The Avery Research Center stands tall in a dignified brick building that housed a secondary school for black men and women for almost a century on Bull Street. In modern times, the structure has been the College of Charleston’s collection department, research facility, and museum dedicated to African-American history and culture.
From the outside, the building is a monument to the black experience in the Lowcountry, but internally, its collection of historic documents and artifacts was in danger, leading the facility to close in 2016 for renovations.
“We had that big flood where a pipe burst on top of our archives — can’t have that inside of a museum,” says Daron-Lee Calhoun, public outreach coordinator for Avery. “On the roof, we would have different leaks where, randomly, it would start dripping, dripping, dripping. And the next thing you know, we would have tiles on the floor. It would be the middle of the summer, 90 degrees, and it would be 102 degrees inside of here because we had no air conditioning because the HVAC went out.”
The facility, which reopened to the public Jan. 15, needed a new roof, windows, and HVAC system, totaling $2.5 million, according to Calhoun. The entire process shut Avery down for roughly three years, far surpassing the eight and a half months originally predicted when the renovations were announced in February 2017.
“There were some people who felt as if we weren’t going to reopen,” says Calhoun.
In the midst of the renovations, another hurdle appeared in April 2019 when executive director Patricia Williams-Lessane left Avery to become the vice president for academic affairs at Morgan State University in Maryland. A new executive director has not been named, but the search is almost complete and “more than likely,” a new executive director will be announced in April, according to Calhoun.
When tours begin Jan. 16, the day after the facility reopens, guests will experience several new exhibits on black culture and history in the Lowcountry and beyond. One of the first areas on the tour discusses the importance of the Ishango bone, a 20,000-year-old fossil hypothesized to be used as an early mathematics tool, and local historian Robert “King David” Ross, a descendant of Pharaoh Ramesses III. Along the tour, on the second floor, glass cases display objects about Denmark Vesey, the Gullah culture, Philip Simmons, with paintings by local artist kolpeace lining the walls.
Further into the building, you’ll find impressive exhibits dedicated to rapper Benny Starr’s 2018 live recording of A Water Album at the Charleston Music Hall, Zeta Phi Beta sorority’s centennial in 2020, and a full re-creation of an Avery classroom when it was a school. A different approach to touring complements the new exhibits, as well.
“We serve a purpose here. We are about that community education,” says Calhoun. “Over the last couple years, we moved into the space of not doing just a scripted tour, but we adopted the rubric from the National Trust [for Historic Preservation] for engaging descendant communities, and that way the people can come in here, tell their stories, and we learn off of their stories, as well.”
Avery’s primary purpose is to serve the people of the Lowcountry, and the tour reflects this, but according to Calhoun, every event in the local area can be expanded through the African diaspora. “Anything that happens in Charleston is bound to happen nationally, internationally at that,” he says. “When we think about Emanuel, it was bound to happen everywhere else. I said, at that time, ‘I’m hurt, but I’m not surprised. It was festering here.’ Then you see that being replicated across the country.”
The building where the Avery Center resides today has seen several large changes in its 150-year history. Built in the 1860s, the structure housed the Avery Normal Institute, which provided educational and professional development opportunities for the black community in Charleston through 1954. Avery graduates founded the Avery Institute of Afro-American History and Culture in the same building in 1978. The modern Avery Research Center was established in 1985 as a part of the College of Charleston.
Calhoun believes that the current iteration continues Avery’s legacy as an education hub. “This is a place where the community can see their history and their learned experience alive,” he says. “This is our community space. This is our public programming space, telling these stories that are almost taboo today. Everyone wants to tell the story of African Americans because it’s almost turned into a fad, but we live it.”