ORANGEBURG — Cecil Williams got tired of waiting.
The Orangeburg photographer had been talking to community leaders about establishing a civil rights museum in the city for a couple decades, and, though at times it appeared plans were moving forward, they always fizzled out.
"I wanted to see it done in my lifetime," Williams said. "It just needed to be done, and so I did it."
About three months ago, Williams started converting his photography studio into a history museum where he plans to display some 350 photos — almost all taken by Williams himself — related to the civil rights movement in Orangeburg and other parts of South Carolina.
The 81-year-old has been working long days printing and hanging photos and arranging exhibits in anticipation of opening the area's first civil rights museum.
And now a new project from a group of graduate students at MIT could give a jolt to the community museum effort. Earlier this month, three students presented a detailed feasibility study to build a museum at the All-Star Bowling Lanes, a now-shuttered business whose discriminatory practices prompted a days-long student protest and was a precursor to the Orangeburg Massacre.
On Feb. 8, 1968, after four days of demonstrations against the bowling alley's whites-only policy, state Highway Patrol officers opened fire on student protesters. Three young African American men — Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond Jr. and Delano Middleton — were killed, and dozens more were injured.
Today, the bowling alley sits vacant, at the end of a strip of empty storefronts. The glass doors have been locked for years, but bowling balls sit in a line underneath a counter, and the bulletin board at the entrance still reads, "Leagues forming, sign up at desk." A thick film of dust covers the floor and fallen tiles dangle from the ceiling.
No one would know from peering through those doors that it's been designated as one of the most significant sites of the civil rights movement.
The 'right time'
The S.C. Association for Community Economic Development, a coalition that provides resources to communities across the state, was approached last year with an opportunity from MIT's Sloan School: they needed projects based in small cities and rural areas for students in its experiential "USA Lab" course.
This was the first time SCACED has partnered with the MIT class, said Kate Pratt, the organization's vice president of operations.
Knowing that Orangeburg had been calling for a museum for years, Pratt said they looked at what might make the effort successful now. The owner of the All-Star Bowling building had shown a willingness to sell, and the city was starting to invest in revitalizing its downtown area.
"It seemed like it might be the right time," Pratt said.
Three students were assigned to the team, which was tasked with determining cost estimates, making recommendations for the planning process and developing high-level concepts of what the museum and any surrounding development would include.
In March, SCACED facilitated a two-week, in-person visit with the students. During that time, they visited other civil rights museums in the region and met with Orangeburg city leadership, county stakeholders and others who had particular insight into the task of building a museum.
Among those people was Michael Moore, the CEO and president of Charleston's International African American Museum, a project which, though months from breaking ground now, took a couple decades of discussion, planning and fundraising.
Another stop on the students' trip took them to a quiet residential neighborhood in Orangeburg to take an early look at the Cecil Williams Museum.
A 'living museum'
When Williams decided to build his own museum, he committed to doing it — pretty much all of it — himself.
As a prolific photographer who had a "front row seat to history" starting as a young teen — a photo he shot at age 14 of Thurgood Marshall is one of the earliest on display — Williams was uniquely positioned to take on the task of museum development solo.
Williams, whose first dream was to be an architect, even designed the white, flat-roofed structure that will house the museum and, until a few months ago, was his studio. (Williams also designed the building next door, which is where he lives with his wife.)
He's printing and framing all of the images himself. He even installed most of the new flooring.
"But I'm not doing the plumbing in the bathrooms," Williams said. That, and very little else, he sought help for.
Williams is running a little behind his original schedule. He had hoped to open the museum on May 17, the date when the unanimous ruling on Brown v. Board of Education was delivered. While he didn't hit that date, he still plans to open a little later this year.
A different case, which came out of nearby Summerton, Briggs v. Elliott, will have a wall dedicated to it in Williams' museum. Williams describes the case as the "big bang" that led to Brown v. Board, and it cemented Clarendon County's role in achieving the landmark ruling that ended discriminatory "separate but equal" policies.
Another wall will be dedicated to Williams' photos of the Charleston hospital workers' strike. In the same room, he will display his photos related to the Orangeburg Massacre, which he photographed while working as a yearbook photographer for Claflin and South Carolina State universities.
One room, which will also be filled with photos from the 1960s, has a projection screen and space for chairs and tables. Williams plans to give presentations, host groups for meetings and have special events there.
One wall of the museum will feature names of people who contributed to the civil rights movement, many names, Williams said, which have never received recognition.
He also plans to include a small kiosk near the entrance where visitors can submit a name that isn't on his recognition wall yet.
"I want this to be a living museum," Williams said.
In addition to his photos, Williams plans to display about 100 artifacts, including many of his cameras. The first camera he ever owned sits in a display box underneath a plaque copy of a letter from Jet Magazine, telling him he'd been hired as a photojournalist.
Some items he's still working on acquiring, like the buckshot cartridges he collected on the campus grounds the day after the Orangeburg Massacre. He'd taken photos of the shells before giving them to the FBI.
A 'spirit' to get it done
Dela Yawo Mortia Gbordzoe, one of the three MIT students who was on the Orangeburg museum team, said he was surprised to discover how much of South Carolina's civil rights history he had never known.
"As an African American, as a child of immigrants, I was learning a lot of this history for the first time at 32," the Houston native said.
Ultimately, he said, his group found that a civil rights museum in Orangeburg would be viable, but the effort needs a surge of energy and a strong leader to keep up momentum.
Their presentation focused on four key recommendations: identify a champion for the project, establish a community task force, partner with the city's two universities and develop a mixed-use space around the museum.
They suggested building a cafe, a functioning bowling alley and a business incubator along with the museum.
"The spirit of people in South Carolina to get this done was really uplifting," Gbordzoe said. "If it happens, I want to be there."
Now that the students' study is complete, Pratt said the team at SCACED will meet with members of the Orangeburg community soon to go over their findings.
If the community is successful in purchasing the bowling alley, raising the funds needed — Gbordzoe and his teammates estimated it would require about $10 million — and opening a museum, Williams said he would be interested in sharing some of his photos for display.
And even though he's still preparing for his initial opening, Williams is already eyeing a possible expansion, if he can get the funding: an additional room where he could display even more photos, ones which celebrate African American culture in his home state but aren't specific to the civil rights movement.
Once his museum is finished, Williams plans to welcome visitors by appointment and could eventually operate with limited regular hours.
The museum's sole tour guide will, of course, be him.