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Byllye Avery papers

Identifier: SSC-MS-00652

Scope and Contents

The papers document Byllye Avery's work as an activist in the field of black women's health and reproductive rights, including clippings, articles, correspondence, financial information, conference materials, speaking engagements, memorabilia, and audiovisual materials. Materials relating to Avery's involvement in the Black Women's Health Imperative are also included.

Dates of Materials

  • Creation: 1951 - 2011


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for use without restriction beyond the standard terms and conditions of Smith College Special Collections.

Conditions Governing Use

To the extent that she owns copyright, Byllye Avery has assigned the copyright in her works to Smith College; however, copyright in other items in this collection may be held by their respective creators. For reproductions of materials that are governed by fair use as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission to cite or publish is required. For instances which may regard materials in the collection not created by Byllye Avery, researchers are responsible for determining who may hold materials' copyrights and obtaining approval from them. Researchers do not need anything further from Smith College Special Collections to move forward with their use.

Biographical / Historical

Byllye Yvonne Avery is a health care activist whose efforts center on bettering the welfare of low-income African American women through self-help groups and advocacy networks. She was born in Waynesville, Georgia, the daughter of L. Alyce M. Ingram, a schoolteacher. Her family eventually settled in Deland, Florida, where her mother was a schoolteacher in nearby Perry, Florida. When Byllye was a teenager, her mother enrolled in a graduate program at New York University to earn a master's degree in education. Consequently, Avery's mother spent her summers in New York, away from her daughter, which was the only time in which she could take courses. Avery's father died during the last year of her mother's graduate studies.

Avery studied psychology at Talledega College, and earned an M.A. degree from the University of Florida in 1969. In the mid-1970s, she co-founded the Gainesville Women's Health Center and Birthplace, a midwifery service birthing center in Florida. While the primary focus of the Center was basic birthing services, they also offered programs to educate women about their bodies including Betty Dodson's Bodysex workshops, which encouraged women to engage in the self-exploration of their vulvas.

During her work at the Center, Avery noticed the absence of black women at women’s health conferences and in reproductive health spaces. She began to research the statistics of black and white women’s comparative health, especially around black sexual health and the high incidences of sexual abuse.

In 1981, Avery founded the National Black Women's Health Project in 1981 (the name was later changed to the Black Women's Health Imperative or BWHI). This organization focused on peer-to-peer health education in the black community. As executive director, Avery encouraged programs and events which allowed black women to openly discuss sexual assault. She believed that the only way to combating the unhealthy and often violent introductions to sexuality that many women had experienced, was to have conversations about sexuality among black women, and especially between mothers and daughters. BWHI also formed relationships with reproductive health organizations worldwide, to share knowledge and try to improve the lives of women of color everywhere.

Avery produced the documentary film On Becoming a Woman: Mothers and Daughters Talking to Each Other (1987). It features African-American women and their daughters talking about sex, love, menstruation and other personal issues.

In 1995 Avery received a L.H.D. from Bates College. She is a clinical professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and advisor to the National Institutes of Public Health, and has served as visiting fellow at Harvard School of Public Health.

Avery has also been on the board directors of many women’s health organizations, including the National Women's Health Network (1976-81), the New World Foundation (1986-91), the W.K. Kellogg International Friendship Program (1989-94), the Boston Women's Health Book Collective (1990-92), the Global Fund for Women (1989-), and the International Women's Health Coalition (1989-).


Price, K. (2013, May 31). Avery, Byllye. Oxford African American Studies Center. Retrieved 1 Sep. 2020, from

Auteri, S. (2015). Essential Figures in the Field of Sexuality: Byllye Avery. Contemporary Sexuality, 16–19.


5.939 linear feet (16 containers)

18.1 Gigabytes (1 digital file)

Language of Materials



Health reformer; reproductive rights advocate. Papers document Avery's work as an activist in the field of black women's health and reproductive rights, including clippings, articles, correspondence, financial information, conference materials, speaking engagements, memorabilia, and audiovisual materials. Materials relating to Avery's involvement in the Black Women's Health Imperative are also included.


The collection is divided into 9 series.


  1. Biographical materials and photographs
  2. Correspondence
  3. Conferences and meetings
  4. Activities and organizations
  5. Speeches
  6. Writings
  7. Subject files
  8. Media appearances, interviews, and broadcasts
  9. Memorabilia

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

As a preservation measure, researchers must use digital copies of audiovisual materials in this collection. Please consult with Special Collections staff or email to request the creation of and access to digital copies.

Please consult with Special Collections staff or email to request access to digital content that is not online.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Byllye Avery began donating her papers in 2009.


In 2019, the 3/4" Umatic videotape "Byllye Avery: Infant Mortality" was discarded because it was moldy. It had been digitized in 2015, and the digital copy has been retained.

Related Materials

Associated material can be found in the Black Women's Health Imperative Records. There is an oral history of Byllye Avery in the Voices of Feminism Oral History Project.

Collections in the Sophia Smith Collection that contain more materials related to the Black Women’s Health Imperative include the Nkenge Touré papers and the SisterLove records. Collections related to the National Women's Health Network include the Sophia Smith Collection topical collection on women's health, the Joan E. Biren papers, and the Loretta J. Ross papers.

Processing Information

In 2015, a moldy U-matic tape was sent to ScreenSavers for digitization. In 2019, the original moldy tape was discarded.

In 2016, Hanna Pennington and Maida Goodwin began processing the collection. They sorted the materials into 10 series and created a draft finding aid to match their new arrangement. In 2019, several additional groups of material, called accessions, were added to the collection, but were not integrated into the new series arrangement.

In 2020, student assistant Madeline Michels imported the finding aid draft into our online database. Michels and processing archivist Madison White then rearranged the description, including incorporating the 2019 accessions into the existing structure and sorting some materials from the oversize series into the other existing series. The finding aid was then updated to reflect the new arrangement. While the description has been rearranged, materials in boxes were not moved, so materials from the 2019 accessions are still in the order in which they were received from Avery.

Finding Aid to the Byllye Avery papers
Enhanced Finding Aid (Completed)
Madeline Michels and Madison White
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Description is written in English.
Processing of the Byllye Avery Papers was partially funded by the generous support of the Smith College Program for the Study of Women and Gender.

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (
  • 2017-07-26T17:48:23-04:00: This record was migrated from InMagic DB Textworks to ArchivesSpace.
  • 2021-02-23: Imported content inventories and updated top level description to comply with DACS
  • 2021-02-23: Description added for born-digital content.

Repository Details

Part of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History Repository

Neilson Library
7 Neilson Drive
Northampton MA 01063