An Undergraduate Researcher’s Look Inside the Lorenzo Dow Turner papers

by Kate Sawyer, Intern

Intern Kate Sawyer

For the Spring 2020 semester, the Amistad Research Center welcomed Kate Sawyer, an intern from Tulane University. Kate is a junior majoring in philosophy and anthropology. She assisted the Center with editing subject guides and adding them into the finding aid database, but also found time to explore a collection of great personal interest:

A few days ago, I took my maiden voyage into the stacks at the Amistad Research Center to examine the papers of Lorenzo Dow Turner (1890-1972). As a Research Services Intern, I have mostly been working on the front-facing side of things, creating and editing research guides on subjects from Creole culture to New Orleans Oral History. After familiarizing myself with the structure of the archives through the research guides, it was a pleasure to delve into Turner’s research as a starting point for more hands-on experience working with archives. For an anthropology major, there was not a better place to start.

Undated portrait of Lorenzo Dow Turner.

Turner was an American linguist, professor, researcher, Fulbright scholar, founder of Gullah studies, and founding figure of African American studies. His book Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1949) shook the foundation of American linguistics and is considered a seminal book for what is now African American studies. It remains a primary reference for the Gullah language to this day. Behind this groundbreaking work, however, are decades of diligent research and a voraciously curious mind like no other. In an earlier essay entitled “Some Contacts of Brazilian Ex-slaves with Nigeria, West Africa” he noted, “there exists in the United States an abundance of historical, ethnological, and linguistic material relating to West Africa which would be of great value to investigators in this field if they would only take the time to study it.” Turner spent the rest of his life exploring that material and sharing it with the world at a time when other researchers failed to acknowledge its existence.

Turner with children, undated.

His passports from the 1940s and 1950s, filled end-to-end with stamps from Brazil, Nigeria, and Cameroon, among other countries, serve as a visual testament to this exploration. Hundreds of hours of wire recordings documenting spoken Yoruba, Creole, and Gullah, and pages upon pages of notes written alongside them provide a deeper picture into his meticulous methodology. Also included in the archive are more personal holdings: family photographs, thank you notes, correspondence between friends, and his wife’s drawings.

A page of Lorenzo Dow Turner's passport, showing his travels to Nigeria, Dahomey (now Benin), and France.

While Turner’s research contributions are invaluable, his personal belongings housed at the Amistad give us a uniquely intimate perspective into the mind behind these contributions. Woven into the recordings and papers is the personality of a man who led his life with diligence, kindness, graciousness, and curiosity. As one who is new to archival research and the archiving process, this unique ability to see the holistic view of a scholar is new and special for me. It is rare for a college student to become so familiar with the face behind the research I read, and it has been a treat to get to know Dr. Turner in such a way. I look forward to doing it again soon!

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