Guide to the George Arthur Roberts Family Papers, 1884-[1970s] and undated (bulk 1907-[1950s])

Collection Overview

The George Arthur Roberts Family Papers span the years from 1884 until the late 1970s (primarily the first half of the twentieth century), and consist largely of visual documents, including photographs, photograph albums, slides, and negatives; a collection of postcards and a small amount of printed material are also included. While the majority of the images are unidentified, they provide a rich and extensive pictorial record of the activities of pioneer Methodist missionaries, the early missions they established, and the personal experience and growth of one missionary family in this setting. George Arthur Roberts' memoir Let Me Tell You a Story..., copies of which are included in the collection, describes life as lived by these early missionaries and contrasts them with conditions in 1964, the time of its writing. In addition to documenting aspects of missionary history, the Roberts papers also depict the landscapes and peoples of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and surrounding areas, particularly the Umtali region (now Mutare), at a time when they remained relatively untouched by western influence. The Papers are organized into the following series based on format: the Photographic Prints Series, Postcards Series, Printed Material Series, Negatives Series, Slides Series, and the Photograph Albums Series.

The Photographic Prints Series and the Slides Series comprise the bulk of the collection. Both series have been organized into the following subseries: People, Mission Activities, and African Scenes/Landscapes. The People Subseries contains numerous portraits of African men, women, and children; missionaries; and primarily the Roberts family themselves, including photos likely taken on various trips both within Africa and to other locations including the United States, Europe, and Asia. Of particular note in the People Subseries are a group of prints of the visit of the British Queen Mother and Elizabeth II to Melsetter Junction in 1948. The Mission Activities Subseries contains images of such school- and church-related events as conferences and gatherings, construction of mission buildings, agriculture, and animal husbandry. Some of the original prints used to illustrate Roberts' Let Me Tell You A Story... can also be found. There is little overlap, in terms of identical images, between the prints and slides series.

The Negatives Series contains 27 rolls of 35mm film, likely dating from the 1950s, from which contact sheets have been made. While the contact sheets are open for research, the master negative rolls themselves are closed to patron use. The series also includes some cut 35mm negative frames and a few medium-format negatives which are open for research. The subject matter of the negatives is similar to that of the Photographic Prints Series and the Slides Series. The majority of the images in this series do not appear to duplicate images found in previous series.

The Photograph Album Series consists of three bound photograph albums, containing a rich variety of images. The collection also includes an extensive Postcards Series, 1918-1965 and undated, from locations largely within Africa but also in Europe, Asia, and North America. The Printed Materials Series contains two copies of Let Me Tell You A Story..., George Arthur Roberts' memoir, and other mission-related material.

Descriptive Summary

Collection Number
George Arthur Roberts Family papers
1884-1970s and undated, bulk 1907-1950s
Roberts, George Arthur, 1882-
4.6 Linear Feet, 2240 Items
David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Restrictions on Access & Use

A majority of collections are stored off site and must be requested at least 48 business hours in advance for retrieval. Contact Rubenstein Library staff before visiting. Read More »

warning Access Restrictions

Collection is open for research, with the exception of original negatives, where contact sheets have been made for patron access.

Researchers must register and agree to copyright and privacy laws before using this collection.

All or portions of this collection may be housed off-site in Duke University's Library Service Center. The library may require up to 48 hours to retrieve these materials for research use.

Please contact Research Services staff before visiting the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library to use this collection.

warning Use Restrictions

The copyright interests in this collection have not been transferred to Duke University. For more information, consult the copyright section of the Regulations and Procedures of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Contents of the Collection

1. Photographic Prints Series, 1884-[1970s] and undated

1.4 lin. ft.; 1610 items

Because the majority of prints were no longer in their original order, this series was organized into the following subseries based on content: People, Mission Activities, and African Scenes/Landscapes. While most of the slides and prints are uncaptioned, a number have identifying information hand-written on them, including some very detailed accounts. The captions appear to have been written primarily by Bertha Roberts and Lulu Tubbs Roberts.

People Subseries

This subseries is the largest, and includes portraits of African men, women, and children; missionaries; and primarily the Roberts family themselves. The Roberts family portraits cover not only their time in Rhodesia, but also include later locations and generations. Tudor and Mary Elma Roberts both married and had children; Tudor and his wife, Emelie Roberts, stayed in Africa as missionaries, while Mary Roberts married Richard Clark and settled initially in Hawaii. The earliest photographs are albumen prints of Bertha Fowles as an infant and of her parents.

People also includes photos likely taken by the Robertses on various trips to the United States, including a visit to Mary Elma in Hawaii, Asia, Europe, Australia, and other locations. Also of note are a group of prints of the visit of the British Queen Mother and Elizabeth II to Melsetter Junction in 1948, where they were introduced to George Roberts.

Box 1
Box 1
Roberts Family (1-3 of 5 folders)
Box 1
Roberts Family (4-5 of 5 folders)
Box 2
Roberts Family--Travel
Box 2
Visit of Queen Mother in 1948
Box 2

Mission Activities Subseries

This subseries contains images of school- and church-related events, conferences and gatherings, construction of mission buildings, agriculture, and animal husbandry, among other practices. Included in this subseries are some groupings of pictures as they were originally arranged, pertaining to Bible Schools, various mission locations including Nyadiri, Old Umtali, and Sunnyside, and a folder containing some of the original prints used to illustrate Roberts' Let Me Tell You A Story..., the contents of which overlap with other established subseries.

Bible Schools
Box 2
Nyadiri Mission
Box 2
Old Umtali
Box 2
Congo trip
Box 2
School and church related (1 of 2 folders)
Box 2
School and church related (2 of 2 folders)
Box 3
Agriculture and construction
Box 3
Book Pictures: Let Me Tell You A Story
Box 3

African Scenes/Landscapes Subseries

Includes various images of African village scenes, wildlife, and tourist areas (1 folder).

Oversize prints

Includes a Roberts family portrait, landscape shots, and a large print (in 2 pieces) of African women attending a mission conference.

2. Postcards Series, 1918-1965 and undated

.3 lin. ft.; 145 items

The majority of the postcards depict African locations, including Umtali, Salisbury, and other areas in Rhodesia; Cape Town, East London, and Gordon's Bay in South Africa; Gordon's Bay; and Victoria Falls. A few also feature Africans, wildlife, and mission scenes. Other postcards are from locations outside Africa, presumably reflecting the Roberts family's travels. Locales include Hong Kong, Europe (England, France, Portugal, and Italy), the Middle East, the United States, Canada, Trinidad, and St. Lucia. Significantly, a small number of postcards in the series were written and mailed, primarily to/from Lulu Tubbs Roberts and Bertha Fowles Roberts. They pertain mostly to travel and family news, and provide examples of first-person written observation otherwise scarce in the collection (outside of G. A. Roberts' published book).

Africa (2 folders)
Box 3
Outside Africa (1 folder)
Box 3

3. Printed Material Series, 1954-[1960s] and undated

10 items

The series comprises two inscribed copies of Let Me Tell You A Story... by G. A. Roberts, two pamphlets by Lulu Tubbs Roberts regarding the Sunnyside retreat and bible study at the Rhodesian missions, and miscellaneous clippings.

Let Me Tell You A Story...
Box 3
From a Retreat to Sunnyside Secondary School
Box 3
Through Christ We Conquer
Box 3
Miscellaneous clippings
Box 3

4. Negatives Series, [1950s]

0.7 lin. ft.; 200 items

This series contains 27 intact rolls of 35mm film, some 35mm film cut into individual frames, as well as a small number of medium-format negatives. Image content includes mission-sponsored gatherings, construction, and agriculture; portraits of African families and other groups, of the Roberts family, and of other missionaries; and various scenes of African life and landscapes. Contact sheets are available for the 35mm rolls of master negatives (closed to patron use), but not for the cut frames or the medium-format negatives (open for research). Arranged by format.

Contact sheets

Prints made from original 27 rolls of black-and-white 35mm film (in Box 4, closed to patron use); subject matter includes mission-sponsored conferences and activities, agriculture, events (including weddings), portraits of Africans, portraits of missionaries (including members of the Roberts family), and African scenes/landscapes.

Box 3
Medium-format negatives

Consists of 19 negatives depicting agricultural scenes and livestock, including images of African men carrying a pig tied to a pole.

Box 3
Cut 35mm negative frames
Box 3
35mm film rolls

Includes the 27 rolls from which contact sheets were made.

Conditions Governing Access note

Note: these master negatives are CLOSED to patrons. Images can be viewed on contact sheets found in Box 3.

Box 4

5. Slides Series, [1950s?]

1 lin. ft.; 270 items

This series contains images largely of the same content as the Photographic Prints Series described above, and has been arranged into the same subseries. Portraits, travel photos, documentation of mission-related activities, and various African scenes are included.

Box 5
Box 5
Box 5
Roberts Family
Box 5
Roberts Family--Travel

Contains images from family visits to locations including Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Mauritius, and Hawaii, as well as within Africa (Congo, Victoria Falls).

Box 5
Women's Annual Meetings
Box 5
Bible Schools
Box 5
Box 5
Box 5
School and church related
Box 5
Agriculture and construction
Box 5

African Scenes/Landscapes Subseries

part of 1 small slide box

6. Photograph Albums Series, 1907-[1930s]

3 volumes

The albums contain images from all of the categories included in the above series: portraits, mission activities, and African scenes.

Old Umtali
Box 6
Scenes from Africa
Box 6
Box 6

Historical Note


Date Event(s)
1882 George Arthur Roberts born in Marathon, Iowa
1906 George Roberts received BSA from Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa
1907 George Roberts became a Methodist Episcopal missionary, based at the United Methodist Church of Marathon, Iowa; sent to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Africa, and began work at Old Umtali (now Mutare)
1912 Roberts married fellow missionary Bertha Fowles
1915 Twin sons, Tudor and Thomas Roberts, born
1918 Moved to Mutambara mission, Umtali
ca. 1920 Daughter, Mary Elma, born
1948 Moved to Nyadiri mission, Umtali
1950 Retired from missionary work to a farm near the Mutambara mission
1957 Bertha Fowles Roberts died; George Roberts remarried a retired local missionary, Lulu Tubbs
1964 George Roberts wrote Let Me Tell You a Story...
Late 1960s George and Lulu Tubbs Roberts returned to America and lived at the Penney Farms Retirement Community in Clay County, Florida
1973, July 29 George Roberts died in Marathon, Iowa

At Old Umtali, George Arthur Roberts took charge of agricultural training for the recently-established mission. There he taught various subjects at mission schools and conducted projects and experiments, including instituting animal husbandry and introducing a variety of food crops, as well as serving as blacksmith and resident tooth-puller.

The birth of twin boys to Roberts and his first wife, Bertha Fowles Roberts, bore significance due to the apparent local tribal custom calling for twins to be killed at birth, as they were viewed as portents of evil that would cause the deaths of their parents. The Robertses provided an example in opposition to this custom, resulting in increased acceptance of twins in the region. Bertha Fowles Roberts (1883-1957), a native of Oregon, had responsibility for mission bookkeeping and other office duties, as well as teaching and organizing women's conferences.

Subject Headings

Preferred Citation

[Identification of item], George Arthur Roberts Family Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.


The George Arthur Roberts Family Papers were received by the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library as a gift in 1998.

Processing Information

Processed by Elizabeth Arnold

Completed February 20, 2004

Encoded by Elizabeth Arnold