By Barney Blakeney
After almost nine years overseeing some of the most transformative times as executive director at The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston, Dr. Patricia Williams Lessane leaves the job April 30 to take a position as Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Md.
In a February 27 letter announcing her departure, Lessane said, “I am so proud of the accomplishments that the Avery staff and I have been able to make over the years. I was blessed with a strong, mighty and motley crew of folks who are a lot like me, so it was only natural that we became a cohesive team, a family really. I am indebted to the Avery Institute Board for always supporting our work and the mission of the center, as well as our donors, patrons, and friends of Avery.
“But I must say that my success at Avery was buttressed by the colossal support system that I have here–from all of you–in addition to the sisters and the brothers in the physical plant, the custodial staff, the grounds keepers, the parking attendants, the mail delivery guys, the food service, catering, and Starbucks staff who always had a kind word for me, who recognized what Avery means and that our work around race and social justice was on behalf of them too, who winked and smiled in solidarity when something outlandish happened on campus or in the world. That nurtured me. It kept me. It assured me that I was on the right track on days when I felt lost, overwhelmed, and hopeless. I know I have been changed by this place – fortified, Ignited, enlightened, loved, inspired and celebrated. And now I am being propelled to take what I have learned and plant those seeds of wisdom in a new place.”
During her tenure as the fourth executive director at Avery Lessane achieved landmark accomplishments after taking the helm at Avery in 2010. She immediately conducted a conference about Julie Dash’s 1991 film ‘Daughters of the Dust’, the first feature film directed by an African-American woman distributed theatrically in the United States which tells the story of three generations of Gullah women on St. Helena Island. The film gained critical praise for its lush visuals, Gullah dialogue and non-linear storytelling. Filmed on St. Helena Island, Daughters of the Dust was selected for the Sundance 1991 dramatic competition. Director of photography Arthur Jafa won the top cinematography prize.
In addition to teaching, scholarly writing and running Avery Lessane brought several conferences to the center that converged scholars, historians and others from around the Lowcountry and world at the center. Under her leadership the center fought to get collections of storied African Americans such as educator/activist James Campbell “because the collections of Black people have merit too,” she said.
While race and social justice have become trendy buzz words, Lessane’s efforts in that arena have been epic and unprecedented. Constantly pushing the envelope the center’s Race and Social Justice Initiative helped move the needle beyond conversation. In 2017 the center released “The State of Racial Disparities in Charleston County, South Carolina 2000-2015”. Throughout her nearly decade-long tenure Lessane continued the work around race and social justice by establishing the Curtis J. Franks and Deborah Wright Internship fund which allows the center to provide annual stipends to students who work at Avery and are interested in librarianship and museum curation.
Lessane’s 2015, New York Times editorial, “No Sanctuary in Charleston” gave personal and social commentary about African American life in Charleston following the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church and she frequently writes opinion pieces about the intersection of race, gender, and class in Black life in the United States. She serves on the board of the Collegium of African American Research (CAAR), WREN (Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network), the Sophia Institute, and the Charleston Library Society.
She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., is a Fulbright Specialist and in 2016 was a Fulbright scholar at University of Málaga in Málaga, Spain. Recently, she was honored at The College of Charleston’s Excel Awards as Administrator of the Year and was one eleven women honored at the Greater Charleston YWCA’s inaugural What Women Bring awards for her work as a non-profit leader. She was voted Speaker of the Faculty at College of Charleston which resulted in her being the first librarian to be elected in that role.
“I came to Avery with my credentials and my integrity. I said I would leave with both,” related Lessane when asked what are the highlights of her tenure. “I love that our small, but powerful staff has made African American history and culture accessible to all people and that we have trained some amazing students,” she said.
She suggests Avery’s next executive director be “someone with a deep love for Avery and who is protective of it because Avery’s legacy is important and needs a person with the vision and creativity who can do some amazing work here.”