Partner Colin Turnbull, buried together

Queer Places:
College of Charleston, 66 George St, Charleston, SC 29424, Stati Uniti

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.

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  1. Joseph A. Towles Papers, circa 1920s - 2009, http://avery.cofc.edu/archives/Towles_Joseph_A.pdf