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Uplift and Activism at the Avery

Posted by: Julia Eichelberger | October 24, 2017 | No Comment |

Barrye Brown

I am pleased to contribute a post to the Southern Studies blog.  For those new to the College of Charleston community and Southern Studies, I would like this post to serve as an introduction to the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture and to highlight some of its archival collections and educational outreach endeavors. The Center, now part of the College of Charleston library system, is located on 125 Bull Street on the site of the former Avery Normal Institute, a school established in 1865 for African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina. The word “Normal” in the title indicates that the school provided additional teacher training and college preparatory courses for students interested in becoming educators. From 1865 to 1964, this historic secondary school trained African American students for professional careers and leadership roles, and served as a hub for Charleston’s African American community.

The very existence of an Institute to educate African Americans during this time period was a revolutionary act against the forces of white supremacy.

Before 1865, South Carolina laws severely restricted educational opportunities for enslaved men, women, and children. A Slave Code passed in 1740 made it a crime to teach enslaved people to read and write. By the nineteenth century, local authorities in Charleston allowed free people of color to attend informal private schools throughout the city, and some enslaved children managed to join these classes without reprimand. Still, private schools founded by Northern missionaries during Reconstruction, including the Avery Normal Institute, served as the first in Charleston to legally offer a formal education to the city’s Black residents. For Black Charlestonians, the struggle to obtain quality education began during slavery and continued through the Reconstruction period into the twentieth century civil rights era. This struggle persists today. Avery’s history serves as a testimony of these ongoing efforts, and of the achievements of its leaders and graduates who overcame daunting obstacles to become influential teachers, professionals, and activists in the South Carolina Lowcountry and beyond.[i]

The early founders of the Avery Normal Institute recognized the power of education as a transformative force for racial and social uplift. They envisioned that the ideal of education would lead the way towards self-determination and a more equitable society in the face of injustice.

Despite the closing of Avery as a school in 1954, this ideal continued to live on in the desires of former Avery students to continue the educational legacy of Avery as a research center.    In 1985, a committed group of Avery Normal Institute alumni worked with the College of Charleston to establish the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture.

Esau Jenkins (center), Alfred Fields (right), and Rev. Willis Goodwin (left) in front of the Citizens Committee Bus.

Today, the  Center is home to over two hundred manuscript collections, over six thousand printed items, over four thousand photographs, and hundreds of reels of microfilm, audiovisual materials, clipping files, and digital formats. Its mission is to collect, preserve, and promote the unique history and culture of the African Diaspora, with a specific emphasis on Charleston and the South Carolina Lowcountry. The bulk of our collections are post-1865 and our collecting strengths are family papers, black schools and education, organizational and institutional records, church records, women’s collections, African American businesses, artisan records, and last but certainly not least, 20th century Civil Rights collections.

In late spring of 2015, the Avery and the Lowcountry Digital Library were awarded an 18-month grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) to digitize, describe, and make accessible online, a portion of Civil Rights archival collections held by the Avery.  The collections featured on the Lowcountry Digital Library are as follows:

  • Septima P. Clark Papers, ca. 1910-ca. 1990                  
  • Anna D. Kelly Papers, 1930s – 1999
  • Bernice Robinson Papers, 1920-1989                              
  • Isaiah Bennett Papers, ca. 1932-2002
  • Esau Jenkins Papers, 1963-2003                                          
  • Eugene C. Hunt Papers, 1834 – 1994
  • Cleveland Sellers, Jr. Papers, 1934-2003                        
  • Millicent E. Brown Papers, 1949 – 2003
  • Arthur Brown Papers, 1937 – 1988
  • Book Lovers’ Club, 1927 – 1969
  • YWCA of Greater Charleston, Inc., Records, 1906 – 2007                
  • Charleston Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Papers, 1920-1995

Dr. Millicent E. Brown, the first black student to desegregate Rivers High School in Charleston, SC.

When studying the Civil Rights Movement, Charleston, SC is not always the first city that comes to mind. These collections provide insight into the significant role of leaders and organizations from Charleston, South Carolina and the surrounding Lowcountry region during the Civil Rights Movement, as well as enhance scholarly and public awareness of the civil rights movement in South Carolina. They also provide insight into influential elements of the National Civil Rights Movement that are often overlooked in popular representations, and have increasingly become the focus of 20th century civil rights scholarship. These topics include the importance of activism in the early and later stages of the mid-twentieth century movement; the significance of female activists; the crucial role of local grassroots networks and organizations in implementing the goals of the national movement; the impact of class divisions within African American communities on civil rights organizing; and the significance of activism for labor rights as well as racial equality. Local, national, and international scholars frequently engage the Avery Research Center Archives as one of the only archives dedicated to African American history and culture in the region.

During its time as a school and its current iteration as a research center, the Avery has always embodied a philosophy of social uplift through education and grassroots activism.  We continue that philosophical and historical legacy through our archival collections, museum exhibitions, and public programming, as well as continuing to serve as an educational resource to the College of Charleston community and beyond.

Bernice Robinson (standing left) and Septima Clark (standing right) teaching Citizenship School class.

To access our digital collections on the Lowcountry Digital Library, please click the following link: http://lcdl.library.cofc.edu/contributing-institution/avery-research-center

Photos courtesy of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC, USA.

Barrye Brown is the Reference and Outreach Archivist at the Avery Research for African American History and Culture.  She is responsible for handling Avery’s reference and research requests, providing access to its collections, as well as promoting awareness and usage of its digital and physical collections.  She works as part of a team to support research, teaching, and learning at the College of Charleston.  

[i]  Battle, Mary and Curtis J. Franks. “Avery: The Spirit That Would Not Die, 1865 – 2015.” Lowcountry Digital History Initiative. http://ldhi.library.cofc.edu/exhibits/show/avery/averyintro.


under: African American Studies, Charleston History, Social Activism in the South

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