Tamara Butler | Photo by Rūta Smith

Tamara Butler took over as the executive director for the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture in August, amid a year of sweeping civil rights protests across the nation and in Charleston. During a time when antiracist literature is climbing bestseller lists, Butler hopes the research institute can continue to provide community education for all people.

Butler was born and raised on Johns Island, immersed from the beginning in African American history and culture, she said. Upon attending college in New Orleans for biochemistry, an African American studies professor taught her about the historical significance of the Lowcountry’s sea islands. “[They] helped me see that the sea islands is a place that has been studied and can be studied and has a rich history, which just reinforces something that my family told me,” she recalled. 

After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Butler returned to South Carolina to complete her degree at the College of Charleston. 

“I started studying more things that had to do with Black studies and then I found myself back here,” she said. “My path was already lined up.”

As the new executive director, Butler’s vision for Avery is to help cultivate communities. “The original mission of Avery was to train critical educators,” she said. 

Butler added that the research center is looking for a variety of different ways to prepare educators to discuss Lowcountry history, “from the family historians, to the people who love to learn, to the K-12 educators.”

Instead of creating a uniform curriculum for people looking deeper into local Black history, Butler said Avery wants to ask schools and community members what they need.

“How can we help teachers identify the local Black stories?” she asked. “We have so many people who want to give oral histories; how can we use those as a curriculum? How can we invest in ways to bring in speakers?”

COVID-19 has forced Avery to go digital in many ways, but the leadership plans to expand its virtual classrooms in the coming months with conversations that highlight Black women and items in Avery’s archives. “We’re looking to launch our website soon,” she said. “We’ll have a brand new website that will allow people to dig into the archives without coming in and sticking their heads in the boxes.”

In the 16 months since Avery’s previous director, Patricia Williams Lessane, took another job at Morgan State University, a two-year, $2.5 million renovation of the center’s historic Bull Street facility has wrapped up, adding a new roof, windows and HVAC system.

Members of staff continued providing research and education opportunities, but they are excited to add Butler to the team, said outreach assistant Courtney Hicks.

“When we met Dr. Butler, we automatically knew that she was going to be our director,” Hicks said. “Being from the Lowcountry, already having that Southern decorum and grace, we knew that she was not only able to help guide us, in terms of what we do, but also how we interact with the community that we serve.”

“The thing that I think makes Avery so unique is that it’s multi-layered,” Butler said. “You can walk into the replica of the 19th century classroom. If you’re feeling lucky, you can dig in the boxes in the archives, you can talk to the archivists. You can bring your family and you can take a tour of a building that’s been standing since the 1800s. It’s always been a space that’s been about teaching and reminding and celebrating.”

Avery’s work aligns with the big questions being asked about American fundamentals, after a summer of protests and the surge in interest in antiracism. But Butler’s vision hasn’t wavered. “There’s a very key part to antiracism that I think people leave out, that Avery has always been at the forefront [of], and that’s anti-Blackness,” she said.

The real test of antiracism, she said, is a willingness to have open and educated conversations. If someone is committed to discussing racism, Butler said, they can “go to Avery, find those materials, be in conversation, dig in the archives, attend the digital classrooms, read the books.”