Rock Hill's Freedom Walkway honors civil rights pioneers

Sharon Dowell and the Freedom Walk mural she designed in downtown Rock Hill.
Sharon Dowell and the Freedom Walk mural she designed in downtown Rock Hill.

Four Rock Hill leaders in equality and justice were recognized Monday during the dedication ceremony of Freedom Walkway.

About 150 people gathered in the Palmetto Room on Main Street to witness the unveiling of the four walkway honorees.

Members of the Friendship Nine civil rights group have already been commemorated in the architecture of the Freedom Walkway; nine granite stools were constructed to memorialize the 1961 Friendship Nine sit-in. The individual names of the Friendship Nine are engraved in the brick paving of the walkway.

Some Friendship Nine members, Rock Hill City Council members and other local leaders attended Monday’s dedication ceremony. Mayor Doug Echols hosted the ceremony.

“It’s my honor as mayor of Rock Hill to dedicate Freedom Walkway as a reminder to every citizen of this community and our nation that we are all guaranteed the rights and freedoms of the foundations of the American constitutional system,” Echols said.

The local leaders – living and deceased – recognized Monday were:

Jim Williams (1830-1871)

Williams escaped slavery during the Civil War and fought for the Union Army. Williams became captain of a government-sanctioned black militia group to combat the threat of the Ku Klux Klan. Williams was captured and lynched by the KKK.

Stephen Turner, who honored Jim Williams during the dedication ceremony, said, “It’s hard for me to imagine anybody who’s sacrificed more for the cause of justice and equality in Rock Hill than Jim Williams. He sacrificed his life.”

Dr. William W. Fennell (1869-1926)

Fennell was born in Richburg in Chester County. He was a surgeon and humanitarian. In a time when most surgeons turned away blacks or poor people in need of medical attention, Dr. Fennell was known for his nondiscriminatory practice.

“If Dr. Fennell couldn’t save a patient, no one could,” said Gina White, who honored Dr. Fennell.

Bobby Plair Sr. (1927-)

Plair was a Montford Marine at the all-Black Montford Point Marine base in the 1940s. In 2012, President Barack Obama honored the living Montford Marines with the Congressional Gold Medal – the highest honor a U.S. citizen can receive.

Plair was the only honoree in attendance. He joined the crowd for the reception that took place in the Freedom Walkway.

Addelene Austin White (1934-)

White was a catalyst for the 1957 bus boycotts of York County. White’s contribution to the boycott led to the reintegration of public transportation.

White, who lives in New York, was unable to attend the dedication ceremony.

The four local honorees will have their names permanently engraved in the brick paving of the Freedom Walkway. The city also plans to implement plaques that detail the honorees’ stories.

“It’s gratifying, it’s exciting,” said Friendship Nine member Willie Thomas “Dub” Massey. “I’m just humbled. When we did what we did, we had no clue it would erupt like this.”

The walkway mural is Rock Hill’s largest public art piece. Sharon Dowell, who spent two months painting the mural, was at the ceremony to see her work fully celebrated.

“This is the largest scale mural I’ve ever painted,” Dowell said. “I hope it becomes a sort of gathering spot.”

Final touches to the construction of Freedom Walkway were added just days before Monday’s ceremony. The walkway connects East Main Street to the White Street parking lot in downtown Rock Hill.