Telling the Story of Civil Rights in South Carolina – UofSC News & Events

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UofSC alumna guides employer donation to Center for Civil Rights History and Research



Kelly Adams stood on the grounds of the South Carolina State House – the place where she once worked as a page and later as a legislative staffer, lawyer and lobbyist – and told her story.

She was impressed, she said, to have been able to stand there; a place where people of color would not have been welcome decades ago. A town where his grandmother, who cleaned other people’s houses, sent her children to college on a servant’s salary.

She stood just a few hundred yards from her alma mater, the University of South Carolina, a place where she made lasting connections and friendships. And a place that would now benefit from its history and its career choices.

Adams is the managing director of state government and regulatory affairs for Williams, an energy infrastructure company. At Adams’ request, Williams donated $1.5 million earlier this year to help the university’s Center for Civil Rights History and Research share the story of Carolina’s role of the South in the country’s civil rights movement.

The donation will help the center fund traveling and permanent exhibits, expand the center’s oral history collection, acquire archival collections, and improve student learning throughout South Carolina. It will also give the center’s exhibit, “Justice for All: South Carolina and the American Civil Rights Movement,” a permanent home in the university’s Booker T. Washington High School auditorium.

For Adams, the Booker T. Washington connection makes the gift even more special — and more personal. His mother, aunts and uncles all graduated from the historic black school, built in 1956 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2018. It’s a place Adams calls “a testament to the upbringing of elite at a time when things weren’t always equal.” His list of graduates includes black lawyers, educators and community leaders. “They were mentors. Those were the names I knew, I heard when I was a child.

Early days

Adams grew up in Clinton, South Carolina, where her father was a teacher, administrator and coach. The middle of three children, Adams spent part of each summer in Columbia with her grandmother, who lived near Millwood Avenue on Bratton Street, with cousins ​​and other family members nearby.

When it came time to go to college, Adams’ mother pointed her towards the UofSC. It was, she says, “the logical choice”, close to her grandmother, who was so excited that her granddaughter was in Colombia that she called her five times a day her first year. Adams initially considered a career in medicine, but became an exercise science major, thinking she might become a physical therapist. But she was also drawn to public service and government, working as a page and legislative aide at the State House with Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg.

“I’ve always been interested in politics,” says Adams. “I don’t come from a political family; just a family of middle-class teachers who voted. But I did it to get more involved in the process and to learn.

She earned her undergraduate degree in Exercise Science from the Arnold School of Public Health in 2001 and decided to follow her passion for public policy.

“I realized that I could help more people through policies than through direct services,” she says. “I was interested in working with children and families, anything that helped ‘the least of them’, people who needed a helping hand or a level playing field.

Her career has seen her work for South Carolina First Steps, the state’s early childhood initiative, in addition to becoming the Caucus Director for the SC State House Democrats. She worked on campaigns and raised funds for candidates. In her early thirties, after achieving the goals she had set for herself in South Carolina, she decided it was time to take on different challenges in a different place.

It’s our story, and it’s how our history in South Carolina propelled the national movement and those stories need to be commemorated and preserved.

Kelly Adams, UofSC alumnus and managing director of state government and regulatory affairs for Williams

She moved to Washington, D.C., worked as a lobbyist at the Pew Charitable Trusts, and earned her master’s and MBA in government and business administration from Johns Hopkins University in 2015. Then the shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston s happened, when nine African Americans were killed during a Bible study, including Clementa Pinckney, the church pastor and a state senator with whom Adams had worked in Colombia.

“I quit my job and came back to help. I felt like I had to be there,” she says. “It was tough. We all wanted something to do. I took a year off and then went to work for Everytown for Gun Safety for three years.

She worked to pass gun safety measures in Maryland and increase funding for Washington, D.C. But the work was difficult and exhausting, as she was “out there” for every mass shooting that happened in the country.

She started thinking about a new path and wrote a description of the type of job she wanted; not an advertised job, just the job she was drawn to. She connected with Williams, an energy pipeline company that also has new ventures focused on solar power, carbon capture and natural gas.

She was hired as Director of State and Local Government Affairs and was soon promoted to General Manager of State Government and Regulatory Affairs for Williams, a company headquartered in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Adams is based in Washington, where she now oversees a staff and team of lobbyists and monitors legislative and regulatory activity across the country.

Telling South Carolina’s Story

Williams’ interest in supporting causes important to his employees is what got Adams thinking about home. When she met history teacher Bobby Donaldson, director of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research, he showed her pictures of her mother, aunts and uncles from Booker T. Washington High School. She learned more about the work of the Civil Rights Center, which was established in 2015 and is dedicated to documenting the contributions of South Carolinians to the American civil rights movement.

“It was just a natural fit. It was the right thing to do at a time when my company was asking employees, ‘What more can we do? I took it to our leaders, they loved it. and ran with it without hesitation,” she said. “Think about that. Some companies are reluctant to accept personal stories. They forced me to tell the story. They are the ones who encouraged me. It’s proof of leadership and who we are as a company.

Williams’ investment will help the civil rights center expand its offerings and share untold stories, which is especially important to Adams.

“These are the stories that drove the civil rights movement. Some of these stories I hadn’t heard of until I talked to Bobby Donaldson. The church that Bobby points to in his presentation, Zion (Baptist Church), where Martin Luther King met with local leaders – that’s my grandmother’s church,” she says. “It’s our story, and it’s how our history in South Carolina propelled the national movement and those stories need to be commemorated and preserved.”

Adams is especially happy that the stories are told by the University of South Carolina, a place where she has made close friends and deep connections.

“Carolina holds a special place in my heart. I will always be supportive because it was a great base for me. And it will always be with me.


Learn more

Visit the Civil Rights History and Research Center website to learn more about this joint initiative of the College of Arts and Sciences and University Libraries.


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Topics: Alumni, Faculty, Research, Initiatives, Diversity, Collections, Philanthropy, Leadership, Careers, College of Arts and Sciences, Arnold School of Public Health, University Libraries

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