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Voices of the Past Reemerge with Digitization Grant

Lorenzo Dow Turner

One of our greatest joys as archivists is when we are able to open a collection up to researchers which had previously been unavailable or difficult to access. Different collections pose different challenges to access, and collections containing moving image or sounds recordings can be some of the most labor intensive to make available. The issue is further complicated when a collection contains an older or rare recording format, for which the equipment required to play it back may not be readily available. This was the case with the papers of Lorenzo Dow Turner, which were donated to Amistad in 2011. In addition to correspondence, photographs, and other paper materials, the collection also contains a treasure trove of field audio recordings that Turner made, in the form of wire recordings and phonograph records. It is with great excitement that we now make these digitized recordings available to researchers for the very first time.

Lorenzo Dow Turner’s recording equipment

Lorenzo Dow Turner was a groundbreaking scholar and linguist who lived from 1890 to 1972. He was the very first African American member of the Linguistic Society of America, and one of the first forty African Americans to hold a PhD. As a professor at Fisk University in the 1940s, Turner help to establish the first African American Studies program in the country. However, he is perhaps best remembered as the “Father of Gullah Studies,” for his work with the language spoken by the coastal residents of the Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia. While teaching a summer class at South Carolina State College (now University) in Orangeburg in 1929, Turner overheard some of his students speaking Gullah to each other. At the time, scholars had viewed the language as a substandard form of English. Turner, however, sensed that it may instead have been heavily influenced by the languages of West Africa. He devoted the rest of his career to proving his theory.

The exterior surfaces of Turner’s equipment still bear evidence of his travels.

The recordings in Amistad’s collection were made between 1932 and 1952, during the time that Turner was teaching at Fisk, and then at Roosevelt College (now University) where he served as chair of the African Studies program. They cover a variety of geographical locations, from Nigeria and Cameroon to Brazil, as well as locations within the United States, where Turner recorded native speakers of Yoruba, Igbo, Portuguese, English, Creole, and Gullah among other languages and various dialects. Turner used these recordings as evidence to trace the linguistic and cultural connections between West Africa and the Americas, and in 1949 he published his seminal work Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, which laid the groundwork for continued study in the fields of Gullah, Creole, and African American Studies.

Amistad has worked hard over the past year to bring these recordings into the digital realm, and we look forward to the continued scholarship and cultural impact that increased access to Turner’s work may bring. This project was supported by a Recordings at Risk grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). This grant program is made possible by funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and was designed to support exactly this type of project by covering the costs of preservation reformatting for fragile and obsolete formats. For further information about the Lorenzo Dow Turner papers, please contact Amistad’s Research Services.

Council on Library and Information Resources

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