Journey to Anthropology: An Oral History of Miles Richardson

EPISODE 13  (39:42)

 

Dr. Miles Richardson, ca. 1987, photo by Jim Zietz, LSU University Relations

This episode is a tribute to Dr. Miles Richardson (b. 1932), who recently passed away on November 14, 2011.  He was interviewed over four sessions (2000-2006), and in this episode, we would would like to share some excerpts from those oral histories, which are available in full at LSU Libraries Special Collections and will be online in the Center’s collection on LOUISiana Digital Library in the near future.

Dr. Richardson touched so many lives, both professionally and personally, that it would be impossible to sum up his life achievements in this short program.   In today’s episode, we’ll hear about what motivated him to become an anthropologist, what the study of mankind meant to him, and how he achieved this lifelong ambition.  We’ll also hear about the teachers who influenced him, life as a grad student in the 60s, his first research trip to Colombia, and how LSU has changed since he was a student here in the 1950s and 60s.

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AUDIO EXCERPT TRANSCRIPTIONS AND CITATIONS

MILES RICHARDSON is the key excerpt. *For full transcription, see below.

 

Jennifer Abraham: What was the landscape like around Palestine [Texas]?

Miles Richardson: Well it’s a piney woods area, its rolling hills with lots of pine.  In fact, if you go just a little bit west of Palestine it begins to get into that more scrub oak prairie area that characterizes a lot of Texas, a little bit west of Palestine.And when I was a kid people still raised cotton there.  It was a cash crop and people always tried to have at least an acre or so.  These are people who lived off the land.  Like I said, we really lived off my father’s income. We had chickens and these chickens would . . . That was one thing, we did sell the eggs to a grocery store down in Palestine  . . . up in Palestine.  And my mother got the egg money.  That was her income as it were.

Abraham: Whose job was it to gather eggs?

Richardson: Well, I did that when I was a little kid. The job that I had that I hated most of all was milking.  For reasons I don’t really understand, we kept the cow in a stall at night. I guess because it would be easier enough to . . . wouldn’t have to run her down the next day.  So when she laid down, she usually laid down where she pooed and she’d get all the manure on her and get it on the side and inevitably get along the side where you had to milk and so you had to smell shit and milk at the same time.  And how pure that milk was, I don’t know.  We didn’t die from it, so I guess it was okay.

But we plowed with the . . . The horse that we had that we bought when I was I guess about . . . I must have been maybe around ten or so when they bought this horse.  It was called Dolly.  She was a riding horse and a plowing horse so she was as dual-purpose horse. We’d plow with that horse and I learned how to plow earlier on.  And plowing was great.  I liked plowing a lot because, you know, really the business about smelling the freshly turned earth is very true, it smells wonderful.  And if I can get it out, I might tell you a story about the pigpen.

Richardson, Miles Edward, interview by Jennifer Abraham, audio recording, 2000, 4700.1503. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 

*Richardson: When my sister and I came home on the bus there were a lot of people out there waiting for us and told us.  My world fell apart right . . . If not then, then it soon did.  And one thing that happened when my world fell apart is I became convinced that I wasn’t saved.  When she died, the thought came to me that I don’t believe in God.  It was just overwhelming me.  How could I think such a horrible thought as that?

And that leads me to the pig story.  The preacher talked about, you know, about confession, making the personal confession to our Lord, Jesus.  What you had to do, you know, you just have to say, “Well, I’m sorry God I’ve sinned, I’ve sinned, I’ve sinned.”  So I tried that and I tried that and it wouldn’t work.  So one evening I went out the pigpen and I knelt down in the pigpen. The pigs had gone then, it was just the pen itself, and stretched out my arms and said, “God, forgive me.”  And it doesn’t work.  It didn’t happen, you know?  So eventually, you know, I actually did walk the aisle and I actually was baptized but it didn’t work.  It didn’t work, it didn’t . . . you know I couldn’t . . .  So that’s all tied in with me becoming an anthropologist.

When I was in the service, I started reading various things in the library, in the base library. One of the things that I just happened to stumble across was Thomas Paine’s . . . one of his books.  I forget now the title of it, but it’s about his attack on established religion.  When I read that I just thought, my God how can a man say something like that!  But then I thought about it more and more and more and it suddenly dawned on me, well, that’s why I can’t believe in God because I hate his guts.

During my four years in service . . . I joined the service to get out of high school.  I never did finish high school.  But in my four years I . . . you know, after all this reading, it dawned on me, well, you know, with the Korean [GI] Bill maybe I can go to college.  But then one day I was laying . . . in my bed in the barracks in Keesler Air Force Base, just laying there.  And the thought came to me, well why not become an anthropologist?  And it was such an outrageous idea, such a . . . I could barely spell the word but it’s all tied up with the fact that . . . with the pigpen.  You know, if peace had come to me with all understanding, if God himself had appeared and said, “Yes Miles.  I love you” and took me up to his bosom, I wouldn’t become an anthropologist.  But because he didn’t, that’s why I became an anthropologist.  And I became an anthropologist in part to find out about religion.  And I’m still trying to do that!

Richardson, Miles Edward, interview by Jennifer Abraham, audio recording, 2000, 4700.1503. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 

Richardson: Stephen F. Austin [State University] didn’t have anthropology so I started to try the best thing that I could, was biology and history.  I loved biology and I loved history so it was . . . it worked out well.  That other course I took in Texas was an anthropology course, Introduction to Anthropology.  I just loved it.  I just lived it and breathed it.

Abraham: Was your impression when you walked away from there, oh I want to continue this?

Richardson: Oh man, oh yeah.  Well, see I couldn’t tell people I wanted to become an anthropologist because I didn’t . . . I don’t know I just . . . I don’t know why, I just felt like I couldn’t tell it because it was something too close to me, too precious to me.  If I said it, it would go away. You ever have that feeling, if you think about something and you tell somebody you won’t do what you said you would do?

Abraham: Yeah. So it was precious to you?

Richardson: Yeah.  Yeah, so . . . That course though really reinforced my notion of what I wanted to do.  When I went back at Stephen F. Austin, I said, “I’m still going to do anthropology. Somehow or another I’m going to go to graduate school and become an anthropologist.”

Richardson, Miles Edward, interview by Jennifer Abraham, audio recording, 2000, 4700.1503. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 

Richardson: I have to tell you [laughs] about my experience coming over here. I was still in Palestine at the time . . . either Palestine or Nacogdoches I forget, actually, now. But I had a Nash Rambler back when those were still being made. It was a small, mini station wagon.  It’s about the size of this table, not much bigger than that.  So coming over to Louisiana and over in the western part of the state, I was . . . It was in the evening, it wasn’t . . . you know, about like eight or nine o’clock and I was near Kinder, Louisiana.  I topped a hill and before my lights could show down at the bottom of the hill, I ran into a cow. Fortunately, I had seen the cow, you know, enough to slam on the brakes, but even so, it banged up my car pretty badly.  I knocked the cow down but she got up and walked on off.  Shortly after that, a couple of policemen came by, highway patrolmen, and they wanted to give me assistance.  They asked me what happened and I explained to them what had happened and they said “Well, it’s lucky you didn’t kill the cow because then you’d have to pay for it.”

Abraham: Oh no!

Richardson: Also, then right at that  . . . It was lovebug season, which they’re notorious in Louisiana, but . . . They were really thick then, really thick, really . . . making love all over the place. And with that dent in my radiator and with the lovebugs, my car was constantly overheating.  So it took me forever to get here because I had to stop and add water to it and so forth.  So that’s my trip to Louisiana.

Richardson, Miles Edward, interview by Jennifer Abraham, audio recording, 2003, 4700.1503. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 

Abraham: You know, one of the questions that just pops into my head is, how in the world did you live off of a hundred dollars a month?

Richardson: [laughs] I starved!  Well, the Union hadn’t been built yet and . . . but I forget now where we ate. I just eventually became a vegetarian because vegetables were so much cheaper than meat. I’d been a meat-eater all my life, being from Texas I guess. I just, you know, cut down on everything I could possibly cut down on.  But I was . . . because I had this office over in the temporary building, I really felt caught up in anthropology and in my studies and in cultural geography. And I spent the whole day and much of the night over there. That was wonderful.

Richardson, Miles Edward, interview by Jennifer Abraham, audio recording, 2003, 4700.1503. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 

Richardson: And we got along well, too.  Doctor Kniffen . . . We hit it off so well.  He was . . . That’s one reason why I was able to come back here, you know, because I had such a good relationship with him and with Doctor Haag and the other geographers.  I was determined to become an anthropologist.  I got fascinated with cultural geography but . . . and I just enjoyed the geography courses that I had here. Doctor Haag was the only anthropologist so I took a lot of courses from him.  And he was just . . . he was wonderful, he was good, he was . . . such a broadly-trained person and he knew so much about everything.  I was really impressed with his . . . the breadth of his knowledge, at the same time carrying this enormous teaching load.

Abraham: What influence did their ways of teaching and doing research and that sort of thing . . . What kind of influence did that have on you?

Richardson: In cultural geography, the introduction to me of the cultural landscape is still with me. I think about it a little bit differently now but . . .

Like I say, it just opened my eyes to a . . . to that idea.  And that view of human . . . of the human landscape, again, it has a kind of natural history slant to it.  That is, it looks at humans operating on nature so it pulls you away from trying to get inside human motivations and look at what they do and what the record of human . . . of the human imprint on the landscape.  Of course, it ties in with archaeology very closely and it also develops into a wonderful story of us and the planet Earth, which I’m trying to work on now.

Richardson, Miles Edward, interview by Jennifer Abraham, audio recording, 2003, 4700.1503. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 

Abraham: Now, in our previous interview . . .

Richardson: Yes.

Abraham: . . . you spoke about how one of the things that led . . . that interested you about anthropology was the examination of various religious  . . .

Richardson: Yes.

Abraham: . . . beliefs and religious systems.  Did you get to explore any of that while you were here?

Richardson: I did on my . . . more or less on my own.  It wasn’t one of the specialties of anybody here.  Haag and [Leslie] White were materialists, which I am too, in the sense that, whatever answers we can offer about humans, they’re found here on this planet and not in heaven.  Not to say that heaven is not important, but it’s not a cause in some fundamental sense.  That helped me develop my notion about religion.  But it wasn’t until I went to Tulane that I really . . . my eyes were opened about the anthropology of religion and what it had to say about it.

Doctor Edmonson, Munro Edmonson was there and he was a . . . really a brilliant person.  And also he was so well-read on the anthropology of religion as it was then approached that . . .  I remember in one of my classes, it was a religion class that, actually, he taught.  I’d go in the class and . . . had to listen to him just . . . impeccable prose flowing out of him and the profound nature of his thinking about it and all the things that I read, you know, I could see what they meant now.  They were just the bits and pieces that I had and they began to come together. And I was just spellbound in his class.  Sometimes in class I’d get so exhausted hearing him and being so excited about what he said, I’d just have to shut down and wait ‘til the class ended.  It was really a wonderful experience, just amazing.

Richardson, Miles Edward, interview by Jennifer Abraham, audio recording, 2003, 4700.1503. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 

Richardson: Exciting time to be at Tulane, to be . . . because it was just opening up its PhD program.  Everybody was really enthusiastic and the graduate students . . . So, it was just wonderful . . . wonderful time.  My best friends at the time in graduate school were sociologists.  [?] graduate students were sociologists.  On guy particularly, Bill Harrell, he and I . . . he was from Texas and I was from Texas so maybe that was some commonality we had or . . . and we were both late bloomers so that was another thing. But I learned a lot of sociology from him. And my wife was also in sociology.  That’s where I met my wife, at Tulane.

Abraham: What’s her name?

Richardson: Valerie. She was . . . She’s from England and she came to Tulane about like I did.  That is, Tulane gave her a nice offer.  She wound up at Tulane and then we were . . . we got married, I think, the following year.  We met in a class . . . a seminar on human nature that was an anthropology sociology combination.  So we started going out and one thing led to another.  [laughs] And we’re still married.

Abraham: Well congratulations.

Richardson: I think that’s one reason why we were attracted to one another; we were so different from each other.  You know, I was just so different from any boy she had met and she was different from any girl I had met so maybe that’s the reason.  But she was in sociology so because of that and her friends and . . . Folk music was just beginning underway so we’d gather together at Bill’s house and listen to Joan Baez, who was just beginning at the time, just getting popular.  And Bill was very much into it so he kind of led the way.  And, you know, we’d talk sociology and listen to folk music.

Richardson, Miles Edward, interview by Jennifer Abraham, audio recording, 2003, 4700.1503. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 

Richardson: Valerie and I lived in a half of a house that I rented before we got married.  I paid fifty dollars a month for it and it was about what you’d expect for fifty dollars a month, too.  It’s full of cockroaches and it was just an awful place.  But, you know, we stayed there.

Abraham: Was it close to Tulane?

Richardson: Yeah, it was on Danneel Street.  We had to take the bus to get there but it was . . . Later on when my assistantship got a little bit better and then Valerie started working full time at another place. We got enough money together so we moved out of that place and into a shotgun, half of a shotgun near Tulane. And that was really nice, we enjoyed that. We lived next door to a cemetery.  By then we had got a cat called Rosie. Rosie used to go over to the cemetery and pounce on the . . . jump from tomb to tomb.

Richardson, Miles Edward, interview by Jennifer Abraham, audio recording, 2003, 4700.1503. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 

Richardson: Then, after I finished that . . . Well, then they said, “Well, you can do whatever you want to do for your dissertation.” You know, it was kind of wide open, it was just amazing.  And so I decided on a community north of Cali, a place called San Pedro which is where I lived and did my dissertation fieldwork. I never did get a real grip on doing fieldwork in Colombia, you know, I stuck it out.  It was kind of nitty-gritty.    I was teaching myself as I went along because Tulane, at the time, did not have any methods course. And . . . Intentionally, in part, because to learn how to do anthropology, you just got to do it, you know.  I used my background in doing the religion and politics in New Orleans, I drew on that.    I had a guy who worked with me who was kind of an assistant you’d call more than anything else.  A young guy whose name was Seneca[?]. And he and I would go out and visit various people and interview them.  So we’d go from one small farmer . . . peasant farmer to another.  You know, I’d have something that I wanted to ask. Seneca didn’t speak any English and my Spanish was improving.  But we soon hit upon this way of communicating which we had our own special Spanish between the two of us.  If there’s something I didn’t understand one of the farmers saying, well, Seneca would translate it for me; translate it from that Spanish into our Spanish [laughs] so . . . And just living in the community . . . Of course, I went to church all the time and I tried to participate in any kind of festivals or any activities they had.  So a lot of my material came from just being there in the community and observing and watching and keeping track on things. Eventually, I came up with a community study in which I looked at all the various aspects from the economic to the religious parts in the community. I could have stayed there longer.  We were there a year and a half and with Doctor LaViolette’s support I could have just stayed there longer.  But by . . . After a year and a half, Valerie and I were really ready to come home.  So we were so delighted when our plane landed in New Orleans.

Richardson, Miles Edward, interview by Jennifer Abraham, audio recording, 2003, 4700.1503. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 

Richardson: Well, one of the things that amazes me today is to think about LSU as it was then. There’s two aspects of it that just sound so bizarre today.  One aspect was that it was still . . . ROTC was still mandatory so all incoming freshmen had their hair peeled off ‘til they were bald and had to wear these beanies, or freshman caps.  And so you’d see a lot of young guys with their heads completely peeled, wearing this little silly beanie, and how that differs now.   And then the other thing about it was that LSU was still . . . was very much segregated. There had been a few graduate students admitted into graduate schools in other places in the South.  But if I remember rightly, there had not yet been one black student admitted into LSU at the graduate or undergraduate level. So it was segregated.  It was segregated to the extent that it . . . that life was segregated everywhere. The Boy Scouts were segregated.  I remember looking out my window, over down there in the middle of the hallway, and seeing, you know, here’s this African American Boy Scout troop.  And I was just, you know, astonished that the racial barriers were so present then.  And looking back on it now it just seems like a . . . How could we ever have lived like that?  You know, with blacks with one set of fountains and whites with another. How could that have been possible, such brutalizing treatment?

Richardson, Miles Edward, interview by Jennifer Abraham, audio recording, 2003 and 2006, 4700.1503. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 

Miles Richardson on his tricycle, courtesy of Elizabeth Crocker.

Richardson: But I . . .That’s just the feeling that I have about it – the excitement about looking at different life forms and seeing the commonality of them.  I think that’s just great.  That’s what appeals to me so much about evolution is that you see these recurrent themes again and again popping up in the fossil record. But I know something like adaptive radiation where there’s a basic mammalian form that radiates out and occupies different environmental niches from whales to primates.  I think there’s something really intriguing about that. I don’t think there’s any divine purpose in it but I think there’s . . . that the combination of constraint and variation, or freedom and constraint, is just marvelous.

So my project at the moment is to do an essay or an article on anthropocentrism.  In that notion of anthropocentrism, I want to try to approach it from our question of, “What is our place in nature?” I want to try to put that in the context of evolution in the sense that we’re one of these adaptive branches that radiated out from a basic mammalian pattern which makes us distinctive, but doesn’t make us any more distinctive in some sense of the word than any other . . . than bats, or any other kind of specialized mammalian form.  Although I want to have my cake and eat it; I want to say that it makes us . . . doesn’t make any difference from bats, but look what we’ve done!  We’ve gone to the moon, the bats are still here.  So, I want to try to argue the case for enlightened anthropocentrism.  That’s what you can call it.  And I’d just love to figure out how to talk about that.

Richardson, Miles Edward, interview by Jennifer Abraham, audio recording, 2000, 4700.1503. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 

Richardson: But let me say how grateful I am that you are interviewing me and I think . . . I’m really honored that you’re doing it because I can’t help but think about, you know, the people who were here like Doctor [William] Haag and Doctor [Fred] Kniffen.  And those are the people I had always associated with this kind of an activity.  So to have myself in that kind of role is really a great honor.  I appreciate it.

Richardson, Miles Edward, interview by Jennifer Abraham, audio recording, 2000, 4700.1503. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 

A tribute to Dr. Richardson, near the plaque for the live oak he endowed on LSU’s campus

 

Jennifer Abraham Cramer is the executive producer and audio engineer for “What Endures.” This episode was co-written and co- produced by Jennifer Abraham Cramer and Erin Hess.   Special thanks to Germain Bienvenu.

 

PHOTOGRAPHS

Dr. Miles Richardson, ca. 1987, photo by Jim Zietz, LSU University Relations.

Miles Richardson on his tricycle, courtesy of Elizabeth Crocker.

A tribute to Dr. Richardson after his passing, courtesy of Jennifer Abraham.

 

MUSIC

King, Freddie, interview by Tatiana Clay and Eric Julien, audio recording, 2008, 4700.1921.  Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 

This podcast is copyrighted by LSU Libraries Special Collections.

For a full transcript of the podcast, please contact Jennifer A. Cramer at jabrah1@lsu.edu.

 

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What Endures

Welcome to the blog and podcast for the Williams Center for Oral History. Our goal is to provide updates on Center projects and activities as well as to share with you on a regular basis audio excerpts from our collection.

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