I’ve recently returned from a month long road trip across the American South, from Maryland to Kentucky and back again. One of the best places I saw was a museum and archive centre in Charleston, South Carolina. Wary of supporting a tourist industry that seemed to still uncritically support its antebellum and Confederate past in order to draw crowds that longed for the problematic glamour of plantation life, I tried to spend more time in institutions that explored African-American history. The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture was one such place.
Housed in a beautiful brick building around the outskirts of historic Charleston, Avery originally existed as a normal school for black young people. Avery was created during the Reconstruction period in the States, the post-war period when both emancipated black people and white people struggled in a Charleston that had been ravaged by the Civil War. Since young black people could not learn in white schools due to segregationist laws that would eventually be more commonly known as Jim Crow (named after a famous 19th century minstrel character), Avery Normal Institute was created in order to train them for teaching and professional roles. The school remained open until the early 1950s, closing in the wake of Brown v Board of Education ruling. Many Avery alumni went on to become community leaders and important local figures in the civil rights movement.
In the 1970s, some of these leaders joined with the local black Charleston community to reopen the Avery Institute as a centre that spoke not only of the Avery’s history, but also that of black life throughout the lowcountry of South Carolina. Through their outreach and activism, they were able to gain the support of the state government and University of South Carolina and reopen the Avery in 1978. The new Avery, now a research and archive centre flanked by beautiful gardens near the harbour, exists as a community space that houses galleries, the Phyllis Wheatley literary and social club, a reconstructed classroom, and an archive that can be used by students and the public alike.
I went to the centre on a whim, and was unsure of what to expect. The building itself is beautiful, possessing a dignified, academic grandeur that matched the other striking European-inspired buildings in the district. Entering the side of the building, I was given a tour by the extremely knowledgeable guide that runs the front desk. Starting off with a charmingly old video detailing the centre’s history, I was given a short tour stating where everything was (you are allowed to explore the building on your own). Impressed by the many famous photographs on the wall of iconic black figures, we travelled to the top floor, which held one of the main galleries of the building.
I was instantly hit with envy when I entered the gallery, I could see myself working there, walking the halls every day. The temporary exhibition, titled Dust in Their Veins: A Visual Response to the Global Water Crisis, was the work of the Chicago artist Candace Hunter. A series of silhouettes outlining female torsos framed the walls, some with added installations spilling onto the floor. The work created an urgent conversation around women and children around the world who suffer due to lack of proper access to water, and the issues that result from attempting to find this limited resource, from health issues to girls being forced out of education due to sanitary problems once they begin menstruation or being needed to find water. The exhibition was moving, and I could not help but think of my privilege while I held my half-empty water bottle in my hand. The anonymous torsos- representing millions of lives deferred, usually compressed into statistical phantoms by a calamity-saturated Western public- were given life and colour, imploring the audience to bear witness to their struggle. They rested starkly against the pristine white walls and warmly coloured wood floors, incongruously lit by the cheerful sunshine outside that sparkled across the harbour.
Passing through the gallery on the top floor led to the grand staircase of the institute, where I imagined the wonder of the formally enslaved children as they entered the front doors for the first time. The walls were lined with prints of rural black women by the famous local artist, Jonathan Green and previous lectures with low country luminaries like Julie Dash. One room had been converted into a facsimile of a Reconstruction-era classroom. I wandered around the room for a moment, gently touching the small desks and wandering around the sparse interior. The other halls were filled with prints of various black history items that shifted as I turned into a new corridor. The archive was dark, closed for the day, though I tried to no avail to glance inside as I walked by.
Walking back into the main corridor, I went into the other gallery space, which had the Africa: Masks, Music, and Motion exhibition on African masks with related ephemera. Along the walls were prints about Mandela and civil rights, creating a connection between African and African American culture past and present, a fitting symbol of the cultural traditions and struggle that formed lowcountry culture. The masks are part of the institute’s digital archives, and have been donated over time. I was reminded of other similar exhibitions that I’ve seen over the years and how much context changes how museums can be experienced. Gone was the taint of Empire-fuelled anthropological fervour (and the path of theft and mayhem that marked the way), which always lingered in the back of my mind, no matter how much I loved the vast range of artefacts that I saw. I felt a sense of happiness and contemplation when viewing the exhibition, which felt like an attempt to reconnect the community to the types of traditions that had been destroyed and forgotten during the horrors of slavery.
The Avery was one of the highlights of my trip, and I can’t overstate what a great place it is. It’s incredibly rare to have a black cultural centre that is academic while also constantly reaching out to the community at every level. There should be a place like Avery everywhere, upholding marginalised cultures and showing that it is worthy of dignity and respect.