Robert Gelston Armstrong (1917-1987)
Anthropologist Robert Gelston Armstrong was born in Danville, Indiana on June 29, 1917. Extraordinarily adept at languages, he was conversant in Latin, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and both Yoruba and Idoma (the official languages of Nigeria). Armstrong studied economics at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he became interested in Marxism. He joined the Communist Party shortly before graduation in 1939. Armstrong then attended the University of Chicago, translating his interest in socioeconomic theories to the study of cultural anthropology. As an active member of the campus antiwar movement, Armstrong served as Chairman of the Peace Action Committee and planning several “peace strikes.” In the fall of 1941 he began a year of field research among the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians sponsored by the University of Oklahoma. Just four months into his assignment, however, Armstrong was called up for service with the U.S. Army. A special dispensation allowed Armstrong to prolong his induction for six weeks in order to write an abbreviated thesis paper.
Armstrong was inducted into the U.S. Army in early April 1942 and commissioned into the Military Police. He then received a succession of assignments which included service as a cryptanalyst with the Signal Corps in Panama, code clerk at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, and squad leader of a line company. In early 1945 he became staff sergeant in charge of the intelligence section of a battalion of the 99th Infantry Division in Belgium, participating in battles at the Ardennes Forest, Ludendorff Bridge, and the Ruhr Pocket.
Following the end of hostilities, Armstrong was transferred to the Office of Military Government for Germany as a Russian translator. In September 1945 he joined the MFAA as a Scientific Collections Specialist in Berlin. During the course of his duties, Armstrong worked alongside Monuments Man Capt. Bernard D. Burks to salvage and reconstruct the collections of scientific museums and institutions in Germany. Many of the approximately 100 scientific collections in Germany were significantly damaged or destroyed during the war, including specimens belonging to the Botanisches Museum (today, the Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden and Botanical Museum), and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte (Museum of Prehistory and Early History). Armstrong also found scientific collections looted from locations throughout Europe, most notably the Galerie de Botanique in Paris and a large collection of insects belonging to a private collector in the Netherlands. In addition to their work to restore these specimens, scientific instruments, and research archives to the institutions from which they had been stolen, Armstrong and Burks collaborated with German museum officials to expedite the reopening of their scientific museums for international research and education.
Following his return to the United States in early 1946, Armstrong reenrolled in the University of Chicago and began his dissertation on economic and social organization in Africa. In 1947 he was appointed as assistant professor of anthropology at Atlanta University, where he became involved in the Civil Rights Movement. His efforts included persuading the dean of the Episcopal Cathedral to allow African Americans to attend services, and participating in a conference on the report of President Harry S. Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights. The following year, he secured a leave of absence to teach for one year at the University of Puerto Rico while conducting field research, first with anthropologist Julian Steward, and later on behalf of the British Colonial Social Science Research Council. Armstrong conducted further field work in Ibadan, Nigeria at the Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research of the University College (today, the University of Ibadan). He completed his doctoral dissertation, State Formation in Negro Africa in 1952.
The onset of McCarthyism in the early 1950s targeted the faculty of a number of prominent universities. In 1953, during negotiations for a teaching position at the University of Chicago, the FBI informed the university’s dean of Armstrong’s past interest in Communism: negotiations faltered. This disappointment proved to be the first of many instances in which Armstrong was passed over for a teaching position or isolated by former colleagues who feared associating with him. Armstrong did finally receive a five year appointment at Atlanta University, but only after two years of searching for a new position. The FBI continued its investigation into Armstrong’s past, culminating in a surprise interrogation at his home in August 1959.
In an effort to escape his controversial past and build a more promising professional future, Armstrong moved to Nigeria in September 1959. There, he conducted field research on the Yoruba people of Western Nigeria using a grant from the Social Science Research Council. He never returned to the United States.
Robert Armstrong died in Lagos, Nigeria in May 1987.
Photo courtesy of George W. Stocking Jr.