MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - She’s a chemist and an engineer, but it’s her newfound job that is inspiring change in her community.
Those titles alone mean Cassandra Williams Rush is just as much a part of the history she is so passionate about preserving. In fact, she’s now the self-appointed African American historian for Williamsburg County.
A simple conversation with Cassandra Williams Rush can quickly become a powerful history lesson.
“Dr. James Farmer, from Wiley College, the Great Debater was born in Williamsburg County,” Williams Rush said.
Her career as African American art dealer was actually the gateway to starting to research African American history and the citizens of the county.
Williams Rush grew up in the rural county during the Jim Crow Era. She said it was not easy.
A walk in downtown Kingstree brings one to some of the old buildings that were a part of the civil rights movement. Williams Rush remembers being about 15 or 16 years old when she and a few friends decided they were going to do a sit-in at a ‘whites only’ lunch counter.
She said they made it to the door, and when it was time to walk in, her friends didn’t go. So, she walked in and sat down at the counter.
“I remember them pulling me by my shirt up from the counter, and they escorted me out the door," said Williams Rush. “We were considered second class citizens, we were working really hard and struggling so that we could move above that conceived status of being a second class citizen.”
It’s one of the reasons why she came back home to Williamsburg County in 2010 and opened the C. Williams Rush Gallery/Museum of African-American Arts & Culture.
“I said a prayer. I said, ‘Lord, if you let A, B, C, D, and E happen, I’ll open that gallery in Kingstree,’” she said.
The purpose is to expose school-aged children, community members, visitors and tourists to the very significant, and often ignored and overlooked African American history.
“I didn’t know if it was going to be in a monetary sense or in what way, but I knew I had to come back to give back, because I know of my teachers, the neighbors, and the community and the churches. They were all so supportive of me and others like me,” said Williams Rush.
The gallery is perfectly and purposely positioned across from the Willamsburg County Museum on Hampton Avenue.
The lobby features art that captures the Harlem Renaissance, African figurines, and even newspaper clippings that tell a profound story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s visit to Kingstree in 1966. The latter was an event that caught the attention of 5,000 people.
“It’s important for the current generation to be aware of the accomplishments that were made by our forefathers, especially with the obstacles that had to endure in order to achieve,” Williams Rush said.
Her own father’s work are among those worth recognizing. David A. Williams, also known as “Daddy Ag,” recently passed away after a lifetime of practicing his passion for agriculture.
The educated farmer owned and operated Williams Vineyards and Farm in Nesmith. It was a hobby that became a business and one of only a handful of black vineyards in South Carolina.
“So every summer he would plant a few more vines, he would add a few more vines, he would add a few more, then around the back of the house, then the whole area on the left, to a total of about five acres and he hand planted each one of those vines,” Williams Rush said.
She doesn’t talk about it much, but she’s also learned her own contributions are part of the county’s history.
One of the first black females introduced to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), Williams Rush majored in chemistry and became a chemist at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, working in the water chemistry lab. Later she was an engineer with Southern Bell/BellSouth for over 15 years.
“I might be the first African American chemist," she said. "In my research I haven’t come across anybody else, and I’m always looking.”
Williams Rush said in a county where nearly 78% are African American, it’s her intense desire to see the community progress collectively. However, for that to happen, she said they need to recognize the past.
“I think we have a lot of history here because of the contributions of African Americans and I really feel bad that our history has been downplayed, ignored, minimized over the years because we too have made and can make and continue to make some significant contributions," she said.
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