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50 Years/50 Collections: Notes From the Anthropologist Inez Adams on Race and Integration

January 25, 2016

One of the earliest collections gifted to the Amistad Research Center was the papers of anthropologist Inez Adams in 1968. Adams was born in 1904 in Santa Barbara, California, to Dorothy and Williams Adams. She graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1926, earning a Bachelor of Arts Degree with honors in Anthropology. She continued her education at Berkeley and received a Masters of Arts Degree in Anthropology in 1928, and a Ph.D in Anthropology from Columbia University in 1950. It is unknown what Adams did professionally in between the time she received her Master’s and started work on her doctorate.  She was offered a teaching position in the Department of Social Sciences at Fisk University in 1949. When Fisk University dropped Anthropology from the curriculum in 1951, Adams’ colleague, Bonita Valien, found a role for her in the avenue of field research. It was Valien who gifted Adams’ papers to the Center.

 

Adams’ papers represent her extensive field notes during her studies in Trinidad, London, Nigeria, and the American South. Adams performed field work in Trinidad in 1951. Her notes convey the complex ethnic, racial, class, and social hierarchies of the island. Her interviews revealed the relationships and interactions between Indians, Chinese, Whites, and Creoles. Adams weaved the history of each group in Trinidad into her typed notes of the interviewees to provide context on their perspectives. Adams’ notes also included historical commentary on Trinidadian Calypso music. She had collected Calypso song lyrics related to folklore on the island. Her work in Trinidad predated her studies in the American South, and it is probably here that she perfected her techniques of infiltration. During her stay in Trinidad, Adams visited a restaurant with Chinese owners where she noticed the practice of de-facto segregation. After numerous observations, she discovered that Creoles and Indians were seated in the back of the restaurant. There was a curtain that separated them from the front seating area where white patrons were served.

 

Adams’ notes on the South were created during the Black freedom movement of the 1950s and 1960s and they detailed school desegregation, bus boycotts and sit-ins. As a white woman, Adams was able to infiltrate Southern spaces occupied by whites to extract their candid views on race and desegregation. During the Birmingham bus boycott, which occurred from 1955-1956, Adams applied many tactics to ensure that her anthropological fieldwork was successful. One of these strategies included boarding different city busses and initiating conversations with white commuters. She tailored her personal background to the person being interviewed in order to acquire trust and inspire honesty from her “informants.” The results of her actions were a rich set of Birmingham notes replete with unfiltered opinions from whites on African Americans, the civil rights movement, racial relationships, and the forces behind the Birmingham bus boycott.

 

In 1960, Adams became involved in the Tropical Africa Research Project sponsored by the Institute of Race Relations in London, England. She conducted interviews with expatriates in Nigeria and Nigerian citizens in 1962. Being that Nigeria had achieved independence from Britain in 1960, many of the interviews focused on Nigeria’s future as a liberated nation. The primary themes addressed were political governance, education, employment, and economics, as well as the ethnic, religious, and class backgrounds of the expatriates and Nigerians.

 

After her research in Africa, Adams worked as a Professor of Anthropology at Brooklyn College in New York City. She died on December 15, 1967, in Washington, D.C. The finding aid to the Inez Adams papers can be found here.

 

Disclaimer: Images from the Inez Adams papers. Images from the Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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