Eugene White, Jr.

Eugene White Jr., Aiken County Branch NAACP president, speaks to a crowd at the Center for African American History, Art and Culture after receiving the Dugas-Coles Award for Excellence.  

Aiken's second celebration of African American Excellence recognized two outstanding community members Saturday evening at the Center for African American History, Art and Culture. 

Eugene White Jr., president of the Aiken County Branch of the NAACP, and the Rev. Lester Smalls, pastor of Bell Grove Missionary Baptist Church, received with the Dugas-Coles Award for Excellence. 

The award is given to those who have an outstanding impact within the Aiken community. 

The event, held from 6 to 9 p.m., not only honored the present African American community leaders but also honored the impact of history. 

CAAHAC board member Melencia Johnson said last year's event was held to show the community the work being accomplished on the center.

"I think it's amazing to have it in this building and, of course, this is a work in progress for a few years," Johnson said. "This year is exciting because we have something for you to actually see." 

After years of reconstructing and renovating the historical Immanuel Institute building, the Center for African American History, Art and Culture's completed first floor was able to be viewed by those in attendance.

Visitors were treated to a temporary exhibit that illustrated Aiken’s involvement in the civil rights movement. 

Johnson said the center sold out of tickets twice for the event. 

Victoria Smalls, state commissioner with the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission and director of History and Culture at the Penn School National Landmark District, served as the event's keynote speaker. 

Smalls spoke to a crowded room about her research and connection to the Gullah Geechee people, descendants of enslaved African Americans who lived off the southeast coast of America. 

Victoria Smalls

Keynote speaker Victoria Smalls speaks to a packed audience at the Center for African American History Art and Culture.

Smalls' keynote was a message of empowerment and the importance and impact of history. 

"It's time to celebrate African American history and culture in Aiken," Smalls said. 

As he received his award, White spoke about Aiken's history, specifically the Aiken County Branch of the NAACP whose 101st anniversary will be celebrated Sunday. 

White encouraged the audience to think about who would be here in 101 more years and what they would say about our lives. 

"History is a very important part of who we are and extrapolates who we can be," White said. "I encourage the community to really think about the history that they write because every move that they make, every word they write, every breath they breathe, they are writing history so write the best history possible for your children." 

Matthew Enfinger is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard. Follow him on Twitter: @matt_enfinger