Avery Celebrates 150th Anniversary

The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture

The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture

The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, a research affiliation of the College of Charleston, celebrated its 150th anniversary on Saturday, October 31st.

“To understand the Avery Research Center, it is important to consider its rich history. Founded in 1865 as the Avery Normal Institute, this community hub provided education and advocacy for the growing Charleston African American community and trained blacks for professional careers and leadership roles. Although the Institute closed its doors in 1954, it graduates preserved the legacy of their alma mater by establishing the Avery Institute of Afro-American History and Culture.

The modern rebirth of Avery began in 1985 with the establishment of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston. The newly christened center came to fruition through a memorandum of understanding between the former Avery Institute and
the College, with many of the charter members graduates of the original Avery Normal Institute.

For the last twenty-five years, the Avery Research Center has collected art and archival materials that document the history, traditions, and legacies of African Americans and their influence on American society and culture, as well as their place within the American narrative (source – http://avery.cofc.edu/about/history-of-avery/).”

To commemorate Avery’s anniversary, Ann Caldwell delivered a musical performance followed by remarks from: Dr. Patricia Lessane, Executive Director of the Avery Research Center; Dr. Bernard Powers, Professor in the Department of History at the College of Charleston; the Honorable Lucille Whipper, Avery Institute Alumna, former South Carolina State Representative, and former President of the Avery Institute Board.

LessanelucillewhipperPowersFor more information on the Avery Institute, please visit the following website:  http://avery.cofc.edu/

Denmark Vesey Monument

Image courtesy of the New York Times.

Denmark Vesey Monument in Hampton Park. Image courtesy of the New York Times.


Today the Denmark Vesey Monument in Hampton Park is a widely accepted and appreciated part of Charleston’s memorial landscape.  The statue and its surrounding plantings form a peaceful corner of the park, a spot which draws locals and tourists alike as both an agreeable place to visit and a symbolic touchstone in the history of racial dynamics in Charleston.  The importance of Vesey as a historic figure only seems to be increasing as his story and legacy become more widely known.  His statue stands as a well-loved and significant counterpoint to other memorial art in Charleston and is quickly becoming a piece that storytellers lean on when explaining Charleston’s unique history.  The monument’s value has proved to be all the more immediate in light of recent events which prove heart-rendingly that the racial wounds of our shared history continue to affect the present in ways both tragic and hopeful.

However, the road to this monument’s erection was anything but easy.  The Denmark Vesey and the Spirit of Freedom Monument Committee began work to install the statue in Charleston way back in 1996.  Work began slowly, for years remaining little more than an idea—the desire to memorialize Vesey and to honor the spirit of freedom which he embodied—coupled with a streak of stubbornness.  The Committee knew that their choice of Vesey might mean that theirs would be an uphill battle, but they decided early on not to compromise on the monument’s subject.

Their journey let to the formation of a non-profit, many City Council committee meetings (some more collegial than others), and a variety of setbacks as funds slowly trickled in.  The decision to use sculptor Ed Dwight as the artist proved fortuitous—Mr. Dwight took the success of the project personally and contributed financially as well as artistically to its completion.  When the owners of Marion Square, the originally intended location for the statue, declined to have it placed there, the Committee saw it as a challenge to find a better location.  Together with Mayor Joe Riley, they selected Hampton Park, which was similarly significant in terms of its proximity to the Citadel, but which provides a more contemplative setting.

The prospect of a Denmark Vesey statue in a public park in Charleston sparked strong opinions, many of which were not positive.  It seemed that every time the proposal made the news, such as when the Committee went before City Council, a new rash of indignation and outright anger made its way into the opinion columns of the Post and Courier.  However, a steady groundswell of support bolstered the project along, and when it finally was unveiled in 2014 it was before a large and appreciative audience.  The proof was in the pudding: while Vesey remains a controversial figure, the enmity surrounding the construction of the monument subsided, and the statue became a place to teach, learn, or just sit and reflect.

The 13th Amendment Passes in the U.S. House!

150 years ago this weekend, slavery in the United States was dealt a deadly blow. On January 31st, 1865, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed in the House of Representatives (it had passed in the Senate in April of the previous year) by a vote of 119 to 56. The amendment, which formally abolished slavery in the United States, could then be put before the states for ratification. While the Emancipation Proclamation had only freed the slaves in the Confederacy, the 13th Amendment made the abolition of slavery a national policy. The amendment reads simply:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

With just these few words, upon its ratification in December 1865 the amendment promulgated the death of slavery in the United States. The February 1st edition of The New York Tribune described the scene in Congress upon the amendment’s passage, saying “the tumult of joy that broke out was vast, thundering, and uncontrollable.  Representatives and Auditors on the floor, soldiers and spectators in the gallery, Senators and Supreme Court Judges, women and pages, gave way to the excitement of the most august and important event in American Legislation and American History since the Declaration of Independence. God Bless the XXXVIIIth Congress!”

Yet it was clear to some that more would be needed to secure true freedom for the former slaves. Arguing against the disbandment of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Frederick Douglass stated that “even if every State in the Union had ratified that Amendment, while the black man is confronted in the legislation of the South by the word ‘white,’ our work as abolitionists, as I conceive it, is not done.” Douglass had the foresight to realize that despite the major victory that was the 13th Amendment’s passage, there was still much work to be done before blacks in the newly-reunited States would be truly free.

The Penn Center Civil Rights Symposium

The Penn Center hosted an inaugural Civil Rights Symposium in November to mark its 152th anniversary on St. Helena Island, just outside Beaufort, South Carolina. This symposium attracted veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, scholars, and community partners to the Penn Center’s storied campus of wooden structures and Spanish Moss-laden live oaks. Civil Rights activists such as Millicent Brown, Connie Curry, Jim Campbell, Myrtle Glascoe, Chuck McDew, Bob Moses, Cleveland Sellers, Hank Thomas, and many others gathered to celebrate and discuss the Penn Center’s history with Civil Rights in South Carolina. The symposium also addressed the continuous need to ensure that all Americans have access to quality education and equal citizenship.

A central question of the two-day event was how to make the history of the Civil Rights Movement struggle relevant to young people today. As an example, one panel discussed the upcoming collaborative digital exhibition, “Somebody Had to Do It:” A History of Desegregation in South Carolina. Dr. Millicent Brown and Dr. Jon Hale are partnering with the Avery Research Center and the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative (LDHI) to create an online exhibition that incorporates the stories of the primary actors of the movement to desegregate schools. This digital exhibition seeks to showcase experiences of the “first children” to desegregate schools through oral history videos as well as interactive maps and timelines to tell the history of desegregation in the students’ own words.

Drawing from personal experience, Dr. Brown spoke eloquently about the hopes as well as the unintended consequences that came with school desegregation. Brown noted those directly involved in desegregation “thought it would be important to get kids together, to expose them to the same information, and close the gap of achievement.” She as well as others had faith that transforming education would transform mindsets, communities, and ultimately the country. Yet, as a result of desegregation, many African-American schools shut down and many African-American teachers lost their positions in the community. Brown wants to honor those first children to desegregate schools while also placing their sacrifices into the proper, and complex historical context. Working with LDHI, Brown said that she and other first children are “so grateful for where the technology has taken us and for the ability to share with everyone our story, especially the young people.” Ciera Gordon, a graduate student at the College of Charleston helping to create the online exhibition, said, “watching [the oral history] videos, you can see how therapeutic the interview sessions were for people still dealing with their pent up stories.” Brown concluded, “The beauty of it is that it will be shared worldwide.” Look for the upcoming LDHI exhibition, “Somebody Had to Do It:” A History of Desegregation in South Carolina, in 2015.

Collecting archival documentation about the first students to desegregate schools is ongoing and you can submit information to Aaron Spelbring, spelbringap@cofc.edu, Manager of Archival Services at the Avery Research Center.

Post by Harry Egner, College of Charleston
Graduate Assistant with the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative

Introductory Remarks from March 21st Ceremony at Brittlebank Ceremony to Honor the Middle Passage and struggles of African descendants

For those who were not able to able to attend, please see the following introductory comments presented by Drs. Simon Lewis and Anthonia Kalu at the opening of the Commemorative Ceremony held at Brittlebank Park in Charleston, SC on March 20, 2013, to honor the victims of the Middle Passage and the struggles of African descendants throughout the world.

Introduction at Brittlebank Ceremony,

ALA Charleston –March 21, 2013

Thank you, Helen and Ann for those moving introductions to today’s ceremony honoring the dead of the Middle Passage and the under-acknowledged contributions of generations of Africans and African-descended peoples in the Americas. On behalf of the ALA, the Office of Multicultural Student Programs and Services at the College of Charleston, and the Jubilee Project, thank you all for joining us on this historic occasion, and,  “Welcome all of you!” on this beautiful and peaceful evening in this beautiful place. This visit to Charleston’s Brittlebank Park resonates with a similar visit the ALA made when our annual conference took place in Dakar, Senegal in March 1989. On that occasion we made a pilgrimage to Goree, the most westerly point of the continent infamous for being the site of the “Door of No Return” from which untold thousands were crowded onto European slave-trading vessels and transported to the New World. That profoundly moving pilgrimage prompted one of our members, the poet Niyi Osundare to write the poem, “Goree” that will be the first of our readings this evening.  Our presence in this space twenty-four years later draws attention to the fact that for all its current beauty, this too is a place of memory, and a site of trauma.

Historians estimate that 40% of all Africans kidnapped and landed as slaves in continental North America, landed in this very city of Charleston, and just a mile or so upriver from here at Ashley Ferry River was one of the many sites around the city where men, women and children were sold directly from the boat. Although historic sites in this area and around the nation have expanded and enhanced their presentation of previously invisible histories of the African-American experience, there is still a considerable “acknowledgment gap” in the general public understanding that fails to give due consideration to African contributions to the physical and economic landscape of the new worlds they helped to build.  This acknowledgment gap, which as we shall hear later was so poetically and powerfully described more than a century ago by W.E.B. Du Bois, shows itself ironically in absences: of public memorials, of statuary, of street- and place-names honoring Africans or African Americans; in the absence even, as Toni Morrison has remarked, of such a humble thing as a bench by the road. Despite the Emancipation Proclamation of 150 years ago and the desegregation of public education here in SC that the Jubilee Project is commemorating, the consequences of two centuries of slavery followed by another hundred years of officially-sanctioned segregation are still with us. We believe that humanities scholars have a vital role in laying this history to rest. We believe that humanities scholars should lay this history to rest, not because it should be forgotten, but in order to relate to it in a fuller knowledge both of its historical facts and its contemporary implications. It goes without saying that such a commemoration is extremely uncomfortable and fraught with potential for misunderstanding and pain. That is one of the reasons why the Jubilee Project and this conference are seizing on the anniversaries of emancipation and desegregation as a catalyst for a critical commemorative process: these anniversaries enable us to confront squarely the history of slavery, resistance and abolition as part of the literature of liberation and the law in the story of America and the world. The commemoration of the expansion of freedom is the keynote of that narrative, and of the foundational place of Africans and African-descended people in that narrative.

Peter Wood uses the image of the hour-glass to describe Charleston’s role in the African Diaspora.  In thinking of Charleston as the birthplace of African America, one may think of the narrow harbor entrance in terms of another, more graphic, more somatic image — as the birth canal of African America.  In tonight’s commemorative ceremony, we remember not only the acute pain of that birth but we also salute African America’s contributions to local, regional, national, and international history, and the courage of all our ancestors who, in the words of Kwame Dawes’s poem, “straightened their backs” and “shouldered their burden” in the long, uneven, and often dangerous struggle for freedom.

Anthonia Kalu and Simon Lewis

African Literature Association- Charleston

March 2013

Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Management Plan now available for comments

WHAT:  The federal four-state Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission’s Management Plan provides a description of Gullah Geechee people and culture and a brief historical overview. In addition, the Plan highlights examples of important cultural resources throughout the Corridor, summarizes the natural resources of the Corridor, discusses land ownership and land cover, and briefly touches on the socioeconomic conditions within the Corridor.  The Plan also provides readers with a basic level of information about the Corridor to facilitate a better understanding of the future implementation that is outlined in the management approach.  The Commission’s implementation theme is “Enlighten and Empower Gullah Geechee People to Sustain the Culture.”

WHERE: Management Plan copies can be viewed electronically at www.gullahgeecheecorridor.org<http://www.gullahgeecheecorridor.org/> or at libraries throughout the Corridor.

WHEN: The 30-day Public Review Period is July 18 – August 17, 2012.  Written comments may be submitted by any one of two methods:  1) visiting the PEPC (National Park Service Planning, Environment and Public Comment) Web site: http://parkplanning.nps.gov/guge, or 2) mailing: Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, c/o Commission Chairman, 1214 Middle Street, Sullivan’s Island, SC 29482.

WHY: Comments will be reviewed and utilized to fine-tune the Commission’s implementation efforts.  The Commission plans to forward the Management Plan to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior for approval by early fall 2012.

The Loving Story: Film Screening – Thursday, July 26th 6:00pm

You are invited to join Producer and Editor Elisabeth Haviland James, the ACLU of SC, and the Avery Research Center for a special screening of The Loving Story.  This film recounts the story of the Lovings, Mildred (who was part black and part Native American) and Richard (who was white), whose marriage was declared illegal in their home state of Virginia.  The Lovings refused to leave one another or their home.  This film recreates a seminal moment in history and reflects a timely message of marriage equality in a personal, human love story.

Thursday, July 26, 2012
5:30pm Reception
6:00pm Screening

College of Charleston
Avery Research Center
125 Bull Street

Download the Flier here

Preserving area’s civil rights sites

Before Charleston’s civil-rights-era leaders get older and pass on, a group of preservationists are hoping to identify sites of their most important work and mark it for all to see. But that’s just the first order of business for the newly created Charleston African American Preservation Alliance.

For more on this story, http://www.postandcourier.com/news/2011/aug/28/preserving-areas-civil-rights-sites/#comments