By Barney Blakeney
Completion of renovations to The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston located at 125 Bull St. is taking so long, some have started to speculate about intentions to bring the historic resource for African Americans back on line.
Now a part of the College of Charleston’s institutional system, Avery’s main building was dedicated in 1868. The school was established three years earlier. Renovations to the 150 year-old structure began in 2017. After more than a year of displacement, some express concern negative forces could change the historic institution that began as a primary and secondary education school for Blacks that evolved into one for teacher training. It continued that function until the school closed in 1954.
After 1954, Dr. John Palmer purchased Avery and operated Palmer Business College on the site for more than two decades. In 1978, a group of Avery graduates organized The Avery Institute of Afro-American History and Culture. Their purpose was to obtain the former Avery Normal School buildings and establish an archives and museum dedicated to preserving African-American history and culture. To obtain institutional support and fulfill its long-term goals, the organization chose to become affiliated with the College of Charleston.
The College of Charleston subsequently was deeded the 123 and 125 Bull Street properties to establish the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture Center’s museum, education, and public history outreach programs and operations, as well as to assist the Avery Research Center in acquiring archival collections.
Dr. John White, Dean of Libraries at the College of Charleston, this week sought to allay any concern Avery would not reopen to fulfill its continuing mission. The center’s heading into a new era as the search for a new executive director begins, he said. After almost nine years, Dr. Patricia Williams Lessane leaves the job April 30. Staff is expected to return to the renovated building this summer with collections coming later. He expects the center will be open at some level by fall.
Addressing one concern that the new Charleston International African American Museum will undermine Avery, White said the two entities have different missions – Avery collects and makes materials available for research in addition to its mission of scholarship while the International African American Museum’s focus will be more on presentation and referral. “There’s no reason for concern about Avery’s perpetuation,” White assured.
Dr. Bernard Powers, Director of the Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston and Professor Emeritus in the History Department at the College of Charleston, mirrored White’s assurances. He said renovations have taken longer than anticipated due to unforeseen technical issues. “But it would be foolhardy for the College not to reopen Avery. That would be akin to disturbing a hornet’s nest,” considering the level of support the institution engenders, he said.
Both White and Powers said Avery serves a vital role in the system of education and research that exists locally and nationally. They both envision a powerful connection between Avery and the new IAAM.