Founded in 1865, the Avery Normal Institute was the first accredited secondary school for African Americans in Charleston. The school, established by the New York based American Missionary Association (AMA), was initially named in honor of New York abolitionist Lewis Tappan. Renamed Saxton after Union general Rufus B. Saxton, an assistant commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the school was temporarily located in several buildings confiscated by the federal government. It was staffed with northern white missionaries and members of Charleston’s antebellum free black community, such as the Cardozo brothers, Thomas and Francis. Thomas W. Cardozo was the school’s first principal (1865–1866), and Francis was the second (1866– 1868).
Francis Cardozo campaigned to construct a permanent building. He persuaded the AMA’s traveling secretary, E. P. Smith, to seek $10,000 from the estate of the late Reverend Charles Avery of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. With additional aid from the Freedmen’s Bureau, the new school building, renamed Avery, was finished in 1868. Cardozo expanded the school’s mission beyond primary and secondary education to include teacher training. Prohibited from teaching in all but one of Charleston’s black public schools, many graduates taught in one-room schoolhouses all over South Carolina, especially in the lowcountry. Graduates excelled as educators. Subsequent principals, such as Morrison A. Holmes, continued the school’s tradition of high standards.
Principal Benjamin Cox (1915–1936) and his wife, Jeanette Keeble Cox, revitalized Avery. Cox was the first black principal since Cardozo. In 1917 Avery became a bulwark for the establishment of the city’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Its first president was Edwin Harleston (Avery, 1900), a noted artist. Principals Frank DeCosta (Avery, 1927) and L. Howard Bennett (Avery, 1931) moved the school in a more progressive direction.
Principal John F. Potts presided over Avery’s transition to a public school in 1947. Coinciding with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the county school board closed Avery in 1954, citing financial reasons. Avery students and teachers had long been active in the state’s civil rights movement and continued to be so even after the school was closed. Avery activists included Septima Clark, J. Andrew Simmons, John McCray, John H. Wrighten, Jr., Arthur J. Clement, Jr., and J. Arthur Brown.
Averyites also became leaders in preserving the lowcountry’s African American heritage. In 1978 the Avery Institute of Afro-American History and Culture was established to save and renovate the original Avery school building at 125 Bull Street as a repository of African American history and culture. With Lucille S. Whipper (Avery, 1944) as its first president, the organization joined the College of Charleston to found the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. On October 6, 1990, the grand opening of the renovated building took place.
Drago, Edmund L. Initiative, Paternalism, and Race Relations: Charleston’s Avery Normal Institute. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.