ABOVE: The opening spread of "Civil Leader" from the Fall 2005 - Winter 2006 issue of Coastal Magazine
He was blind in one eye. He was held back in school. He was black, born into a segregated and often prejudiced society. George Williams’ start in life was hardly ideal. But to hear him tell it, overcoming the challenges he faced was half the fun of the journey.
Williams was born and raised in Florence, where his father worked as a hotel chef and his mother was a nurse. At age 11, he went to work for the Aikens family, who profoundly influenced his development. They introduced him to literature, giving him books like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. They invited him to accompany them to Mass at the Catholic church, to picnics on Black Creek and on vacation trips to Georgia. In time he came to be considered a member of the family.
“They treated me, talked to me, as an equal,” said Williams. “They were go-getters, and I developed that attitude, too.”
Before he finished high school, he decided he wanted to be a lawyer—even though his father held the profession in low esteem and urged him to become a Baptist minister instead. A little later, the elder Williams was doubly undone by his teenage son’s decision to convert to Catholicism.
At 14, Williams lost sight in his right eye in a B-B gun accident. The incident caused him to be held back a year in school, which prevented him from graduating on time. Not only was he disappointed not to be graduating with his friends, but the timing was unfortunate, with a 12th year about to be added at all public high schools in the state. His classmates, however, elected him president of the inaugural 12th-grade class at Wilson High School, his first official leadership position. “Everybody told me, ‘George, you’ve had more education than the rest of us.’”
In 1949, the summer before he entered South Carolina State College as a pre-law major, Williams worked as a bellhop at the Ocean Forest Hotel in Myrtle Beach. In the summers to follow, eager for new experiences, he ventured further up the coast, working at traditional oceanfront hotels like the Cavalier in Virginia Beach and the Breakers in Atlantic City. He made enough money during the summers to pay his way through the school year, enabling him to devote all his time to his studies. He also took along used textbooks so he could get a head start on fall classes in his spare time.
But there wouldn’t be a lot of private time. The most lasting benefit of his summer work wasn’t financial or scholastic, but social. The Breakers provided a dormitory for its college student workers, and living there gave Williams a happy glimpse of what life might be like in a more egalitarian world. “White, black, Jewish—boys and girls—all together, working together, helping each other,” he remembers. “Sometimes the hotel would sponsor picnics on the beach for the student workers, and we would roast wieners—kosher wieners.”
Back at S.C. State, Williams served in the university’s ROTC program and in his junior year met his future wife, Jean McKiever of Conway, who was majoring in home economics. After he graduated, a financial setback kept him out of law school, and he accepted a job with an insurance company in Augusta, Ga. His work took him to Birmingham, Ala., and other places in the Deep South where he witnessed ugly scenes of racism that made a deep impression on him.
He and Jean married in December 1954 at St. Andrew Catholic Church in Myrtle Beach, and soon afterward two job offers brought Williams to Horry County. His father-in-law, Charles McKiever, who was beginning to lose his eyesight to diabetes, asked him to help him with his business, McKiever’s Funeral Home in Conway. Williams couldn’t make up his mind whether or not to accept, so he asked his mother for advice. “God put you two together for a reason, and He will show you a way,” she told him. At about the same time, E.M. Henry, principal of Chestnut High School, North Myrtle Beach’s black secondary school, offered Williams a position as a history teacher.
These two offers set the pattern for his career. He took the teaching job, which launched his career as an educator, and he began working part-time at the funeral home, learning the business through his father-in-law. He passed the state board examination for morticians and has been a licensed funeral director since 1961. Almost as soon as he began teaching, he started work on his master’s degree in education and public school administration, taking courses at night and during the summer. By the time he finished his master’s, also in 1961, he was teaching at Whittemore High School in Conway.
HIS ROLE IN INTEGRATION
In 1967, Horry communities were preparing to implement the long-delayed integration of public schools. Mindful of the violence that had erupted in other communities in the South, school officials in Conway decided to try to ease the transition by testing the waters a year early with the help of two carefully chosen high school teachers, one black and one white. The white teacher, Evelyn Snider, would teach classes half the day at Whittemore, and George Williams would teach half a day at Conway High.
As he entered the doors at all-white Conway High on the first day of this critical experiment, he was shot in the back of the neck by a ninth-grade student with a water pistol. “My first impulse was to punch that kid out,” says Williams. “But I didn’t. What might have happened in Conway had I not shown restraint—when all over the South racial tensions were at the boiling point?” As it happened, the water-squirting offender was in Williams’ history class and wound up being one of his best students.
School segregation ended calmly in Horry County in 1970, and Williams was asked to join the Conway High faculty full time. A couple of years later, he was made an assistant principal, the first black educator to hold the position in Horry County.
In the early 1970s, Williams made Horry education history once again when Dick Singleton, chancellor of Coastal Carolina College, and Gene Anderson, the college admissions director, asked him to teach a continuing education course at Coastal. The college, then a two-year branch campus of the University of South Carolina with around 800 students, was making a serious bid for four-year status. In an effort to increase enrollment (the General Assembly had made a deal that Coastal could get extra years when its student rolls hit the 1,000 mark), Anderson asked Williams to teach an evening course on “Afro-American History,” which was well attended by adult students both black and white. Thus Williams became the first African-American to teach at Coastal, and his class helped take Coastal from a junior college to a full degree-granting institution. It was also the beginning of a relationship between Williams and Coastal that would last off and on for more than 30 years.
In the meantime, Williams’ evident skill as an administrator at Conway High led education superintendent Donald Johnson to offer him the job of principal at North Myrtle Beach High School. He took command of the troubled school in 1974—the first black high school principal to be appointed in Horry County in the post-segregation period. With the help of two handpicked assistant principals, Williams quickly turned the school around, raising test scores, hiring new teachers and building esprit de corps. He lobbied politicians like Fritz Hollings and John Jenrette for a junior Navy ROTC unit at the school, establishing the first such program in the region. When a referendum to build a new high school building in North Myrtle Beach went before the voters, it passed by 76 percent.
Williams retired from the school district in 1986. One day at church soon thereafter, he ran into Coastal chancellor Ron Eaglin. “Ron said to me, ‘George, you’re not ready to retire!’” Eaglin asked Williams to join the Coastal staff on a part-time basis to organize a new program to attract and retain minority students. During the next six years, he and his assistant, Kathy Watts, established one of Coastal’s chief support programs, helping students form new service groups like the African-American Association and packing Wheelwright Auditorium by inviting notable minority leaders and professionals to speak. Among the speakers Williams brought to campus were football great Gayle Sayer, the legendary Charleston chief of police Reuben Greenberg, and Ernest Finney, chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court and a former teaching colleague of Williams at Whittemore High School.
“George Williams did a superb job for Coastal,” says Bob Squatriglia, former longtime dean of students and now his sometime golf partner. “He was very sensitive to the students’ needs, a dedicated professional and a great role model, a man of vision and a gentle giant.”
The program Williams started is thriving today as the Office of Multicultural Student Services, headed by one of his former students, Pat Singleton-Young.
Williams has always felt a keen sense of civic responsibility and has been asked to serve on many committees and boards in the area. In addition to Coastal’s Board of Trustees and the Horry County Higher Education Commission, other organizations that have benefitted from Williams’ guidance include Conway Hospital, First Citizens Bank and Horry-Georgetown Technical College, where he served as board chairman from 1977 to 1983.
Although he has slowed down in recent years, he is still involved in civic affairs and is very active in the family funeral business, where two of his four children also work. Sometime before his beloved wife Jean died in 2002, she told him he was taking on too much and advised him to learn to say “no” occasionally. “But I told her: ‘We don’t know how long we’ll be on this earth, and whenever I’m asked to do something that will help people, I’m going to do it.’ And that’s what I’ve tried to do, whether it’s in the schools or in the funeral home or in the church or out in the community.”
Although his legacy will inevitably emphasize all the “firsts” he achieved as an African-American and the doors he has opened for future generations of minorities in Horry County, Williams says that racial concerns were never the source of his motivation. “It’s not about race. It’s about helping people.”
Jean and George Williams met human rights champion Desmond Tutu at CCU in 1999. The article was written by CCU staff memeber Doug Bell.