Preserving the past

Photographer Cecil Williams of Orangeburg has captured thousands of images of the civil rights movement in South Carolina and pivotal moments in the state’s history, including the 1961 march in Columbia and the Briggs v. Elliott case. His negatives, some of which date to the 1940s, are deteriorating, so Williams is working with Claflin University on an preservation project.

ORANGEBURG — It’s becoming urgent. Some of the negatives are fading. It’s difficult to discern the subject matter. Others are shriveling, blistering, crackling. Creases have formed, causing a broken-mirror effect: a single image is broken into multiple triangular parts. Emulsion is peeling away.

Photographer Cecil Williams is increasingly concerned.

Many of the tens of thousands of images he’s captured during the past six decades possibly could be lost forever if nothing is done. He’s taken matters into his own hands, devising an efficient way to photograph the negatives then transform the images into a “positives” using Photoshop.

It takes him 10 minutes or so per image. At this rate, he’d need more than 8,000 hours — about a year without sleep or breaks — to create digital files of his vast archive. And that doesn’t take into account the need to restore (if possible) those negatives that already have deteriorated and find safe storage for everything: historic photographs of John F. Kennedy, Thurgood Marshall, the plaintiffs in the Briggs v. Elliott case, civil rights protesters in Columbia and much more.

He needs help; this is too much for one man to do, even as he continues at 77 years old to operate his Orangeburg studio and take pictures of events in the state. So Williams is collaborating with Claflin University on a project meant to preserve and archive his massive collection, safeguarding it for future generations.

Williams is South Carolina’s foremost documentarian of black history and culture. He also makes portraits, shoots weddings and dabbles in art projects and book publishing. But it’s his many images of the civil rights struggle and other historical moments that have done the most to establish his reputation.

He was born in November 1937 and began taking pictures at 9 years old. He did not fully realize what he was capturing on film at the time. His mother worked for the Rev. Joseph A. DeLaine when he was running the NAACP in Calhoun County. Soon he would become a leading voice in a grassroots legal effort to equalize public education in Clarendon County. The case would become known as Briggs v. Elliott, the first of five cases that would ultimately lead to the Supreme Court’s anti-segregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

Young Williams took pictures of the plaintiffs, dozens of local blacks who courageously signed their names to the petition.

At 11, Williams met Thurgood Marshall at the train station and took a picture as the great litigator prepared to step off the train to work on the Briggs case.

At 14, he contributed photographs to Jet Magazine.

As a Claflin University student, Williams became the school’s official photographer. He rode in the car with Marshall (who cursed a lot, Williams said) and shot pictures for the Orangeburg chapter of the NAACP.

In his senior year, Williams was visiting his aunt and uncle in New York City when he saw a newspaper notice that Sen. John Kennedy would make an announcement at the Roosevelt Hotel. Williams went, and hotel security nearly threw the young black man with a camera out of the building, but Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, were on their way in at that moment and stopped the staff from removing the photographer.

Williams took his pictures, and Kennedy offered his card, telling the young man to keep in touch.

“These are among the photos in the collection that are fading away,” Williams said.

He went on to shoot many personalities and events of black life in South Carolina, including the big 1961 march against segregation in Columbia that led to 187 arrests and convictions and prompted the Edwards v. South Carolina case, which reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963.

The high court overturned the convictions, including that of a young Jim Clyburn, on freedom of speech grounds, ruling that it was unlawful for the state to suppress unpopular views.

“Cecil was there,” said Bobby Donaldson, history professor at the University of South Carolina. “There are images of Cecil marching alongside students, taking pictures.” And there is an iconic image of Judge Matthew Perry with protesters.

For the 50th anniversary of Edwards v. South Carolina, Williams was back in Columbia taking pictures of survivors, Donaldson said.

“He’s not only a photographer but an eyewitness. He was not only taking the photographs, he was capturing the memories and experiences of people, and also his own.”

Williams was jailed twice during civil rights demonstrations in 1962 and 1963, but quickly bailed out by the NAACP, he said. Black photographers often were among the first to be shoved into the paddy wagon because the authorities didn’t want pictures of these protest events, he said.

Other people Williams has captured on film include educator Septima Clark, the Rock Hill Nine, Burke High School graduate and architect Harvey Gantt, boxers Joe Lewis and Muhammad Ali, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and actor-singer Harry Belafonte.

Williams has attended numerous S.C. State University and Claflin University events, as well as numerous political gatherings, such as the National Conference of Black Mayors, generating thousands of images, many of historical importance.

Of the more than 150,000 negatives, perhaps 20,000 have been digitized and delivered to Claflin for safekeeping, Williams said. At first, he would produce digital images by placing the negatives on a flatbed scanner, then rendering the image into a positive on the computer. But the 6-megabyte resolution was unsatisfactory, and it took him a while to process each image, he said.

So Williams devised a better method by retrofitting old enlargers with good cameras equipped with macro lenses and an LED flat light on which the negatives could be placed. By presetting the anchored cameras, he could produce a high-quality 24-megabyte image in a second, then merely reverse it into a positive on the computer. Much faster.

Even the best negatives — well fixed and washed when originally processed — only last about 100 years, so it’s critical to forge ahead with the conservation project, Williams said.

But to archive the images correctly, a lot more is needed: a systematic approach and better documentation; a proper facility to house and protect the original negatives; a dedicated computer (with backup) to store the digital files; and a formal catalogue.

“The work is really too much for one individual to do, but the opportunity is to bring on some students and interns or associates to help him,” said Claflin University President Henry Tisdale.

Tisdale said he’s known Williams since both men were students at Claflin in the first part of the 1960s and Williams was the school photographer.

“When I returned to Claflin in 1994 as president, of course I was pleased to see that he was still working with the university in a number of capacities,” Tisdale said. “One of things we talked about early on was preserving the history.”

By 1997, they had agreed to begin the conservation process. Williams got some necessary equipment and spent more time on campus.

“Over the past few years, we’ve been kind of frightened a bit because we thought we had more time,” Tisdale said. “But we’re frightened by the rapid deterioration of some of the images.”

So now the two men are strategizing about how best to expand and accelerate the project.

They are in the process of assessing costs and logistical requirements, and they hope to secure grants and other funding.

Tisdale said he’s glad to be involved. The conservation project fits well with his school’s focus and variety of curricula, he said.

“I see a lot of application when it comes to the work Cecil is doing,” he said. “Usually institutions are looking for programs that are unique, that enable them to become the leader, a center where everyone else comes to learn. This is one of those opportunities where Claflin can sit at the center, where Claflin can lead.”

Donaldson said Williams has been an active presence at the University of South Carolina, helping to document and explain historical events.

“We were able to fill in some of the blanks about the historical record and the importance of what he has in his own collection” thanks to Williams’ input, Donaldson said. “He helps connect the dots.”

Williams will recognize someone in a photograph and help lead researchers to the proper sources, such as yearbooks or news stories.

“Cecil’s photographs have stirred the memories and recollections of people,” Donaldson said.

“These images, when we put them in front of people, all of a sudden it presses the recall button.”

And considering the size of Williams’ archive, and the fact that he continues to add to the documentary record, much more remains to be done.

“There are countless more histories to be recorded, given what he’s amassed over 60 years,” Donaldson said.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at aparkerwriter.