Tamara T. Butler’s ties to the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture run deep.
It started when she was in eighth grade at the Charleston County School of the Arts. She and a classmate had taken the top spot in the 100 Black Men of Charleston history competition, and, in recognition of their achievement, the Avery Research Center presented them with two books — They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America and Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America. It was a big moment for them, and they went on to represent South Carolina, ultimately winning at the national 100 Black Men of America competition.
Years later, as a college professor, Butler had yet another big moment associated with the Avery Research Center – this time while combing through the Septima Clark and Esau Jenkins papers at the center.
“I found a list of Johns Island residents who signed up for radio training,” she recalls. “It reminded me that history is created by people who attended your church, taught at your school — it happened with the people who lived down the road.”
Now, Butler is having her biggest moment yet at the Avery: She is assuming the role of executive director of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston and associate dean of College Libraries.
She comes to the Avery Research Center with a rich background and a strong vision for the center’s future.
“We are excited to have such a dynamic leader with Lowcountry roots take the reins of the Avery Research Center,” says Tony Bell, president of the Avery Institute of Afro-American History and Culture. “We look forward to working closely with her this year and beyond.”
“After an exhaustive international search, we were very lucky to recruit Dr. Butler to join us,” adds John White, dean of College Libraries. “She is a phenomenal scholar with a strong background in the Lowcountry and African American studies. She was the unanimous choice of a committee made up of faculty, staff and representatives from the larger community. I am beyond excited to have Dr. Butler on board. Her vision for the Avery and the passion she brings to the center are very exciting.”
Butler attended Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically Black university in New Orleans. She majored in biochemistry because it ranked No. 1 in the nation for the number of African American graduates to go on to complete medical school, and she had plans to become a pediatrician. But then, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina shifted her focus.
“I returned home and took some classes at the College of Charleston,” says Butler, who is a first-generation college graduate. “As much as I appreciated how the College made space for me, the only place I truly felt welcomed was in Dr. Valerie Frazier’s African American literature class. Dr. Fraser’s class reminded me of Xavier, as it was a space to think critically about Black life and culture.”
At the encouragement of Xavier professor DeReef Jamison and the late Union Presbyterian Seminary professor Katie Cannon, Butler decided to pursue the field of African American studies. She went on to earn her M.A. in African American and African studies and her M.A. and Ph.D. in multicultural and equity studies in education from the Ohio State University.
From there, she went to Michigan State University, where she served as an assistant professor of English and of African American and African studies. That is when her academic interests became focused on Black girl literacies and Black women’s connections to land, along with narratives of Black women from the Sea Islands – particularly her hometown community of Johns Island, South Carolina.
“Many of the stories about the Sea Islands are not written by people who live there,” explains Butler. “Much of Johns Island is being pulled between the resort communities and the City of Charleston. We have to remember the historically Black communities that sit on the margins of history.”
She credits her family for shaping her understanding and love of African American history. When she was young, her aunt, Kathleen Green, would send her Black history books and games from New York. When she graduated from college, her godparents Gary and Linda Paddock gifted her with African American history books. And her mother, Nancy Butler, continues to collect and give her Black history materials —programs, newspaper articles and books about Johns Island.
Through her position at the Avery, Butler plans to continue her current project, which builds on what she has learned through her family’s practice of collecting and sharing.
“Part of my project looks at collections of everyday Black people who may not have made it into history books,” she says. “Their collections of photos, church programs, newspapers and knickknacks connect us to some of the most insightful stories. I hope to deepen our understanding of history and culture through their archives and stories.”
At the same time, Butler will focus on the foundation built by her predecessor.
“Dr. Patricia Williams-Lessane left a strong foundation from which to build the future of Avery,” says White. “Throughout her career, Dr. Butler has exhibited the kind of leadership and vision to continue that work and expand on it. As we have all witnessed these last few months, there is much work to be done to address issues of justice and inclusion. As a public institution, it is vital that the Avery take a leading role in providing a voice and serving as a resource for our communities. I can think of no one better to lead that charge than Dr. Butler.”
Committed to expanding the center’s physical capacity as a hub for Black history and diaspora studies, Butler characterizes her vision for the Avery as “quite gigantic.”
“With more space, we can acquire more research materials,” explains Butler, who applauds the current staff for their intellectual and physical labor during the Avery’s time of transition and renovation. “We can create more meeting spaces and make our archives more accessible to educators, artists and researchers, so that they have the primary documents and supplemental information to understand and teach history from several perspectives.”
To that point, Butler looks forward to getting input from alumni of the Avery Institute of Afro-American History and Culture, recent CofC graduates and community members about their vision for the Avery and how they will contribute.
The potential to share stories of Black historical and contemporary lives is endless, she says. And, for Butler, those stories run deep.