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010119 Person of the Year Cecil Williams

Photographer Cecil Williams poses in front of his studio -- a building he designed -- in the Northwood Estates neighborhood.

A lifelong Orangeburg resident, he’s known widely as a talented photographer who chronicled the civil rights movement in the city and later published several books of photographs.

With a longtime interest in architecture, he designed three of the homes he’s lived in.

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He invented the Film Toaster, a device for more quickly converting film negatives into a digital format, and he has been active in fighting for solutions to sewer problems in his neighborhood.

He earned the Governor’s Award for the Humanities this year and the Order of the Palmetto late last year.

And now Cecil Williams is The Times and Democrat’s 2018 Person of the Year.

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

“You’re not operating in a vacuum. You really are assisted or helped. So many other people have put in place the steps.”

Those people include mentors in photography like educator Robert E. Howard, E.C. Jones and John Goodwin; and mentors in life like his mother, a devoted classroom teacher, and his father, an innovative tailor who in one day could sew and craft an entire suit -- from the lining to the finished coat and pants.

Others who helped guide Williams include high school teachers like Mabel Jenkins and college professors like Arthur Rose, the head of Claflin College’s art department; and those who helped him along in educational and business pursuits, such as T.J. Crawford, Ira Davis and Claflin presidents Maceo Nance, H.V. Manning and Dr. Henry N. Tisdale.

Williams' interest in photography developed when he was a just a young fellow of 9.

“My brother was the one in the family with the camera, and he grew to liking music. And he kind of gave the camera to me,” he said.

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“I became very intrigued by photography at an early age because all along, I liked to draw – draw cars and houses and things. But the camera enabled me to do things a little more faithfully. I could get a better version of it.”

His parents purchased more cameras for him over the years as his passion grew. An early experience really stoked the flame.

“I really got very inspired by taking a picture of Thurgood Marshall getting off the train in Charleston,” Williams said. “He was, to the mind of a person my age – a ‘biggie,” this big lawyer getting off the train.”

Marshall had come to Charleston to engage in the Briggs vs. Elliott case.

The photo was taken with Williams' first camera that came equipped with a flash unit.

“The bulbs for it cost about a dollar, which was way out of whack for everything else because you could only use it one time,” he said.

“So I only took one picture of this great attorney getting off the train. That was it, one picture. And I felt very fortunate to capture something like that, that part of history.”

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In the mid-1950s, Marshall came to Orangeburg on the heels of the victory in Brown vs. Board of Education.

“Orangeburg at that time is involved in a boycott,” Williams said. “Ten parents put their name on a list to (send their children) to the public schools."

“And as soon as they did, a lot of economic pressure was put on them. Bank loans were called in, they were intimidated. A lot of times they were fired from their jobs,” he said.

“So Orangeburg citizens got together and formed a boycott against merchants who seemed to be leading this surge to put pressure on the black citizens.”

JET Magazine came to Orangeburg to photograph the boycott.

“They thought it might be wise to have continuous coverage. So I was about the only photographer in town," Williams said.

He was asked to work for the magazine, photographing the events in Orangeburg.

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“I became one of the 20 or so correspondents across the South that on a regular basis submitted pictures to JET,” he said.

“JET freelancers and contributors were very important to the black press because mainline newspapers did not carry African-American news, and especially if they were engaged in boycotts and demonstrations,” Williams said. “That just didn’t make the paper.”

He also contributed photos to the Pittsburgh Courier and the Afro-American, weekly newspapers that catered to the African-American community.

“And so most historians don’t place the importance of that boycott in history,” Williams said. “But in reality, it was discovered recently that that boycott was the template that was used in Montgomery, Alabama by Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.”

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Williams continued his photographic endeavors, taking photos of life around the city. His parents allowed him to have a small studio and darkroom in their Quick Street home.

“More and more, I took pictures of just everyday kinds of things. I was a photographer for birthday parties, weddings, family events and things that just involved ordinary people. And sometimes, just portraits, which I took in my house at the time,” Williams said.

All through high school, he worked for South Carolina State and Claflin. After his high school graduation, he wanted to become an architect.

“I always wanted to be a photographer, but I also wanted to be an architect," Williams said.

“Looking back, one regret I have is that because blacks could not attend institutions like Clemson University, I was unable to pursue a career in architecture."

Williams majored in art at Claflin, studying under the renowned Arthur Rose. It was a fulfilling and rewarding experience for him, he said.

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“I would not trade any aspect of my life for the unique experiences on the ‘hilltop high,’” Williams said.

It kicked off a career in photography and a long professional association with Claflin, where he is the official photographer.

Williams said is thankful to his family for love and support: his wife of 26 years, Barbara – “the wind beneath my wings” – his sister Brenda, and his cousin and neighbor, Maudell Sally Bing.

“All of them bring enjoyment and support to my life,” he said.

Williams said he has no plans of slowing down, likening himself to the "Energizer bunny."

“I have no retirement plans in the making," he said. "I hope I can keep on keeping on and never stop working, achieving, giving, developing.”

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Contact the writer: chuff@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5543.

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