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As Charleston’s growth accelerates, our community must continually question what parts of our landscape we are willing to fight for and clarify what is essential to our culture and history.
African American settlement communities are an important part of the Lowcountry’s history, dating back to the post-Civil War period when formerly enslaved people began forging new lives for themselves. Many of these communities still thrive today and are home to descendants of the founders, though they face major threats ranging from suburban development to large road projects.
Communities located on the sea islands in the path of the Mark Clark extension — including Cross Cut, Cut Bridge and Ferguson on James Island — are at risk of being overlooked and dismantled. If this were to happen, it would be a massive loss, not only to the communities themselves, but to the cultural diversity of the Charleston region.
The work to recognize, document and preserve African American settlement communities has only recently begun. In 2016, Charleston County sponsored an historic resources survey that established the historic significance of these unique communities and prioritized their preservation. In 2021, the city of Charleston for the first time formally acknowledged these communities as culturally significant places worthy of protection. The city’s new comprehensive plan identified settlement communities within its boundaries and made specific preservation recommendations.
Recently, Historic Charleston Foundation, along with many community partners, fought for the protection of East Cooper’s Phillips Community, founded in 1875. This was achieved by ensuring that the Phillips Community become designated as a county historic district, collaborating to ensure its nomination to the National Register of Historic Places and advocating for an alternative route for the expansion of Highway 41. This National Register nomination is likely the first of its kind in the state and nation, thereby serving as a key precedent for future settlement designations.
The analysis of the Mark Clark extension’s detrimental impacts requires further study of these culturally significant areas. The S.C. Department of Transportation recently published a supplemental environmental impact statement on this project. Its study area includes numerous settlement communities on James and Johns islands, but the historic resources study failed to acknowledge their existence and importance. Only one reference in another section of the report took note of the existence of these communities, citing “specific concentrations of minorities in this historically African American area of James Island where families have owned their land, in some cases, for over 100 years.”
These historically overlooked communities are vastly important to the Lowcountry for their rich, complex history and to the generations of families who form these communities. Our city and state have a troubling history of dismantling black communities for major infrastructure projects. Examples abound: the construction of the Crosstown, the alignment of I-26, the I-26 and I-526 interchange, placement of rail and utility lines — the list runs long.
We have an opportunity to do better. Based on the successful outcome for the Phillips Community, we know that a similarly positive result is possible for these settlement communities in the path of the Mark Clark extension. The first step is to identify and document these culturally significant areas.
Before finalizing its review, the Transportation Department must fully assess adverse impacts to these identified communities. Historic Charleston Foundation’s mission is grounded in safeguarding the historic authenticity and cultural character of the Charleston region. These settlement communities are crucial to our distinctive Lowcountry culture, and it is past time that we recognize them as such. We cannot allow another road project to erase such a valuable part of our rich culture.
Winslow Hastie is president and CEO of Historic Charleston Foundation.
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This content was originally published here.