Wesley was certainly right about the greatness of the Aiken-Rhett House and the Powder Magazine, so Ruth & I had great hopes as we set out for the 3rd Charleston, South Carolina, attraction that he told us the typical tourist didn’t tend to find: the Avery Research Center. Wesley said Avery was of great importance for those who want to understand Charleston culture, but it was about an 8 block walk from this town’s historical heart. In 2012 Condé Nast declared Charleston the top tourist city in the world. Each year 4.5 million travelers show up to soak in its colonial splendor. The smartest ones descend in April or October when an 8 block walk across town can be pleasant. Since it was the last day of the latter, our stroll to 125 Bull Street was only slightly steamy.
At the end of the Civil War, the Avery Normal Institute was established to train African-American students for professional careers. It became nationally renowned and for almost 100 years it was a hub of Charleston’s African-American community. ANI closed in 1954 and 24 years later some graduates and friends got the Avery Institute of Afro-American History and Culture, a historical society, up and running. Its members joined with the College of Charleston 7 year later to found the Avery Research Center, the only facility of its kind in the Southeast U.S.
Avery Research Center’s mission is “to collect, preserve, and promote the unique history and culture of the African diaspora” with a concentration on Charleston and the Lowcountry. It has become the go-to place for research on African-American issues in this part of The South with its rare books, manuscripts, and documents (about 6,000 at the present time and growing). Avery’s conferences, exhibits, etc. focus on both public figures and ordinary citizens.
Ruth and I didn’t show up at a scheduled tour time (10:30 am to 3:30 pm (except for no tour at 12:30) Monday-Friday. However, Georgette Mayo, Reference Archivist and Interim Director, graciously greeted us and arranged for College of Charleston student Kelly to show us around. We began in the research room and moved upstairs to several exhibit rooms. Some exhibits were temporary but most were relatively permanent. We saw undulating, tightly woven Sweetwater baskets, a slave bill of sale, African masks, etc. The Gullah Culture Room was especially interesting.
Attempting to highlight less-known African-Americans, Avery had a temporary display up about fascinating Denmark Vesey. An enslaved African, Vesey bought his freedom by wining a lottery. A carpenter, Vesey started a church, got involved in an extensive slave rebellion, and was arrested. He was convicted and hung with 34 others in Charleston in 1822. A new monument to him in Hampton Park was unveiled in February, 2014.
Most of the names that Kelly and others spoke–Septima Clark, Easu Jenkins, Cleveland Sellers–were unfamiliar to me but important to history and Avery. Clark, for example, taught there in 1919-20 and went on to become a noted activist. Martin Luther King, Jr. called her the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement. The only name I truly recognized was noted filmmaker Julie Dash, whose Daughter of the Dust was the 1st theatrically released, full-length movie by an African-American woman. As a visiting African-American Studies professor at ARC, Dash attended a screening of her film The Rosa Park Story here last spring.
Under-the-radar among Charleston attractions, the Avery Research Center deserves far more visitors.