Area's racial makeup changes: Berkeley, Dorchester more diverse, Charleston less so

GOOSE CREEK -- Shelly Scott plays with her baby and young son outside her home in one of the area's large new subdivisions, and describes her neighbors by their professions -- police officer, firefighter, emergency medical technician, Air Force and Navy.

An Air Force wife and mother of three, originally from New Jersey, she finds it unremarkable that her suburban neighborhood is racially diverse. Price, quality of life and convenience drew her family to Liberty Hall Plantation two years ago.

"I love it," she said. "The houses are nice, and it's not too far from the (Air Force) base."

Without knowing she was part of a demographic shift that would be revealed in the latest census, Scott and her family were among thousands whose decisions about where to live have created well-integrated middle-class communities in a region where older neighborhoods are often described in terms of black and white.

"The people moving here were working blue-collar jobs -- the Navy base, Westvaco, Bushy Park industries -- and civil servants," said longtime Goose Creek Mayor Michael Heitzler, who also is a historian.

"Those folks come in all stripes, and they come from all over the country, moving up the government service ladder or transferring in with industries," he said. "So, to our good luck, we are a real nice slice of America, and we don't have any culturally anchored neighborhoods at all."

Within a few blocks of Scott's house, cruisers from the Goose Creek, Charleston and North Charleston police departments and Berkeley County Sheriff's Office sit in driveways of recently built homes, a testament to the development's status as a bedroom community for the region. The oldest residences in the 850-home development were built just seven years ago, priced at about half the going rate for similar homes in the Mount Pleasant area.

Liberty Hall Plantation is in the heart of a census tract where the population grew by 2,240 white residents and 1,120 black residents, like the Scotts, giving Goose Creek some of the most racially balanced growth in the tri-county area.

On any weekday you'll find neighbors of different races arriving home from work, pulling into adjacent driveways -- a scene uncommon in many of the region's historically segregated communities.

Class trumps race

Berkeley and Dorchester counties became more racially diverse over the past decade, as new developments attracted residents across racial lines, but Charleston County headed in the opposite direction, an analysis of census data shows.

All three counties saw big population increases -- Charleston and Dorchester each gained about 40,000 residents and Berkeley 35,000 -- but they grew in very different ways.

Harriette Vanderhorst, 60, was born and raised in Summerville's historically black Brownsville community, at a time when "you didn't go across the railroad tracks because you didn't belong there."

She moved away, and when she returned to the Summerville area three years ago, she found the racial and cultural makeup quite different.

"It's mixing up more than it ever has," Vanderhorst said. "It used to be Southern blacks and Southern whites. Now there's a lot of people here from other places in the country, and Hispanics, Asians.

"It's much better," she said. "It represents more of what the rest of the country is like."

Nationally, census data suggests blacks have been returning to the south in large numbers, with much of the population gains coming in suburban metropolitan areas.

Locally, Dorchester County saw the highest growth rate, and greatest increase in racial diversity. One area, a half-dozen census tracts along Dorchester Road, mostly within North Charleston, attracted more than 10,000 white residents and 6,100 black residents.

Charleston County was a different story. With more-established neighborhoods long defined by race, the county saw black and white population increases in different areas, and the county's overall black population declined.

White population growth was concentrated in Mount Pleasant, black growth focused on parts of North Charleston, and in downtown Charleston thousands of black residents moved out while thousands of white residents moved in.

The exception in Charleston County was that areas with lots of new homes priced for middle-income families -- northern Johns Island and west end of West Ashley -- attracted residents regardless of race.

In Dorchester and Berkeley counties, most of the top-growth areas were on the top-10 list for both whites and blacks.

All three counties also saw increases in residents who claimed other races and multiple races on census forms, but black and white residents account for more than 90 percent of each county's population, and each county is roughly two-thirds white.

Some areas less diverse

In the tri-county area there remain many communities where one race accounts for 90 percent or more of the population, and economic disparities are just as evident.

That's true in affluent and nearly all-white areas, such as the town of Mount Pleasant, Daniel Island, and barrier islands like Isle of Palms, where the addition of seven black residents increased the town's black population by 44 percent. And it's true in less affluent and mostly black areas, such as Charleston's East Side, the southwest end of North Charleston, and historic black communities established just after the Civil War.

In Mount Pleasant, nearly all the dramatic growth that has made it the state's fourth-largest city came from an increasing white population, while the black population declined to 5 percent of town residents.

Historically black communities east of the Cooper River, such as Snowden and Six Mile, sit side-by-side with Mount Pleasant subdivisions but are outside the town limits, so their populations are not reflected in census numbers for the town.

As a result, the highly-rated public schools that serve Mount Pleasant are more racially diverse than the town itself. Wando High School, the only public high school in the East Cooper area, has a student population that's about 16 percent black.

Jennie Moore Elementary, the only elementary magnet school east of the Cooper, has won state and national awards, is rated "excellent" based upon state testing, and has a student population nearly as diverse as the tri-county area at large.

Housing in Mount Pleasant, convenient to downtown Charleston and area beaches, comes at a premium, and the schools attract young professionals with families, such as doctor Timothy Whelan.

Whelan was recruited from Minnesota to help the Medical University of South Carolina re-establish a lung transplant program, and his family moved to Mount Pleasant.

"It was readily apparent in my discussions with many that if one wanted their children to go to public schools, Mount P is the place to be," he said. "Given the horrific real estate market, I believe this is a key factor for subsequent sale of a home."

Political implications

The shifting of the area's population is politically important as well as culturally relevant, because voting districts are drawn based upon the census data, with attention to race and subject to oversight by the U.S. Justice Department due to historic discrimination.

The census results allayed some concerns of the District 1 Civic Association in Summerville, where leaders worried about the political fate of Brownsville, which became the town's minority-majority voting district in 1988 under a Justice Department mandate.

Since then, the racial balance had been shifting toward a white majority, and the loss of any more black population there could have forced the drawing of a new minority- majority district. And with black residents now dispersed throughout town, that might not have been possible.

But the census tract enclosing the voting district gained only 16 residents, to 5,572, with black residents still accounting for 44 percent of the population.

Across greater Summerville the population doubled to more than 43,000, so voting districts will change, but the district should remain intact.

"Our district will still represent the minority district," said Dexter Mack, of the association.

Increasing diversity, like many cultural changes, does not come without challenges.

Brownsville was in the news for a while last year because one of the community's new arrivals, a white woman in the predominantly black neighborhood, decorated the front of her new home with Confederate battle flags. Complaints and a protest march followed.

Across the region, discussions about the quality of schools, the awarding of government contracts, the enforcement of laws and the creation of public amenities such as parks are often shaded by questions of race.

But these days, when the white mayor of a city in the Deep South -- Mayor Heitzler in Goose Creek -- says "we have no black neighborhoods," he's boasting about the town's racial diversity rather than the lack of same.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.