Avery: The Spirit That Would Not Die

Avery Normal Institute, Charleston, South Carolina, from the American Missionary Association, ca. 1870, courtesy of the Avery Research Center.

Avery Normal Institute, Charleston, South Carolina, from the American Missionary Association, ca. 1870, courtesy of the Avery Research Center.

In 1865, at the end of the American Civil War and the dawn of emancipation throughout the U.S. South, the American Missionary Association (AMA) established a school for Black students in Charleston, South Carolina. Early on, the leaders of this institution determined that it should be a "normal" teacher training school, offering opportunities for young Black men and women to transition out of bondage and racial oppression through classical education and college preparatory courses.

Before 1865, South Carolina laws severely restricted educational opportunities for enslaved men, women, and children. A Slave Code passed in 1740 made it a crime to teach enslaved people to read and write. By the nineteenth century, local authorities in Charleston allowed free people of color to attend informal private schools throughout the city, and some enslaved children managed to join these classes without reprimand. Still, private schools founded by Northern missionaries during Reconstruction, including the Avery Normal Institute, served as the first in Charleston to legally offer a formal education to the city's Black residents.

For Black Charlestonians, the struggle to obtain quality education began during slavery and continued through the Reconstruction period into the twentieth century civil rights era. This struggle persists today. Avery's history serves as a testimony of these ongoing efforts, and of the achievements of its leaders and graduates who overcame daunting obstacles to become influential teachers, professionals, and activists in the South Carolina Lowcountry and beyond.