a Black woman holds a sign protesting segregation in the 1960s

UofSC to expand civil rights education with $1.5 million gift from Williams to fund civil rights exhibits, programs and collections

A $1.5 million gift from Williams, an energy infrastructure company, will enhance the University of South Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights History and Research’s ability to share South Carolina’s important role in the broader national movement.

The transformational gift will help the center fund traveling and permanent exhibitions, expand its collection of oral histories, acquire archival collections and enhance student learning throughout South Carolina’s K-12 and college classrooms.

University Interim President Harris Pastides joined Williams executives to announce the gift Tuesday (Feb. 15) at the South Carolina African American History Memorial on the South Carolina State House grounds. Following the announcement, center director and history professor Bobby Donaldson led 80 students from E.L. Wright Middle School on a civil rights history tour along Columbia’s Main Street. 

“With this generous gift from Williams, the center will take great strides toward achieving more of what we have envisioned,” Pastides said. “From the moment this center was conceived, we have hoped to see its impact extend across South Carolina, and beyond, to illuminate the events and people that defined our state’s role in the struggle for civil rights. This investment will enable the center to broaden its reach and resources for that mission.”

From the moment this center was conceived, we have hoped to see its impact extend across South Carolina, and beyond, to illuminate the events and people that defined our state’s role in the struggle for civil rights.

Harris Pastides, interim president

The university founded the Center for Civil Rights History and Research in November 2015 as the first organization dedicated to chronicling South Carolina’s civil rights story. The cornerstone of its collections is the congressional papers of U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn, the state’s first African American member of Congress since 1897. 

“It is fitting that Williams chose Black History Month to announce this significant gift dedicated to elevating the untold civil rights history of South Carolina,” Congressman Clyburn said. “It is only through teaching this important history that we can fulfill [Alexis] de Tocqueville’s belief that ‘the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.’ The USC Center for Civil Rights History and Research is well positioned with the support of private and public partners to lead the way.”

The center’s mission is trifold: Engaging the community in programming to foster advocacy and action; informing curriculum for K-12 and higher education; and serving students, educators, researchers and the community in identifying and using university collections and resources.

The Williams donation will support new and existing initiatives that will benefit every individual and community of the state. 

“There is much more work for us to do to develop a complete history of the Black freedom struggle in South Carolina,” Donaldson said. “This gift enables us to build on existing collaborations with scholars, journalists, librarians and curators on our campus and across South Carolina. It will bolster our efforts to promote and preserve the invaluable work of so many who committed themselves to documenting the civil rights struggle of our state.”

A Williams employee and university alumna, Kelly Adams, shared information about the center with colleagues. A relationship was soon established to formalize an agreement on a three-year fund for the center. 

“At Williams, we’ve aligned our giving strategy to support causes that are important to our employees and to invest in the communities in which we operate,” said Senior Vice President Scott Hallam. “Our funding of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research allows the university to preserve civil rights history and tell critical stories. We encourage others to join in advancing this important project.” 

As a result of the Williams gift, the popular temporary exhibit “Justice for All: South Carolina and the American Civil Rights Movement,” which opened in February 2019 to shine a spotlight on turning points in South Carolina's civil rights history that influenced nationwide change, was launched as a traveling exhibit in Sumter, South Carolina, last month. In addition, the exhibit will have a permanent home in the university’s Booker T. Washington High School auditorium, built in 1956 and named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2018. 

Equally powerful will be the presentation of oral histories as a result of the Williams gift. Donaldson said center staff will conduct, transcribe and digitize oral interviews with civil rights-era participants from across South Carolina. These personal accounts are particularly gratifying for Donaldson.

“What excites me most about the work of this gift is the expanded opportunity to gather and preserve the memories of living witnesses of history. These oral interviews will fill gaps in existing historical narrative. Where there was silence, now there will be voices recounting unknown details and more perspectives about landmark events,” Donaldson said.

These stories will be shared with students and the public through the center’s “Our Story Matters” platform for podcasts and documentaries.

Donaldson said Williams’ support affirms the university’s commitment to documenting and interpreting the history of the civil rights movement in the state and nation.

“We are now positioned to take the center to a level that few imagined a few years ago. It is an exciting and promising moment for our university and for all of those over many decades who laid the foundation that we build upon,” he said. 

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