The Austin Cunningham Character Award, "The Austin", is named for Austin Cunningham, a great and longtime supporter of Orangeburg County Community of Character and numerous other civic organizations. He was a community leader, businessman, writer, lawyer, soldier and outstanding citizen.
Austin Cunningham had decades of experience in helping shape and improve the lives of others. The Orangeburg resident, who died in January 2009 at the age of 94, had been named the local Citizen of the Year and the state’s Outstanding Elder Citizen of the Year. He also had a hand in the development of the Orangeburg Community of Character initiative and supported the Character initiatives in numerous ways. He wrote a monthly editorial on the Character Trait of the month that was published in The Times and Democrat newspaper. The Times and Democrat took 20 of his editorials and had them published. (They provided us with copies of those books to use for character education in schools throughout the County.)
As a result of Austin Cunningham's support and work in the community, in 2009, Orangeburg County Community of Character established and presents an annual award to an Orangeburg County citizen or group/organization that exemplifies the character traits that Mr. Cunningham wrote about in his editorials by making their communities better places to live, work and play. Recipients demonstrate and promote character achievement and a lifelong commitment of high standards in their actions. They have earned a high level of respect within the community as a well-rounded person (or group) through their consistent service to the community and extraornadinary trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. The winner has traditionally been announced and recognized at the annual Chamber of Commerce Banquet (and presented with distinction).
Shown below are excerpts from the presentation made to Cecil J. Williams by Executive Director, Evelyn Disher on January 17, 2019.
... The work and accomplishments of the 2018 “Austin Award” recipient are certainly worthy of this recognition.
Here are some things said in their nomination and selection. They continue to serve as a key leader through their tireless efforts to enhance our community. They demonstrate unparalleled commitment, integrity, courage, initiative, wisdom, sincerity, loyalty, creativity, and respect in their work and dealings with others. They actively engage in neighborhood and community improvement.
They have remained steadfast in working for positive reform and societal change. They have chronicled our community’s history educating us as to what we’ve done, who we are, identifying our heroes whose quest for equality, sacrifices and contributions should not be forgotten (but highlighted as we continue to raise the standards and principles by which we live). And in the process, they have highlighted and garnered attention in the role Orangeburg County has had in our nations’ history. For as MLK, Jr. stated “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”
Their work and exceptional character have drawn national attention to our community and racial change. Their desire and commitment to serve should not go unrecognized; it should be rewarded.
The work and accomplishments of the 2018 “Austin Award” recipient is certainly worthy of this recognition.
Our recipient is a native of Orangeburg. They are a self- described “child of segregation”. But rather than having a negative impact, the racial barriers they endured as a youth propelled them upward...and forward with passion.
He wanted to draw and take pictures but segregation at the local library prevented the 9 year old youth from taking courses. Rather than discouragement, he was inspired within by family. His brother gave him a hand-me-down Kodak Brownie. One photo opportunity transformed his entire life: one click, one flash; he photographed Thurgood Marshall coming to Charleston to engage in legislation that led to Brown vs. Board of Education (the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case that declared "separate but equal" public schools for whites and blacks as unconstitutional).
At 14 years old, he wanted to play tennis, but he was barred from playing on Orangeburg’s “White Only” facilities at that time. Rather than being discouraged, he practiced and practiced; leading to the semi-final match against Arthur Ashe in ATA national competition at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. He won 3 games but lost the match.
By age 15 he was working as a professional and freelance photographer for publications such as JET magazine, the Afro-American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier; and he was a stringer for the Associated Press.
After his senior year at Wilkinson High School, he wanted to study architecture at Clemson but Jim Crow laws prevented his enrollment. Rather than a negative impact, his determination endured as he bought a drafting table and began designing cars and homes; one of which generated solar electricity and was featured as the “Space Age Home” in EBONY magazine. He would pursue and hone his talents as an art major and graduate from what is now Claflin University.
When Orangeburg Black citizens began protesting segregated education, he photographed them challenging the system. JET Magazine recognized the pioneers and hired him to continue capturing our struggles.
While visiting relatives in New York in 1960, camera dangling from his neck, he walked into Roosevelt Hotel where newspapers had announced his hero, Senator John F. Kennedy, was to appear. Looking around, the only person of color in a room full of journalists, hotel security escorted him out; but JFK intervened and befriended the young journalist, and made him a favorite cameraperson.
JET Magazine would later dispatch him to Clemson University, where, near a building named after Ben Tillman, a staunch segregationist, he photographed Harvey Gantt achieving, “Integration with dignity,” as Mr. Gantt became the first African American student admitted to Clemson University.
Over the decades, incident after incident, he has used negative injustices as inspiration to overcome and achieve for freedom, justice and equality.
Today he is lauded as one of the country’s most accomplished visual artists bringing national attention to Orangeburg. He has worked as a professional photographer, author, and designer/architect. But he is best known as the chronicler of the civil rights era. He has published 7 books; the first “Freedom and Justice” was published by Mercer University Press.
His photographs are considered to be the most comprehensive collection of the civil rights era and 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 US including those of higher institutions and our own local museums at USC, SCSU, and his alma mater, Claflin University.
His service to community has also taken on a political nature as he probed the needs of our community and pursued key leadership positions.
In 2015, he invented the FilmToaster, a camera scanning platform and system that digitizes film negatives faster than other methods.
It’s an understatement to say that others have noticed and recognized his contributions. Recently, he earned the Governor’s Award for the Humanities, the Order of the Palmetto, and The Times and Democrat’s 2018 Person of the Year. (Note that he was selected as our recipient before several of these awards were revealed.)
He holds membership with Delta Chi, the Orangeburg, South Carolina Boulé of Sigma Pi Phi, the oldest African-American Fraternity; and he is a member of St. Luke Presbyterian Church.
He has said “Any success I have can be attributed to so many people whose shoulders I stand on, then and now.”
Today, his passion is directed towards establishing a museum of art and civil rights history for the people of Orangeburg. He also serves as the director of Historic Preservation at Claflin University.
He is a community leader; businessman; architect; author; visual artist; inventor; husband of Barbara Johnson Williams (a retired educator); (brother of Brenda Williams); and outstanding citizen. We are proud to present this year’s Austin Cunningham Character Award to our community builder, and our friend … Cecil J. Williams
The work and accomplishments of the 2016 “Austin Award” recipient is certainly worthy of this recognition.
Here are some of the things highlighted in their nomination: “Willie Jeffries demonstrates all areas of obedience and loyalty by giving and sharing unselfishly of his time, talents, willingness, and authority. He responds to the good of everyone with alacrity, enthusiasm, and cheerfulness. He is positive … happy to serve … obeys the "Golden Rule" by treating others as he would want others to treat them. … He transcends the narrow confines of egotism and responds to the best aspects of an individual. There is no shame in his servant and humble attitude. He always maintains a pleasant and respectful demeanor as the works with others. He has paved the way for many bright minds and careers in our community…”
A Union S.C. native, Jeffries went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a Master’s degree in guidance and counseling from South Carolina State University. He also studied at Indiana University.
A former football player, his coaching career began in 1960 as an assistant high school coach in Lancaster, SC. He then went on to become head high school coach in Gaffney, SC (going 64-8-2 in seven seasons).
But we know him well for his coaching stint here in Orangeburg, SC … serving two stints (1973–1978, 1989–2001) as Head Football Coach at South Carolina State University for a total of 19 seasons. His first stint alone completed an impressive 50-13-4 in six seasons.
During his remarkable 29-year collegiate head-coaching career, which included five-year stints each at Wichita State and Howard University, he compiled a 179-132-6 record. This enviable record included six Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) championships, two national titles, several post-season appearances, numerous coaching awards and work as a collegiate Athletic Director. He also produced a number of players who have distinguished themselves in professional football and other professions (and they attribute their success to his mentoring and support). He made history in 1979 when he became the first African American head football coach in Division I football. He passed up several opportunities to serve as an assistant in the National Football League.
We’re happy that with all his success, Orangeburg County is his home. And he does all he can to help make it a better place.
It’s an understatement to say that others have noticed and recognized his contributions.
He is active in his church and several coaching, professional and civic organizations, including the American Football Coaches Association, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. and Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, Inc. … working with youth to succeed. He mentors youth and enjoys speaking to youth in schools, churches and other organizations working to make a positive impact in the lives of our youth.
A history buff, he was instrumental in the creation of the Orangeburg African American Heritage brochure for education and tourism. He was appointed by Governor Nikki Haley and currently serves on the South Carolina Ports Authority Board. And we are pleased that he agreed to serve on our Board of Directors.
We are proud to present the 2016 Austin Cunningham Character Award to our coach, the husband of Mary, the father of Valorie, Willie Jr. and Tamara, grandfather of 6, community champion, ambassador and our friend … Willie Jeffries.
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