Statue of African American artist brings a legacy to S.C. city’s downtown

African American

Photograph of William H. Johnson painting a portrait, circa 1930-1945. Image from U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

FLORENCE, S.C. (AP) – It took a trip to New York City for Florence City Councilman George D. Jebaily to learn about William H. Johnson.

Jebaily spoke about a 1995 trip to the Big Apple as the city unveiled a statue of Johnson in the West Evans Street Breezeway on the afternoon of March 18.

Johnson, an African American artist born and raised in Florence, is known for his portraits and landscapes that depict the life of African Americans during the 1930s and 1940s. His work is on display in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., as well as in New York City.

“I’ve lived in Florence; I grew up in Florence but I didn’t know anything about William H. Johnson until I was with my wife in Manhattan in New York City, the public library,” Jebaily said.

During his visit to the library, Jebaily came across a book about Johnson’s life called “Homecoming: the Art and Life of William H. Johnson.”

Intrigued, Jebaily skimmed through the book, coming across a picture of a Florence railroad station on Page 3.

“I went, ‘What,'” Jebaily said. “Who is this guy?”

Jebaily said he immediately bought the book and began learning about Johnson.

Making sure that other people don’t have to go to New York City or anywhere else to learn about Florence’s native son is a longtime mission of his family.

Johnson’s nephew, William Cooper, spoke about his family’s mission at the unveiling ceremony Wednesday afternoon.

“My oldest brother, James — he passed away about a year ago — was one of the many ones along with me and the rest of the family in trying to get Uncle William recognized,” Cooper said. “Like the councilman (Jebaily) said, he had to all the way to New York City to learn about William H. Johnson. Well, we have William H. Johnson right here.”

Cooper pointed toward the statue to show that now everyone passing by would know about the artist.

“I’d like for everybody in Florence to be able to say that I know William H. Johnson,” Cooper said.

Cooper also encouraged all of Florence to visit the Florence County Library and Museum to look at Johnson’s works.

African American

Self-portrait by William H. Johnson (African American, 1901-1970). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation

There is a mural of Johnson at the Bird’s Nest on South Dargan Street and a street named for him on the campus of McLeod Regional Medical Center, near his childhood home.

Johnson’s niece, Isla Willette Myers, also spoke at the ceremony on March 18 along with Florence Mayor Stephen J. Wukela.

Myers remembered Johnson spending time with her mother, Johnson’s sister, Lillian. She also added that a person who viewed Johnson’s works would be able to come back to Florence and recognize the settings of the works. She also said that she could recognize some of the people in the paintings.

Wukela said one of the benefits of the city’s growth is the ability to acknowledge those, like Johnson, who have made Florence a better and more beautiful place. Wukela added that Johnson was perhaps the city’s greatest artist.

The statue was designed and created by sculptor Alex Palkovich.

Palkovich is a native of the Ukraine who came to work in Florence after General Electric acquired the company he worked for and dispatched him to manage the combined companies from Florence. After he retired from General Electric, Palkovich transitioned into the life of a full-time artist. Many of his works can be seen throughout Florence including at the Veterans Park and on the campus of Francis Marion University.

Palkovich spoke about Johnson’s life at the ceremony.



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