Leader. Builder. Artist. Historian.
All the words used to describe the 2018 winner of The Austin Cunningham Character Award seemed to fall short in capturing the full essence of Cecil J. Williams and his contributions to the Orangeburg community.
"His work and exceptional character have drawn national attention to our community and racial change," Orangeburg County Community of Character Executive Director Evelyn Disher said.
"His desire and commitment to serve should not go unrecognized,” she said.
Williams is an Orangeburg photographer, inventor, videographer, author and architect. Disher presented him with “The Austin” award Thursday night at the Orangeburg County Chamber of Commerce banquet.
When it was revealed he was the recipient of the award, Williams was noticeably surprised.
"My wife has pulled this once or twice in my life and I am totally surprised," he said. "I am really overwhelmed. It will inspire me to work for greater causes and to continue what I have done in the past in working for people. That is what it is all about to make this community a better place for all of us to live."
“The Austin” is given to an individual who exemplifies character traits that help make the county a better place to live, work and thrive.
The award is named after the late Austin Cunningham, who was a community advocate, businessman and civic servant. Williams knew him.
"He was uncommonly kind to people of color way back when it was not universal in Orangeburg," he said. "I am hoping in Orangeburg that we come together and that we overcome some of the obstacles that are still facing us."
"We should aspire to grow more and to bring better benefits to citizens because we have all the ingredients to make a greater city," Williams said. "I am hoping that will happen and happen soon."
A native of Orangeburg, Williams was inspired to pursue photography when his brother gave him a hand-me‐down Kodak Brownie.
By age 15, Williams was working as a professional photographer for publications such as JET magazine, the Afro‐American newspaper and the Pittsburgh Courier. He was also a stringer for the Associated Press.
Following His graduation from Claflin University, Williams used his camera to capture significant milestones in the civil rights movement.
When Orangeburg's black citizens began protesting segregated education, he photographed them challenging the system.
Later JET Magazine sent him to Clemson University where he photographed Harvey Gantt becoming the first African American admitted to the university.
His photographs 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 United States.
Williams has earned the Governor’s Award for the Humanities and the Order of the Palmetto. He is The Times and Democrat’s 2018 Person of the Year.
Williams is a member of Delta Chi and the Boule of Sigma Pi Phi, the oldest African-American fraternity. He is a member of St. Luke Presbyterian Church.
He is married to Barbara Williams.