By Jessica Brodie
ORANGEBURG—South Carolina’s first and only civil rights museum is getting a new home, one that will enable it to triple and possibly quadruple its size and, potentially, its collection.
The Cecil Williams South Carolina Civil Rights Museum was founded in 2019 by Cecil Williams, his wife, Barbara, and his sister Brenda. An Orangeburg native, Williams started photographing the cultural and social changes in his state at the age of 9 and today owns the largest collection of images reflecting racial change in America. The museum collection features his photography as well as artifacts, documents and other items that help tell the story of the civil rights movement in South Carolina from 1950-1970.
Much of this story occurred in United Methodist churches.
Williams is also the director of historic preservation at United Methodist-affiliated Claflin University, and Claflin students were instrumental in digitizing the film for the museum’s collection.
Currently, the museum is located on Lake Drive in Orangeburg in his former residence and photography studio. He lives next door.
“We are well aware that museums cost millions,” Williams told the Advocate, but given his extensive collection they decided to open it anyway.
The museum is small but acclaimed. Visitors can see, read and interact with events and people who endured life under segregation, as well as learn about history often not contained in books. Nearly 500 photographs adorn the walls of the museum, and the museum is currently digitizing an estimated collection of approximately 600,000 images.
Photographs covering not only the civil rights movement era but also African-American history, culture and heritage.
Now the museum is getting a much bigger building and a new location. In the fall, the City of Orangeburg and Orangeburg County entered into an agreement to enable the museum to move the civil rights museum to a historical location: the old theatre and soda shop on Boulevard Street. The move will occur following a refurbishment and is part of the area’s Orangeburg Railroad Corner redevelopment.
The new site is across from the historic South Carolina State University.
“It will be three to four times bigger than it currently is,” Williams said, noting the renovations are expected to begin around April, and the museum will open by the end of 2025.
“Presently we have 3,000 square feet, and we’ll go to anywhere from 10,400 to 14,000 square feet,” Williams said, depending on the funds raised.
Currently, the museum is open upon appointment. There is no charge, and it operates on donations.
Williams encourages all people interested in South Carolina’s civil rights history to visit.
“Museums help to build character,” he said. “It helps us remember whose shoulders we stand on for the advances we have today.”
For more about the museum, including the collection and how to visit, go to https://www.cecilwilliams.com.