The James E. Campbell Papers: Avery’s Revolutionary Collection by Veer Mehta, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC)
When it comes to materializing the ideology of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, there are not many examples more excellent than the life’s work of Mr. James Eber Campbell. A leading, radical revolutionary activist, organizer, educator, and native of Charleston, Mr. Campbell transcended his early professions of teaching and fine arts into fighting for civil freedoms, educational equity, African independence, and promoting African American sustainability in America.
Upon arriving at the Avery Research Center as a graduate intern in May 2022, I soon realized some ‘Charlestonian’ historical figures are continuously brought into conversations and projects. Mr. Campbell has been one of those inspirational people. Since his passing, there has been a concerted effort to produce much more literature concerning his biography and work. What stands out to me most is that as a young African American man with firm roots in Charleston, Mr. Campbell pursued his passions of English and theater. However, still youthful and full of optimism, he set his sights on activism, establishing multicultural disciplines in education, cofounding the Organization of Afro-American Unity, joining the staff of Freedomways magazine, and spending a decade teaching in and helping to develope the then newly independent Tanzania. As a trained public educator, I am genuinely in awe of how much progress one man made for civil and human rights. The selflessness of Mr. Campbell is so admirable that his work is now a headlining feature of Avery’s archival collection.
The James E. Campbell papers offer writing, photographs, and other materials documenting his personal, professional, and philosophical interests. Examples include letters written by Campbell to Betty Shabazz, documentation from the Malcolm X Commemoration Committee, and professional correspondence relating to Campbell’s involvement with the Charleston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Avery also installed an exhibit dedicated to Mr. Campbell’s work, which was also on display at South Carolina State University’s FAB Gallery and Addlestone Library a the College of Charleston, with the hopes of inspiring students, researchers, and community members to use the Campbell collection in their studies.
As visitors attend Avery, one of the most revered portions of the Campbell exhibit is his accumulation of anti-imperialist propaganda posters he gathered during his world travels. The exhibit is accompanied by QR codes. Each poster is extensively detailed with background information that provides visitors with additional context on world issues that Mr. Campbell took exception to. The themes in the posters, which number over 100, are still highly relevant today. Now that they have been uploaded into the Lowcountry Digital Library, local organizers can use them to help educate current students. For example, the Lowcountry Action Committee, a Black-led, grassroots organization dedicated to Black Liberation through service, political education, and collective action in the Charleston area, utilizes the poster collection when teaching middle and high school students about African independence movements, like that of Guinea-Bissau.
Additionally, visitors will notice the vast library that accompanies the exhibit. All the books on display are a part of Avery’s library and came from Mr. Campbell’s personal collection (many of them even contain his signature). I feel that this is a symbolic testament to how much knowledge he possessed and a token of how much of his life he spent dedicated to lifelong learning, organizing, and fighting for others.
Although he passed in early 2021 at 94, Mr. Campbell’s legacy and spirit will continue. It is mainly reflected in the work and activism of the Avery Research Center, and his archival collection and library, artifacts, and writings will forever inspire the minds of the social justice warriors in America and beyond.