Avery Center associate director seeks to inspire black youths through history

For Leila Potts-Campbell, collecting and disseminating black history is part necessity and part labor of love. It's also integral to the missions of the Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture.

Potts-Campbell, who was born in Charleston, spent more than three decades doing rewarding work with the American Red Cross, living in Atlanta, Detroit and Washington, D.C. It's mostly her work with the Red Cross that took her to all 50 states and several foreign countries.

Potts-Campbell returned home in 1998, and is now Avery's associate director. She's also the daughter of the late John Potts, who was principal of Avery through its transition from private institute to public school and closing.

She and Avery, which was founded to educate blacks just after the Civil War, are a great fit. The center's mission is to collect, preserve and document the history and culture of blacks in South Carolina's Lowcountry. Potts-Campbell is passionate about spreading an understanding of that history and culture.

"It's not generally known and there are a lot of misconceptions," she says when asked why she's passionate about it. "People think that we were slaves and that means everybody. We have not all had the same experiences. We had as varied a background as any other race."

The associate director had the opportunity to meet many of the blacks discussed in classrooms today. They stayed in the guest room of her parents' home on Montagu Street during their visits to Avery. She met prominent blacks such as W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes, who once served as baby sitter for Potts-Campbell, her brother and sister, and wrote their mother a letter about the experience.

One of Potts-Campbell's priorities at Avery - an archive, museum and community resource - is to use local black history to inspire black children, such as those who attend the center's African-American History Camp, to aim higher.

Many of them grow up in communities where excellence is not expected of them because they are black, says Potts-Campbell. She makes a point of giving them examples of blacks who accomplished great things under adverse circumstances.

She's trying to help establish a foundation that will help the children overcome what some refer to as a victim mentality.

"I am planting a seed - that we are not downtrodden people. Did we have a bad time in history? Yes. But that does not mean that we are down."

When the children at camp learn about slave badges, which blacks in Charleston were required to show that they were permitted to be away from the plantation, Potts-Campbell is quick to also tell them that slave badges represented "a way out" for some. She explains to them that some had badges because they were skilled tradesmen whose expertise was sought beyond the confines of the plantation where they lived. She lets them know that slaves who were able to keep some of the money they earned practicing their trades, sometimes saved it and bought their freedom and the freedom of their family members.

"Kids are surprised to hear about things like this," she says. No one has told them about the slave badges or other unique features of slavery in the Charleston area. Although it's their heritage, they have not been taught to recognize and appreciate it.

"Nowadays, many black children don't have a sense of who they are or what their past is. They seem to be ashamed of it when they should really be proud of how far we have come. We knew that education was important. This whole thing about being educated as acting white is so far from who we were or are."

Young blacks growing up in the Lowcountry need to be told that their ancestors were brought here for their skills and knowledge, says Potts-Campbell. If they realize that their ancestors had skills and knowledge, they will try harder to develop their own.

"In the beginning (of camp), some kids just cannot get their arms wrapped around that. The first time it's hard for them to say that black people did a great thing," she says.

So many who made contributions during and after slavery are not mentioned during Black History Month, says Potts-Campbell, adding that some people made it despite the odds and should be recognized.

When people are content to teach only about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, they do the others a disservice, she says.