The Eric Steele Wells papers document the family and education of Wells, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, especially Avery Institute in Charleston, where Wells attended school. The bulk of the collection includes material reflecting Wells' interest in collecting materials related to African American and African history. The collection contains correspondence, photographs, financial documents, Avery Institute publications and school documents, posters, printed ephemera, newsclippings and magazine articles, audiovisual material, and published papers.
The collection is arranged by personal and family records, materials related to Avery Institute, and materials collected by Wells throughout his life. A significant portion of the materials include handwritten notes by Wells regarding the significance of the individual items within the collection. The correspondence includes letters from his grandparents and other family members, as well as general correspondence. The bulk of the correspondence is from Wells' grandmother, Marie Steele, who raised him. Other correspondents include Wells' grandfather, Lewis; his uncle, Louis; and his brother, Thomas. The correspondence deals mainly with family matters and news.
General correspondence includes letters from Marie Pierce, who assisted in caring for Wells' grandparents in their later years; Herbert DeCosta, for many years the only African American licensed architect in South Carolina; and other friends that provide information about various members of the African American community in Charleston. Letters of note include a June 1969 letter from Martha Nickens about the Charleston Hospital Strike, as well as letters to Clifton Johnson, director of the Amistad Research Center, regarding Wells' collecting interests and the donation of his papers to the Center (1969-1971), a photocopy of a letter (April 26, 1969) written by Wells to his employer regarding employment inequities, and a letter from Ora W. Mobley of the Central Harlem Mothers Association (April 7, 1969). Lastly, a series of letters from former teachers at Avery Institute (Mrs. Florence A. Clyde, Mrs. Ruby Cornwall, Mrs. B.F. Cox, and A.W. Hoursey) and from the Avery Alumni Club are also included. Additional family materials include Lewis Steele's dues book and constitution of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America and Seventh Day Adventist and Watchtower Society publications collected by Maria Steele.
Materials related to Avery Institute include Well's diploma and a report card; a photograph of the graduating class of 1930; student newspapers; graduation programs and invitations; articles on the school; a school pennant, patch, and armband; and an essay written by Wells on the topic of "Charleston Vendors" (i.e., markets).
Eric Steele Wells was a lifelong collector of materials related to African American and African history, and his collected materials comprise the majority of his papers. These materials are generally arranged alphabetically by topic, and include printed ephemera, collected publications, photographs, and news clippings. Topics or individuals documented include: the city of Charleston, South Carolina; the presidential campaigns (1968) of Eldridge Cleaver and Dick Gregory; individuals and organizations such as Angela Davis, The Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King Jr., The Poor People's Theater, and Paul Robeson; churches in New York City, including Abyssinian Baptist Church, Mother A.M.E. Zion Church, and St. George's. African American dance, art, theater, and music are documented in collected flyers, playbills, programs, and sheet music.
In addition, materials related to Kenneth B. Clark and the Metropolitan Applied Research Center, as well as the topic of secondary education in New York City, are also included. Collected photographs are mainly comprised of publicity images of African American actors/actresses, musicians, and entertainers.
Topics of newspaper clippings include: the New York City Ballet, Nikki Giovanni, Ethel Waters, J. Waties Waring, Augustus Middleton, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, the Charleston Hospital Strike, Herbert DeCosta, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. DuBois. Audiovisual materials include open reel audiotapes of interviews with Helen Purvis on Avery Institute and with Ruth Conyers, daughter of James Conyers, the first African American to enter the U.S. Naval Academy, as well as a World War II-era USO recording.