Avery Center Acquires Rare Slave Narrative

The Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston has acquired an 1860 first edition of one the pre-eminent slave narratives, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. The acquisition was made possible through a generous donation by the Honorable Senator Herbert U. Fielding and the Honorable Judge Bernard R. Fielding of Charleston, the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, and the College of Charleston Friends of the Library.

“By acquiring this rare book, we are able to tell a more comprehensive story about a courageous couple and their progeny here in Charleston. The Crafts’ narrative is a fitting addition to our collections because it demonstrates the visceral ways the International Slave Trade impacted the lives of enslaved people told in their own words. It also provides us a missing link in our efforts to document and contextualize their experiences and that of their descendants—namely the DeCosta clan– here in Charleston.” said Dr. Patricia Williams-Lessane, Executive Director of the Avery Research Center.

Published in 1860, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom is the dramatic account of William and Ellen Craft’s escape from Macon, Ga. through Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, Washington, DC, Baltimore and on to Philadelphia. The account describes how the light-skinned Ellen Craft dressed as a man and pretended to be a wealthy, white invalid seeking treatment in Philadelphia, while accompanied by “his” slave, William (i.e. her husband).

Slave narratives like Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom are one of the most valuable sources available for providing first-hand experiences of slaves in the American South. These autobiographical narratives also comprise one of the most extensive and influential traditions in African American literature and culture. Slave narratives have gained prominence in colleges and universities to provoke reflection, discussion and debate among students and scholars on the questions of race, social justice and the meaning of freedom.

“Acquisitions like this position Avery and the College as one of the nation’s intellectual and cultural leaders in documenting and preserving African American history and culture,” says College of Charleston Provost George Hynd.

Founded in 1865 as the Avery Normal Institute, this community hub provided education and advocacy for the growing Charleston African-American community and trained blacks for professional careers and leadership roles. While the Institute closed its doors in 1954, its graduates preserved the legacy of their alma mater by establishing the Avery Institute of Afro-American History and Culture in 1979.

The modern day rebirth of Avery began in 1985 with the establishment of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston. For the last twenty-five years, Avery has collected art and archival materials that document the history, traditions and legacies of African Americans and their influence on American society and culture, as well as their place within the American narrative. With a repository of primary and secondary source material of nearly 4,000 holdings, the Center supports scholarship, research and presentations by scholars, students, and public historians.

Nearly 3000 patrons visit Avery annually with teachers and students from across the U.S. and abroad arriving regularly for tours, workshops and summer history camps. Additionally, partnerships with Charleston Public Schools, Berkeley Public Schools, the City of Charleston’s MOJA Arts Festival and other community groups extend Avery’s reach into local communities.

Today, the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture is listed on the National Register of Historic Sites. The only research center of its kind in the Southeastern United States, it continues to advance the goals and mission of the College of Charleston while sustaining the remarkable legacy of the original Avery Normal Institute as a vital community center and essential source of information pertaining to the African-American experience.