You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
top story

This 81-year-old SC photographer's self-made civil rights museum is now open

  • Updated
young photographer Cecil Williams museum.jpg (copy)

Orangeburg's Cecil Williams, now 81, had a front row seat documenting South Carolina’s civil rights history with his camera and will soon be opening a museum with over 300 of his photographs. File/Staff 

A new photography and history museum has opened its doors in Orangeburg, a city that's rich in civil rights history but was, in its founder's view, lacking in places that celebrated it. 

The Cecil Williams Museum is named for the photographer whose images fill the rooms — about 350 photos, in all. Williams also serves as the museum's founder, funder and sole tour guide. 

Williams, an Orangeburg native, had waited a couple decades for the community to make progress on promises to build a civil rights museum, but, fearing that he'd never see it happen, decided to pursue a one-man operation and open his own. 

That meant spending several months doing everything from selecting, framing and hanging photos to laying down new flooring in his former photography studio that now houses the museum. Williams, who is 81, designed the minimalist building himself in the 1980s. 

For now, visitors need to book an appointment to tour the museum, which is in a residential neighborhood next to Williams' home. He's hoping to offer regular museum hours at some point, but is still seeking grants, donations and volunteers to support that. 

The museum's displays are centered around what Williams describes as "the South Carolina events that changed America." 

Among those are the Orangeburg Massacre that left three African American college students dead in 1968 and the Charleston hospital workers strike that marked its 50th anniversary this year.

As the museum's tour guide, Williams offers his guests first-hand accounts of many of those events. Williams had a “front row seat to history," having photographed prominent people and events starting as young as age 14. 

Over the last few weeks, Williams has already welcomed several hundred visitors to the museum, he said, between bookings with a few family reunions, some school groups and other appointments. 

Visitors have already echoed Williams' feeling that the museum fills a need, he said. One guest from Florida told him it was "about time" a place like it was opened. 

There has also been talk in Orangeburg of converting the All-Star Bowling Lanes — a now-shuttered downtown business where discriminatory practices prompted student protests that led to the Orangeburg Massacre — into a civil rights museum. 

We're starting a weekly newsletter about the business stories that are shaping Charleston and South Carolina. Get ahead with us - it's free.

Several graduate students from the MIT Sloan School of Management worked with the S.C. Association for Community Economic Development in the spring to put together a feasibility study for a museum at the site. 

The students estimated the project would require about $10 million and suggested that it include several other uses, like a cafe, a functioning bowling alley and a business incubator to support the museum and bring more amenities to downtown Orangeburg. 

To book a tour at the Cecil Williams Museum, guests can reach Williams through his website,, or call 803-531-1662.

Medal museum funding

A request for funding for a new Medal of Honor museum project proposed for Patriots Point will come before members of Mount Pleasant Town Council for the first time Monday.

The National Medal of Honor Heritage Center is asking the town for funds toward the construction of a facility that organizers estimate will cost $45 million to build and open.

The effort's two main leaders, former Patriots Point board member Thomas McQueeney and Medal of Honor recipient Maj. Gen. James Livingston, came to Charleston County Council in May to ask for $5 million for the museum. 

County council approved the request unanimously but made their commitment contingent on the financial support of Mount Pleasant and the state. If the town gives $3 million and the state $5 million, the county will contribute its share.

At an event held on the Yorktown aircraft carrier last week, McQueeney and Livingston announced that they hoped to open the museum by July 4, 2023. Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie was one of several local officials who spoke in support of the effort at the event.

The town's finance committee will discuss the funding request, and the economic development committee will take a look at the museum's potential financial impact. The committees meet at 12:45 p.m. and 1:45 p.m., respectively, on the third floor of Mount Pleasant's municipal building. 

Reach Emily Williams at 843-937-5553. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

Emily Williams is a business reporter at The Post and Courier, covering tourism and aerospace. She also writes the Business Headlines newsletter and co-hosts the weekly news podcast Understand SC.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News

Columbia Breaking News

Greenville Breaking News

Myrtle Beach Breaking News

Aiken Breaking News