The 2018 Austin Award

cecil j. williams

Shown below are excerpts from the presentation made to Cecil J. Williams by Executive Director, Evelyn Disher on January 17, 2019.

... The work and accomplishments of the 2018 “Austin Award” recipient  is certainly worthy of this recognition.

Here are some things said in their nomination and selection. They continue to serve as a key leader through their tireless efforts to enhance our community.  They demonstrate unparalleled commitment, integrity, courage, initiative, wisdom, sincerity, loyalty, creativity, and respect in their work and dealings with others. They actively engage in neighborhood and community improvement.

They have remained steadfast in working for positive reform and societal change. They have chronicled our community’s history educating us as to what we’ve done, who we are, identifying our heroes whose quest for equality, sacrifices and contributions should not be forgotten (but highlighted as we continue to raise the standards and principles by which we live). And in the process, they have highlighted and garnered attention in the role Orangeburg County has had in our nations’ history.  For as MLK, Jr. stated “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”

Their work and exceptional character have drawn national attention to our community and racial change. Their desire and commitment to serve should not go unrecognized; it should be rewarded.

The work and accomplishments of the 2018 “Austin Award” recipient is certainly worthy of this recognition.

Our recipient is a native of Orangeburg. They are a self- described “child of segregation”. But rather than having a negative impact, the racial barriers they endured as a youth propelled them upward...and forward with passion.

He wanted to draw and take pictures but segregation at  the local library prevented the 9 year old youth from taking courses. Rather than discouragement, he was inspired within by family.  His brother gave him a hand-me-down Kodak Brownie. One photo opportunity transformed his entire life: one click, one flash; he photographed Thurgood Marshall coming to Charleston to engage in legislation that led to Brown vs. Board of Education (the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case that declared "separate but equal" public schools for whites and blacks as unconstitutional).

At 14 years old, he wanted to play tennis, but he was barred from playing on Orangeburg’s “White Only” facilities at that time. Rather than being discouraged, he practiced and practiced; leading to the semi-final match against Arthur Ashe in ATA national competition at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. He won 3 games but lost the match.

By age 15 he was working as a professional and freelance photographer for publications such as JET magazine, the Afro-American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier; and he was a stringer for the Associated Press.

After his senior year at Wilkinson High School, he wanted to study architecture at Clemson but Jim Crow laws prevented his enrollment. Rather than a negative impact, his determination endured as he bought a drafting table and began designing cars and homes; one of which generated solar electricity and was featured as the “Space Age Home” in EBONY magazine.  He would pursue and hone his talents as an art major and graduate from what is now Claflin University.

When Orangeburg Black citizens began protesting segregated education, he photographed them challenging the system. JET Magazine recognized the pioneers and hired him to continue capturing our struggles.

While visiting relatives in New York in 1960, camera dangling from his neck, he walked into Roosevelt Hotel where newspapers had announced his hero, Senator John F. Kennedy, was to appear. Looking around, the only person of color in a room full of journalists, hotel security escorted him out; but JFK intervened and befriended the young journalist, and made him a favorite cameraperson.

JET Magazine would later dispatch him to Clemson University, where, near a building named after Ben Tillman, a staunch segregationist, he photographed Harvey Gantt achieving, “Integration with dignity,” as Mr. Gantt  became the first African American student admitted to Clemson University.

Over the decades, incident after incident, he has used negative injustices as inspiration to overcome and achieve for freedom, justice and equality.

Today he is lauded as one of the country’s most accomplished visual artists bringing national attention to Orangeburg.  He has worked as a professional photographer, author, and designer/architect. But he is best known as the chronicler of the civil rights era. He has published 7 books; the first “Freedom and Justice” was published by Mercer University Press.

His photographs are considered to be the most comprehensive collection of the civil rights era and have been featured in over 130 books, 17 newspapers, and 11 television documentaries.  His work has been exhibited in many museums and galleries across the US including those of higher institutions and our own local museums at USC, SCSU, and his alma mater, Claflin University.

His service to community has also taken on a political nature as he probed the needs of our community and pursued key leadership positions.

In 2015, he invented the FilmToaster, a camera scanning platform and system that digitizes film negatives faster than other methods.

It’s an understatement to say that others have noticed and recognized his contributions.  Recently, he earned the Governor’s Award for the Humanities, the Order of the Palmetto, and The Times and Democrat’s 2018 Person of the Year.  (Note that he was selected as our recipient before several of these awards were revealed.)

He holds membership with Delta Chi, the Orangeburg, South Carolina Boulé of Sigma Pi Phi, the oldest African-American Fraternity; and he is a member of St. Luke Presbyterian Church.

He has said “Any success I have can be attributed to so many people whose shoulders I stand on, then and now.”

Today, his passion is directed towards establishing a museum of art and civil rights history for the people of Orangeburg. He also serves as the director of Historic Preservation at Claflin University.

He is a community leader; businessman; architect; author; visual artist; inventor; husband of Barbara Johnson Williams (a retired educator); (brother of Brenda Williams); and outstanding citizen. We are proud to present this year’s Austin Cunningham Character Award to our community builder, and our friend …  Cecil J. Williams