S.C. Arts Awards: Cecil Williams

2019 Recipient Feature Series

As the day nears for the 2019 South Carolina Arts Awards, The Hub is taking 15 days to focus on this year’s recipients: nine receiving the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Awards for the Arts and five receiving the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award, which are managed jointly by the South Carolina Arts Commission and McKissick Museum at UofSC. In between the two groups, we’ll run a special feature on S.C. Arts Awards sponsor Colonial Life.


Cecil Williams

Lifetime Achievement

Cecil Williams is a professional photographer, videographer, publisher, inventor, and author.

Born and raised in Orangeburg, his extraordinary life and career were shaped by the personal, economic, and political boundaries of segregated life during the Jim Crow Era South. He is perhaps best known for using his penetrating lens to document the struggle to achieve freedom, justice, and equality during the civil rights movement.

By the age of 9, he had already begun his career in photography and by 15 was working professionally. From a childhood darkroom in Orangeburg to New York hotels with heads of state to the frontlines of protests and mass meetings around South Carolina, Williams has recorded remarkable moments from the past. He worked as a freelancer for JET magazine, the Baltimore Afro-Americana and the Pittsburgh Courier and as a stringer for the Associated Press. As a young journalist, Williams developed close associations with key Civil Rights figures who provided him unique access to events around South Carolina that were closed to outsiders and the mainstream press.

The teenaged Williams documented the Clarendon County movement that led to Briggs v. Elliott, an important legal precedent for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that desegregated public schools. He also captured the bravery of student protesters at South Carolina State College, desegregation at Clemson University and the University of South Carolina, the quiet heroism of teachers at the Elloree Training School who resigned from their jobs rather than renounce their affiliation with the NAACP and then and was there for the Orangeburg Massacre in 1968. When Lennie Glover, a Benedict College student, returned to the protest lines after a near-fatal stabbing, Williams was there, his camera focused on Glover’s determined steps down Columbia’s Main Street as he challenged segregation.

An accomplished architect, he designed six residences that served as his home and art studio. He became an author in May 2006, publishing Out of the Box in Dixie, a photo-documentary. That publication’s sequel, Unforgettable, was released February 2018. Williams earned a degree in art from Claflin University and was recently appointed by Claflin as its historic preservationist.

Williams is recipient of the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest award to an individual, and last fall received the Governor’s Award in the Humanities from SC Humanities. He owns Cecil Williams Photography, LLC in Orangeburg, and his new creation, the Cecil Williams Museum in Orangeburg, is slated to debut May 17, 2019.


South Carolina Arts Awards Day is Wednesday, May 1, 2019. The festivities begin at 10 a.m. with a reception that leads up to the awards ceremony at the UofSC Alumni Center (900 Senate St., Columbia). The event is free and open to the public. Following the ceremony, the South Carolina Arts Foundation honors the recipients and the arts community at the S.C. Arts Awards Luncheon and Art Sale. Tickets are $50. Please go here for more information and reservations.


Meet the Recipients

Use these links to read the long-form bios of the other 2019 South Carolina Arts Awards recipients.


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