Byllye Yvonne Avery was born in Waynesville, Georgia in 1937, and grew up in DeLand, Florida. Byllye studied psychology at Talladega College in Alabama graduating in 1959. She met Wesley Avery on her first day of college and they married on June 25, 1960. They had two children. Byllye received an M.A. in special education from the University of Florida in 1969 and devoted herself to the education of emotionally disturbed children, first as a teacher and then as a consultant to the state of Florida. Her husband’s sudden death at age 33 was the catalyst for Byllye’s commitment to improving the health of the African American community; focusing particularly on women. In 1974, Byllye Avery, Joan Edelson, Judy Levy and Margaret Parrish opened the Gainesville Women’s Health Center (GWHC) as a response to the outrageous lack of access to abortion and other reproductive health needs that low-income black women faced in northern Florida. Four years later she co-founded Birthplace, an alternative birthing center, also in Gainesville. The self-help groups she initiated served as models throughout the nation and worldwide, and they paved the way for her founding in 1983 of the National Black Women’s Health Project (NBWHP; since 2003 the Black Women’s Health Imperative). As executive director (1982–90) of the NBWHP, Byllye helped the grassroots advocacy organization grow to an international network of more than 2,000 participants in 22 states and 6 foreign countries. She also serves as a clinical professor of population and family health at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. In 1989 she was the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in recognition of her pioneering work on Black women’s health issues. Byllye has produced a film about young girls and sexuality entitled On Becoming a Woman (1987) and authored the book, An Altar of Words: Wisdom, Comfort, and Inspiration for African American Women (1998). Byllye founded the Avery Institute for Social Change in 2002. The organization educates Black Americans on health-care policy. Byllye married her longtime partner Ngina Lythcott in 2005.
"There is one race, and it is the human race."