Biography / Administrative History
Scope and Content of Collection
Title: Royal E. Towns papers
Collection number: MS 26
Royal E. Towns
17.8 linear feet
(30 boxes + 1 oversized box)
African American Museum and Library at Oakland (Oakland, Calif.)
Abstract: Royal E. Towns (1899-1990) was born February 10, 1899 in Oakland, California to William and Elizabeth Scott Towns. The Royal
E. Towns Papers consists of photographs, correspondence, publications, financial and legal records, and ephemera that document
Towns’ work as a City of Oakland firefighter, photographer, director of public relations for Free and Accepted Masons of California,
and as an amateur historian.
Languages represented in the collection:
No access restrictions. Collection is open to the public.
Materials are for use in-library only, non-circulating.
Permission to publish from the Royal E. Towns Papers must be obtained from the African American Museum and Library at Oakland.
Royal E. Towns papers, MS 26, African American Museum and Library at Oakland, Oakland Public Library. Oakland, California.
Processed by Sean Heyliger, 04/18/2013.
Biography / Administrative History
Royal E. Towns (1899-1990) was born February 10, 1899 in Oakland, California to William and Elizabeth Scott Towns. Towns was
raised in West Oakland and attended West Oakland Free Kindergarten and married Lucille Dennis in 1920. He worked for a short
time as dining car waiter before joining the Oakland Fire Department as a hoseman at Engine No. 22 in 1927. In 1941, Towns
became the first African American to be appointed as the fire department’s chief operator, and eventually was promoted to
lieutenant, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1962.
Towns advocated for the hiring and promotion of African Americans within the fire and police departments. He held classes
at the North Oakland Y.M.C.A. in the 1940s to help young African Americans study for the civil service exam to become firemen,
and he also took a leading role in the integration of the Oakland Fire Department in 1954. Towns also compiled employment
statistics on African Americans firefighters throughout the country that were later used by litigators attempting to integrate
many of the country’s fire departments. He also served as the Western representative on a national firemen’s association task
force on racial integration and served as the historian for the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters.
Towns was also an active mason as a member of the Adonis Lodge No. 25 and Queen Esther Chapter No. 4, Order of the Eastern
Star, Prince Hall Right of Adoption. Towns served as a Senior Master of the Adonis Lodge and was the editor and director of
public relations for the Prince Hall Masonic Digest in the 1950s and 1960s. Towns later work as an amateur historian after
his retirement from the fire department started while he was performing historical research in mason records when he was an
editor on the Prince Hall Masonic Digest. Towns interest in the history of African Americans in California spurred him to
give numerous lectures on African American history to students, and he also served on the Allensworth Advisory Committee to
establish Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, and he served as treasurer of the Oakland Negro Historical Society.
Scope and Content of Collection
The Royal E. Towns Papers consists of photographs, correspondence, publications, financial and legal records, and ephemera
that document Towns’ work as a City of Oakland firefighter, photographer, director of public relations for Free and Accepted
Masons of California, and as an amateur historian. The papers are arranged into six series: masonic activities, firefighters,
assorted photographs, biographical, Allensworth Advisory Committee, and assorted printed material. Over 3,200 photographs
comprise the bulk of the papers and include African American portraits, group photographs, 19th century tintypes, carte de
visites, cabinet cards, and photographs taken by Towns at various family, masonic, and fire department social events.
The masonic series includes over 700 photographs of masonic events, portraits of masonic leadership, and group photographs
of various African American masonic lodges throughout California. The series also includes newsletters, meeting minutes, and
constitution and by-laws of masonic lodges mostly in California. The firefighters series includes over 500 photographs of
African American firefighters mostly in Oakland, California, though there are also a significant number of group photographs
of African American fire departments taken by Towns in other cities. The series also includes assorted City of Oakland and
fire department publications, and a few newspaper clippings and employee records related to Towns’ work as a City of Oakland
The assorted photographs series includes the bulk of the photographs and is divided into five subseries: architecture, group
photographs, portraits, special events, scrapbooks, and assorted. The architecture series includes mostly photographs of various
buildings in the Oakland area; group photographs include West Oakland class photographs in the early 20th century and group
photographs taken at unidentified social events; portraits include Towns’ work as a portrait photographer and approximately
a hundred 19th century portrait photographs collected by Towns, mostly of African Americans in Oakland and San Francisco;
special events include photographs where Towns worked as a photographer; and scrapbooks include a small number of photographs
that were glued into scrapbooks that were disassembled at a later date.
The biographical series includes a small amount of Towns’ personal correspondence, financial and legal records, funeral programs
of Royal and Lucille Towns, newspaper clippings, and Towns family photographs. The papers also include brochures and photographs
related to Towns’ serving on the Allensworth Advisory Committee and an assortment of printed material.
I. Masonic Activities
III. Assorted photographs
V. Allensworth Advisory Committee
VI. Assorted printed material
The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in
the library's online public access catalog.
Oakland (Calif.). Fire Dept.--History.
Towns, Royal E.
Freemasons. Prince Hall Grand Lodge (Calif.).
African American freemasonry--California--History.
African American freemasons--California--History.
African American fraternal organizations--History.
African American fire fighters.
African American fire fighters--California--Oakland.
African American photographers.
Portrait photography--West (U.S.)--History--19th century.
Oakland (Calif.). West Oakland.
Oakland (Calif.)--Social life and customs.
Four books were removed from the collection and added to the African American Museum and Library at Oakland's library collection.