989), a copy of the unpublished "Lover and Beloved," his notes on prison research, Buddhism, and correspondence (1990). Professional videos consist of anthropology lectures (1975-1991) given by Towles and Turnbull, and film studies (1954-1972) in which Towles and Turnbull document the Ik (1964-1965) and the Mbuti (1954 and edited 1971-1972) in the field. Videos of their personal life (1973-1978) reflect their family and domestic life in Virginia. Audio files consist of cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes of Mbuti songs and interviews that reportedly correspond to video footage.
7. Slides (21.75 linear feet). The slides collection (1948-1988) consists of circa 10,000 personal and professional slides taken by Towles, Turnbull and others during their world travels, mostly relating to the Mbuti of the Ituri Forest in Uganda and the Ik of the Congo. They reflect the people, physical environment, material culture, and rituals. Many slides also relate to Towles and Turnbull's project on Tourism as Pilgrimage and include images of India, China, Japan, Indonesia, and other countries. Personal slides include images of vacations, holidays and visits with friends and family.
8. Collection Processing Materials (1.5 linear feet). Donor files consist of correspondence (1987-1993) regarding the acquisition of the collection; copies of previous inventories (1990-1994); correspondence and lists regarding items removed from collection; and CD of oral history of the collection conducted with Joseph Powell.
» Note on origin: The collection was donated to the Avery Research Center by the United Negro College Fund in 1989 following Towles' death and through the efforts of Turnbull. Affiliated is a large artifact collection. It was initially processed by Joseph Powell under archivist Donald West, from 1990-1994. It was reprocessed by Jessica Lancia, Melissa Bronheim, and Rachel Allen under Harlan Greene in 2009. For materials regarding the acquisition including an oral history with Powell regarding processing of the collection conducted May 2009 by Lancia, see box 50. Where possible, original order was maintained. To increase access, most publications were removed from the collection and added to online catalogue with a note on origin.
» Some items were removed from the collection permanently following issues over ownership. These include the Herbert Lang slides and materials belonging to the American Museum of Natural History. Originals of the film studies are housed at the Smithsonian, which created VHS user copies for Avery.
- approximately 1920s-2009
- Towles, Joseph A. (Person)
- Turnbull, Colin M. (Person)
Language of Materials
Material is in English
This collection has restrictions to access. For more information, please read the collection inventory or contact the Avery Research Center: (843) 953-7609.
The nature of the Avery Research Center's archival holdings means that copyright or other information about restrictions may be difficult or even impossible to determine despite reasonable efforts. The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture claims only physical ownership of most archival materials.
The materials from our collections are made available for use in research, teaching, and private study, pursuant to U.S. Copyright law. The user must assume full responsibility for any use of the materials, including but not limited to, infringement of copyright and publication rights of reproduced materials. Any materials used for academic research or otherwise should be fully credited with the source.
African American anthropologist Joseph Allen Towles was born in Senora, Virginia on August 17, 1937 to Arcellius Towles (died 1959) and Lucy Blair (died 1991). Educated in Virginia, Joseph A. Towles graduated high school in 1957 moved to New York City to pursue an acting and writing career. In 1959, Towles met English anthropologist Colin Macmillan Turnbull, with whom he exchanged marriage vows in 1960; they lived together in an openly gay, interracial relationship until Towles' death.
Colin Macmillan Turnbull was born in November 24, 1924 in Harrow, England to Helen Dorothy Wellesley Chapman (1894-1977) and John Rutherford Turnbull (1884-1975). Educated at Oxford University, he joined the Royal Navy in 1942 and finished his undergraduate degree in 1949. He then lived in India for two years in the ashram of female guru Sri Anandamayi Ma, and traveled to Africa in 1951, where he encountered the Mbuti people, pygmies living in the Ituri Forest in the Belgian Congo and Zaire (later, the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Turnbull lived in the camp of Patrick and Anne Eisner Putnam who resided among the Mbuti. After a brief stint as a gold miner in Canada, Turnbull resumed his study in anthropology at Oxford in 1954, receiving his doctorate in 1964. He returned to the Congo in 1954 and 1957 to continue his research, and published The Forest People (1962), for which he received acclaim for his portrayal of the Mbuti as exemplars of the human capacity for goodness and love. In 1959, he became curator of African Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History and became a United States citizen in 1965. He resigned in 1969, claiming museum discrimination against his partner Joseph Towles and other African Americans and began teaching at Hofstra University. He later accepted faculty appointments at the State University of New York, Vassar, Virginia Commonwealth University and George Washington University. He also was a visiting lecturer at the College of Charleston.
After working as an actor and model, Towles volunteered in the Anthropology Department at the American Museum of Natural History with Turnbull. From 1965-1967, he assisted with the creation of
Man in Africa Hall (opened 1967), a permanent exhibit later called the
Hall of African Peoples. He also researched and constructed the
Slavery in the New World subsection of the museum. In 1963, he entered Pace College to study history and anthropology. Before finishing, he enrolled at Makarere University in Uganda in 1965 to study anthropology and sociology. He eventually graduated from Pace in 1968.
Turnbull and Towles were in Africa from 1965-1967, conducting fieldwork among the Ik of Northern Uganda. In 1970, they returned to the Congo where they conducted fieldwork on the Nkumbi circumcision initiation ritual for boys and the Asa myth of origin among the Mbo of the Ituri forest. Towles received his Ph.D. from Makerere University in 1979.
Turnbull's book on the Ik, The Mountain People (1972) received harsh criticism (including Towles') for its portrayal of the starving people as a soulless community. In 1973, theater producer Peter Brook adapted the book to the stage and created The Ik, a dramatic production with Turnbull as the main character. From 1974-1976, Towles and Turnbull assisted with the stage adaptation and traveled with the company.
The couple then devoted themselves to other projects. In 1979, they traveled the world studying the concept of tourism as pilgrimage. Towles turned to biblical research and writing plays and novels; Turnbull studied the prison system and the death penalty in the United States. In 1983, Turnbull published the semi-autobiographical work The Human Cycle, which angered Towles for its omitted references to their relationship. Around the same time, Towles started exhibiting signs of mental illness. In 1983, he was diagnosed with syphilis, and in 1985 with HIV/AIDS.
On December 19, 1988, Towles died from AIDS. Turnbull staged a double funeral, with two caskets, one representing his own spirit. Following Towles' death, Turnbull spent much of his energy dedicated to memorializing and drawing attention to his partner's legacy. He bequeathed his money and property to the United Negro College Fund and arranged for his and Towles' papers and possessions to be transferred to the Avery Research Center. He moved to Samoa and wrote
Lover and Beloved, an unpublished account of his relationship with Towles. He then moved to Bloomington, Indiana to help build the Tibetan Cultural Center with the Dalai Lama's brother, Thubten Norbu, with whom he had published the book Tibet in 1968. He succeeded in publishing two of Towles' scholarly works in 1993 and moved to Dharamsala, India, where was ordained as a Buddhist monk by the Dalai Lama and became known as Lobsong Rigdol. In 1994, he was airlifted back to Virginia where he died of AIDS on July 28 and was buried next to Towles.
» Note: For more biographical information, see In the Arms of Africa: the Life of Colin M. Turnbull by Roy Richard Grinker (2000). Turnbull's major works, The Forest People (1962), The Mountain People (1972), and The Human Cycle (1983) as well as Towles' Nkumbi Initiation (1993) and Asa: Myth of Origin of the Blood Brotherhood Among the Mbo of the Ituri Forest (1993) are available at the Avery Research Center as are many of their publications in various periodicals.
71.25 linear feet (50 record cartons, 13 archival boxes, 4 oversize, and 3 slide cases)
African American anthropologist Joseph Allen Towles (1937-1988) met British anthropologist Colin Macmillan Turnbull (1924-1994) in 1959. The two exchanged marriage vows in 1960 and they lived together in an interracial, homosexual relationship until Towles' death in 1988. Towles and Turnbull spent various periods of time in Africa, conducting fieldwork on the Mbuti, Mbo, and Ik peoples. Turnbull authored The Forest People, The Mountain People, The Human Cycle, and Tibet. Turnbull succeeding in publishing Towles' work posthumously: Nkumbi Initiation and Asa: Myth of Origin of the Blood Brotherhood Among the Mbo of the Ituri Forest. Both Towles and Turnbull died from complications related to AIDS.
The collection contains eight different series of materials that document various aspects of the lives and careers, both separately and together, of Colin Turnbull and Joseph Towles. Anthropological research files focus mostly on their field work on the Mbuti and Mbo pygmies of the Congo area and the Ik of Uganda. Professional papers document their work in academic and museum settings. There are personal papers of their domestic life; fictional writings of Joseph Towles; a professional and personal photograph series; personal and professional films and audio tape, including materials documenting their African fieldwork and association with the camp of Patrick and Anne Putnam; slides documenting African fieldwork and travels; and a series documenting the collection itself. Despite the fact the majority of materials document the life and achievements of Colin Turnbull, this collection, holding both Turnbull's and Joseph Towles' papers, is named for Joseph Towles at Turnbull's request. There is also a separate collection of African, religious, and domestic artifacts collected by them.
1. Anthropological Research, 1952-1993
2. Professional Papers, 1924-1987
3. Personal and Biographical Papers, 1950s-1990s
4. Fictional Writings, 1959-1988
5. Photographs, 1920s-1989
6. Audio-Visual and Other Materials, 1950s-1990
7. Slides, 1948-1988
8. Collection Processing Materials, 1987-2009
The collection was donated to the Avery Research Center by the United Negro College Fund in 1989 following Towles' death and through the efforts of Colin Macmillan Turnbull.
Processed by Jessica Lancia, Rachel Allen, and Melissa Bronheim, August 2009
Edited by Amanda Ross, November 2009
Encoded by Amanda Ross, November 2009
Funding from the Council on Library and Information Resources supported the collection processing and encoding of this finding aid.
The collection was initially processed by Joseph Powell under archivist Donald West, from 1990-1994. It was reprocessed by Jessica Lancia, Melissa Bronheim, and Rachel Allen under Harlan Greene in 2009. Amanda Ross edited the description, encoded the finding aid, and contributed subject headings.
- Africa -- Social life and customs
- African American anthropologists
- Anthropology -- Fieldwork
- Anthropology -- Research
- Arts, Mbuti
- Congo (Democratic Republic) -- Social conditions
- Ethnology -- Congo (Democratic Republic)
- Folklore -- Congo (Democratic Republic)
- Gay anthropologists
- Indigenous peoples -- Congo (Democratic Republic)
- Ituri Forest (Congo)
- Mbuti (African people)
- Prisons -- United States
- Putnam, Anne Eisner (Artist)
- United States -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century
- Inventory of the Joseph A. Towles Papers, circa 1920s - 2009
- Processed by: Jessica Lancia, Rachel Allen, and Melissa Bronheim; machine-readable finding aid created by: Amanda Ross
- © 2009
- Description rules
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Language of description note
- Description is in English
- Funding from the Council on Library and Information Resources supported the collection processing and encoding of this finding aid.
Part of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture Repository
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Charleston South Carolina 29424 United States