Photographer Cecil Williams tells students about growing up in the segregated South
Note: The S.C. African American Heritage Foundation received an Arts in Education Project grant to help fund an artist residency featuring photographer Cecil Williams. Images above: The South Carolina Arts Commission's State Art Collection includes three works by Williams. (click on an image for larger view.)
Article and photo by Joe Perry
[caption id="attachment_29478" align="alignright" width="300"] Cecil Williams[/caption]
LAMAR, S.C. – Life under segregation in South Carolina was not easy, but Cecil Williams was there with his camera, capturing history as it was made.
The 79-year-old Orangeburg native spoke on Jan. 9 to students at Lamar High School as part of a two-day residency that included a presentation that night at Black Creek Arts Council and an appearance at Mayo High School in Darlington. The residency is funded through the South Carolina African American Heritage Foundation and S.C. Arts Commission.
Williams got his first camera when he was 9 years old as his brother’s interests turned to music and playing the saxophone. Williams was instantly enthralled with the Kodak “Baby Brownie,” he said, and he figured out “a little hustle” early on. With 12 exposures, he’d go to Edisto Gardens to photograph couples. Developing the film cost a dollar.
“That means I would make 11 dollars,” he said, laughing.
His career and subject matter, though, soon turned to how he saw the disadvantages African-Americans faced. As part of his slideshow, Williams shared photos that reached millions of people through publications such as Life and Newsweek magazines and The New York Times, while his primary employer was JET magazine.
“How was it back then for African-Americans at the time?” he said. “When people, just because of the color of their skin, don’t have the same rights as other people?”
Williams was chased out of the courthouse in Orangeburg for taking a photo of a restroom marked "Colored." Not one to shy away from controversy, he photographed a family victimized by the Ku Klux Klan. He told the students a cross was burned on their lawn because the grandson was deemed “sassy” for looking at a white person. His family’s heritage is Native American, Caucasian and African-American, he said, but they were considered people of color, and when a family trip to North Carolina came to a halt because their car broke down, they couldn’t find a place to stay.
“This was probably what would be I-95 today,” he said, showing a photo of the broken-down car and his family.
One of his most requested photos, he told the students, was from a march in downtown Orangeburg with students holding signs that said "FREEDOM" and "DOWN WITH SEGREGATION." Another of his well-published photos depicted teachers in Elloree fired for refusing to disavow the NAACP. He recalled he was probably paid $50 for a photo, which was a significant amount at the time “and encouraged me to go forward.”
One of his most exciting times was personally meeting John F. Kennedy, then a Massachusetts senator who was aspiring to become president.
“I became a good acquaintance of him and shared my pictures with him,” he said, and Williams even wrangled a seat on Kennedy's campaign plane as the lone member of the press.
The most pivotal time of his life and career came in 1968, several years after the landmark Civil Rights Act had been passed under President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“Everything had been opened up,” he said. “But not in Orangeburg, South Carolina.”
A bowling alley that was still segregated prompted a demonstration by students that resulted in a melee ending with the shooting deaths of three African-American men.
“Total disregard for human life,” he said. “They injured 27 and killed three young men, who were my friends, just because they wanted to bowl in a bowling alley, and they wanted the right to demonstrate.”
Whether it was the Orangeburg Massacre or demonstrations in Columbia and Charleston, Williams said, he wasn’t there solely to capture history.
“At the time it was unavoidable and, you might say, the thing to do,” he said. “Had I not been there with a camera, I would have been there as a student or participant myself. So I was an eyewitness and participant.”
At one point in his life, Williams said, he wanted to study architecture at Clemson University but wasn’t able to because of his skin color. He nonetheless designed several homes and has spent time with inventions as well; one of those, the Film Toaster, is something he spent years tinkering with. Used to digitize decaying negatives, the Film Toaster – patent pending – has allowed him to preserve his legacy and ensure his archives remain in good shape. With grant funding, there are five Claflin University students working with two Film Toasters to keep his historical record intact.
“I’m trying to show what it was like growing up in the middle of a revolution, one of the most significant revolutions of mankind,” Williams said. “It made America and the world a better place.”
Ron and Natalie Daise to perform God’s Trombones
The South Carolina African American Heritage Foundation received a South Carolina Arts Commission Performing and Presenting grant to help support this performance.
From the Darlington News and Press
Black Creek Arts Council and the South Carolina African American Heritage Foundation will present husband and wife duo Ron and Natalie in God’s Trombones at the Center Theater in Hartsville on Sunday, February 21, 2016 at 3:00 p.m.
“‘God’s Trombones’ was a major part of black culture at one time,” said Ron Daise. “Children and adults learned and presented the poetry of James Weldon Johnson at church, school, and civic events. “I saw presentations of ‘God’s Trombones’ by the Henderson Davis Players of S.C. State College throughout my childhood. The performances were magical, filling the stage with color and energy and life. Then afterward, the stage would be as bare as it had been before the production started, and the actors would not be the larger-than-life characters they had portrayed. That inspired me early in life to be transformative in onstage presentations.”
The theatrical performance of James Weldon Johnson’s “God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Poems in Verse”includes a cappella selections of Gullah spirituals and appeals to lovers of inspirational writing, scholars of African American culture, and persons who appreciate great poetry.
Ron Daise, Brookgreen Garden’s Vice President for Creative Education, is an author, performing artist, and cultural preservationist. Natalie Daise is a visual artist, storyteller, and creative catalyst. The husband and wife team is a recipient of the 1996 SC Order of the Palmetto and the 1997 State of South Carolina Folk Heritage Award and served as star and cultural consultants of Nick Jr. Many families remember their show “Gullah Gullah Island” from the 1990’s.
“The cultural and artistic components of this project or program are funded in part by the Black Creek Arts Council of Darlington County, which receives funds from the South Carolina Arts Commission, the John and Susan Bennett Memorial Arts Fund of the Coastal Community Foundation of SC, and the National Endowment for the Arts.”
The South Carolina African American Heritage Foundation supports the efforts of the South Carolina African American Heritage Foundation identify and promote the history and culture of African Americans in South Carolina.
This event is also supported by the City of Hartsville Accommodations Tax. Tickets for the event are $10 for adults and $5 for students. Tickets can be purchased at www.scaaheritagefound.org or by calling 843-917-3350.
The arts are key components in Burning of Columbia commemoration
Although often overshadowed in the popular imagination by the burning of Atlanta, Ga., the burning of Columbia, S.C. on the evening of February 17, 1865, was a major event in American history and a defining moment in the history of the state, city and the Civil War. Through a multi-disciplinary coalition of organizations and agencies, Columbia is launching a two-month-long initiative to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the burning through lectures, tours, films, exhibits, literature, public discussions and visual and performing arts.
“Sherman’s march through South Carolina, which culminated with the burning of Columbia on February 17, 1865, was the most traumatic event in the history of much of the state, and for 150 years it has shaped how South Carolinians viewed the past and their place in it,” said Eric Emerson, director of the South Carolina Department of Archives & History. “This commemoration provides us with an opportunity to look at history through a different lens and to seek out the voices of those whose stories have been left untold for one and a half centuries.”
“This commemoration is an opportunity for all of us not only to mark this important moment in our history but also to take stock in how far we’ve come as a city and as a people,” said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin. “Columbia has literally risen from ashes over the past 150 years to become a model progressive city of the new South, and we want everyone to come out and help us celebrate.”
Columbia, the site of the original Secession Convention and capital of the first seceding state, was seen by the Union army as a special political target to encourage the surrender of the remaining Confederate forces. Columbia surrendered to the Union Army under the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman on February 17, 1865, and while the soldiers’ arrival signaled the imminent emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the city, the city suffered widespread destruction. The legacy of this physical loss is a pillar of the city’s common folklore and memories of the Civil War, and it remains hotly debated today.
With funding from the South Carolina Arts Commission and The Humanities CouncilSC, commemoration organizers are receiving direction from a group of historians representing the South Carolina Department of Archives & History, South Carolina African American Heritage Foundation, University of South Carolina, Richland Library, Historic Columbia, South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, and the South Carolina State Museum.
"This commemoration presents a special opportunity for Columbia's cultural organizations to collaborate and create a wide-ranging, diverse series of events that explore our City's identity," said One Columbia for Arts & History Executive Director Lee Snelgrove. "It's wonderful that academics and artists, historians and visionaries have come together to explore the complexity of Columbia and its past through artistic expression."
Tuesday, February 17, 2015—the 150th anniversary of the burning of Columbia—will offer a full day of events. The University of South Carolina’s History Center, Institute for Southern Studies and Graduate School will present a symposium from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Columbia Museum of Art featuring prominent scholars who will shed fresh light on the meaning of the events 150 years ago. The symposium will also include a presentation on foodways of the 1860s, accompanied by a period-appropriate meal. At 4 p.m. that day, the S.C. Department of Archives & History will unveil an historical marker to commemorate the burning at the corner of Main and Gervais streets, and at 5 p.m., the official commemoration ceremony will begin in Boyd Plaza on the 1500 block of Main Street.
The ceremony will feature music from the Benedict College Concert Choir and the Sandlapper Singers, presentations by community leaders and historians, and the world premieres of two performance art pieces created for this commemoration. Following the ceremony, attendees are encouraged to explore exhibits, performances, tours, music, readings and more at venues along Columbia’s Main Street. More details about all commemoration events, as well as an overview of the history and significance of Columbia’s burning, are available on a new website, BurningofColumbia.com.
“We hope to encourage open dialogue with this project,” said Historic Columbia Executive Director Robin Waites. “The legacy of the burning is one of rebirth and reinvention. By reflecting on it, we can see how far we’ve come as a city and recognize how far we have still to go.”
About Columbia Commemorates:
Columbia Commemorates is a multi-disciplinary coalition comprised of Midlands and statewide organizations formed to plan and implement a citywide commemoration of this pivotal event. Through lectures; tours; film; visual, literary and performing arts; exhibits; public discussion; and large public gatherings, Columbia Commemorates will explore the events of February 17, 1865, as well as the immediate and long-term ramifications of the burning of South Carolina’s capital city. For more information about the commemoration and a calendar of events, please visit BurningofColumbia.com and follow on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at @BurningofCola.
Image: Photographer George N. Barnard captured the desolation of Columbia, South Carolina’s Richardson (Main) Street shortly after the city’s burning in February 1865. Image courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.