Orangeburg, South Carolina
Orangeburg photographer Cecil Williams has captured thousands of images of African Americans’ struggle for equal rights over the decades and is now set to unveil a series of wall art that depicts their story in the state. It’s a story he hopes will reach middle and high schools.
Williams, whose photographs helped preserve the African-American experience of the second half of the 20th century, is giving the community another glimpse into her treasure trove of images with the wall art “Moments of Grace – The Story of the South Carolina that changed America”. series.
“I believe we need something like this because a lot of times the history of South Carolina and the things that we’ve done have been lost to history. We stand on the shoulders of many great people, but our history is not known,” Williams said.
Using his skills in photography, art and computer graphics, the 84-year-old started the series in 1999. He has just completed 60 of what will be a series of 100 images that depict history, culture and heritage of the state and how it all intertwines with the struggle of African Americans for justice and equality.
He hopes his series of 11X17 inch images will be distributed to middle and high schools across the state.
“The goal is to get this to every middle school and high school in the state of South Carolina. I have an upcoming meeting with state superintendent of education Molly Spearman. From a person who negotiated the meeting with her, they said she was very excited to see him. She indicated that she wanted to see me and would meet me after Christmas. So it can happen any day I have a meeting with her,” Williams said.
He continued, “My 2006 book ‘Out of the Box in Dixie’ was also distributed by Inez Tenenbaum, who was the state’s superintendent of education at the time, to all 88 school districts in the state of Caroline from the south. They bought 2,000 of my books and distributed them to 88 school districts. Now, I believe it’s about 83 school districts.
Williams felt his job was not done.
“I felt like this was another time where I might have something to offer to our state’s education system. Our young people today don’t know our history, and I think the history gives us a benchmark on which to base all the things we do now and in the future,” he said.
Each of the project’s contributing sponsors will receive a poster-sized framed image from the series, which includes images illustrating the experiences of those involved in the Briggs v. Elliott case, which would ultimately lead to the Brown v. Board of Education of 1954. decision that forced the desegregation of public schools.
Williams described how her project to create images of the state’s African-American history in a series of wall art was born.
“At the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet each year, Nelson Rivers, who served as Executive Director for several years, would ask me to create a special image from my images to give to corporate sponsors. It was from I think around 1999 or so.
“Over many years, through his direction, and also under the direction of Dwight James, who was the executive director of the NAACP until recently, I created a series of images, and they would be based on my photographs , or my paintings, with a framed copy to give to corporate sponsors, so that was the birth of the idea,” he said.
He continued, “For two decades I did this. So during COVID I had more free time. So I created this series.
His images are available in 11X7 inch and 22X34 inch sizes.
Williams said he plans to have his wall art series featured in school libraries.
“Normally, posters and, you might say, African-American history, or Afro-centric history, come out and are talked about a lot more during Black History Month. Here is a story that could actually be available at any time because we are so behind in educating our young people about history. Again, I focus on South Carolina’s African-American history. Apparently African-American history in South Carolina so far has been left out of the history books, but in fact my museum really emphasizes that we’re just at the very beginning,” said he declared.
The Cecil Williams South Carolina Civil Rights Museum is a non-profit entity that Williams operates in Orangeburg.
“I never even had an open day because I never felt like I finished the museum. I’m still working on it. I initially funded it myself to get it off the ground. … Then I got small contributions, and we’re still waiting, trying to get major contributions and donors so we can really kick it off,” he said.
“But now apparently the city of Orangeburg and maybe Claflin University are opening the door of opportunity for me at Railroad Corner as a museum entity that could move into the State Theater. They say that could be the great mix there, to put a place that’s culture, heritage and history and so on,” Williams said.
In the meantime, he thinks his series of wall art is an opportunity to tout the importance of visual arts in education, especially those that have made a difference in African Americans’ struggle for freedom and justice. .
He referenced images from the series of Judge Julius Waties Waring, a U.S. District Judge for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of South Carolina. Waring played an important role in the early legal battles of the American civil rights movement, his dissent in Briggs v Elliott proving fundamental to the case Brown v Board of Education.
“This image that I created of Strom Thurmond – even though Strom Thurmond was known to be a very vocal and rigid segregationist, nevertheless the other side was that he was the first to hire a black assistant on Capitol Hill and also brought millions of dollars to black colleges, HBCUs and black businesses,” Williams said.
He said his series included powerful images with small captions of their significance in history, including his photo of United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall at Claflin University in November 1955, shortly after the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
It also includes images of the leaders of the student civil rights movement Friendship Nine; Harvey Gantt, the first African American to attend Clemson University and, of course, footage of the Orangeburg Massacre, referencing the 1968 event that saw three students killed and 28 others injured when soldiers from The South Carolina Highway Patrol opened fire on a crowd of protesters after three nights of escalating racial tension following efforts to desegregate the All-Star Triangle Bowl.
“All of them have this theme: the history of South Carolina that shaped America. That’s the name of the series. I use my historical photography. I graduated from Claflin University in art. I studied with Arthur Rose, but my profession my whole life has been photography since I was 9 years old,” Williams said.
“My hero in art is the great Norman Rockwell, who was an illustrator, so I consider myself an illustrator because I create multi-media art that stems from my paintings, my photography, and my computer graphics skills,” he said, noting that the series also includes an image of Lenny Springs, a member of the NAACP state board of directors, marching in Freedom March in Colombia.
“I produced the image with a painterly effect. It goes beyond photography. This is how I use both photography and art. Think of the stunning image of US Marines in Iwo Jima raising the flag. Think of the lone citizen throwing a rock at a tank in Tiananmen Square,” Williams said.
“Powerful images teach so much and are memorable. So in today’s world of social media, what could be more effective than a series of images that portray our history, heritage and culture? That’s what I try to do,” he said.