Charleston's African-American Heritage

A Historical Legacy: Avery Research Center

By Karen A. Chandler, Dir., Avery Research Center, Assistant Professor of Arts Management, College of Charleston

The Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture based at the College of Charleston is an archives, research center, and museum. Its mission is to collect, preserve, and document the history and culture of African Americans in South Carolina and the Lowcountry region. This is a very important mission because approximately half of all African Americans in the United States can trace their arrival to this continent to this region.

The prominence of many of this region's citizens and the unparalleled impact of the skill, talent, and leadership of the enslaved and free blacks who lived here, have produced an unprecedented history. Not only is Charleston the gateway to and a part of the unique South Carolina Sea Island culture called "Gullah" or "Geechee," its history also encompasses American slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, civil and women's rights, education, business, and the arts. It is Avery's mission to preserve this legacy.

Avery's unique location contributes to its sense of mission and purpose. The Center's facilities occupy the building that once housed the Avery Normal Institute. Founded by the American Missionary Association (AMA) in 1865 at the end of the Civil War and during the tumultuous Reconstruction era, the nationally recognized Avery Normal Institute trained Charleston's young African-American adults in professional careers and leadership roles for nearly 100 years.

Though the school closed in 1954, many of its graduates carried on the tradition of educational excellence and community leadership by organizing a community-based historical society in 1978 - the Avery Institute of Afro-American History and Culture, Inc. In 1985 with the vision and efforts of the Avery Institute and the College of Charleston, the Avery Research Center was established. Still closely connected to the Avery Institute today, this alliance helps ground the Center in the community; its members are critical partners in Avery's programs and operations.

As noted above, Charleston and the South Carolina Lowcountry remain one of the few places in the United States where indigenous African cultural practices--including language, music, dance, foodways, basketmaking, ironwork, and carpentry--known as Gullah in South Carolina and Geechee in Georgia, have survived. Though rapid regional development challenges the future of these traditions, the archives of Avery Research Center help to preserve them.

The Center's archives focus on the profound experiences of people from African descent: their embarkation from Goree and Bunce islands in Senegal and Sierra Leone, respectively, and the ports of Angola and the Congo; the Middle Passage; their enslavement in Barbados and other Caribbean islands; as well as on the shores and inland areas of Charleston and the Sea Islands.

Avery has developed the only collection of its kind in the country. Its unique regional focus distinguishes it from other archives. The Center maintains a collection of primary and secondary documentary material dating from the late eighteenth century that encourages scholarship, research, and presentations by scholars, researchers, and students. The Center also operates as a museum with several gallery spaces, and as a national historic site with a listing on the National Register of Historic Sites.

Through its research facilities, archival workshops, museum exhibits, interpretive tours, and community programs, Avery tells the story of African Americans in South Carolina from their African origins through slavery, emancipation, segregation, migration, the civil rights movement, and the ongoing struggle for social and political equality.

This story is presented annually to over 3,500 patrons through the Center's archives, and to over 4,500 tourists and visitors through the Center's interpretive tours and museum exhibitions.

Plan to visit the Avery Research Center on your next visit to Charleston. We are a must-see! Until then, follow our work online at or contact us at (843) 953-7609 or (843) 953-7607 (Fax).