MOUNT PLEASANT — After the Civil War and Reconstruction, newly freed slaves and their descendants settled into dozens of new communities around Charleston, and most of these communities still exist today, at least in part.

But for how long?

The region's surging population, rising land prices and development pressures are posing a huge challenge to these communities: A 2007 study done by Clemson University Landscape Architecture students found some had already gone, such as the Two Mile Community here.

Nearly 95 percent of the rest could be consumed by sprawl if nothing changes.

There is new hope.

A nonprofit, the African American Settlement Community Historic Commission, is gearing up to advocate for these troubled sites, and Charleston County Council is expected to consider zoning changes that would provide help with their preservation.

It's a complicated puzzle that zoning alone can't solve. The communities face issues of heirs property, economic development and new infrastructure, and public awareness about their special place in the Lowcountry's Gullah Geechie culture and history.

Historic preservation in these communities may revolve less around architecture or historic events and more around unique land settlement patterns that reflects a reliance on one another — and on the land.

Thomasena Stokes-Marshall, a former town councilwoman and member of the new commission, said many people moving to the Lowcountry are leaving larger cities for the relatively quieter quality of life here.

"But the rate of our development is chipping away from these qualities and characteristics," she said. "A significant percent of the folks who move here are not aware of the history of the settlement communities and our contributions."

The Phillips community off S.C. Highway 41 about a half-mile from Highway 17 is typical of many settlement areas that tell the story of how newly emancipated slaves began forging a new kind of life, largely on their own. It also may serve as a test case about how new preservation efforts might work.

'It was difficult'

Dr. Cari Goetcheus of the University of Georgia's College of Environment and Design, led the Clemson students' study a decade ago to document the history of 10 African-American communities in East Cooper.

Before a bridge linked Charleston and Mount Pleasant, the East Cooper area had a lot of property that was not accessible and not wanted much, she said, unlike today, when it's Charleston's fast-growing suburb.

"It kind of made sense that people who didn't have as much wealth opted to live there," she said. "It was difficult."

Some, such as the Phillips community, date from the 1880s and were home to freed slaves. On average, they date to the early 1900s up to about 1920. 

Buildings were constructed in almost an Amish fashion, with community members pitching in to help. Many took shape over years, without a single bank loan.

Because of their relative isolation, Goetcheus said, the communities were able to retain a lot of their inherent "culture, language, food, artistic ways, or the way they developed the land and the buildings."

"It was really kind of the way each family created a communal gathering space. When they divided parcels up, they would just take a piece of property and build their own building on it," she added. "They were in a family compound. That's pretty unique. You can still see that land-use pattern today."

She said these communities began to change two generations ago — and not just because of new bridges across the Cooper River.

"I once asked somebody, 'What do you think was the biggest negative impact on your communities?'" Goetcheus said. "They said integration was the biggest impact because the communities did not need to have their own stores, their own banks, their own community infrastructure. They could go anywhere they chose to. That was kind of the decline."

'What we need now' 

John Wright grew up in Mount Pleasant and left in 1984 to serve more than two decades in the Army. When he moved back a few years ago, he realized how little attention was being paid to the historically black neighborhoods in and around the town.

That led him to form the new advocacy nonprofit the African American Settlement Community Historic Commission, which is headquartered in a donated building — a former black business, at 442 Venning Road.

"Settlement communities have been researched and studied enough," he said. "The action piece is what we need now."

Wright and the AASC has a growing list of allies. The Coastal Community Foundation is helping the organization get on its feet, and the Historic Charleston Foundation is also cheering it on.

Chris Cody, Historic Charleston's advocacy manager, said the foundation feels a responsibility to do all it can to assist with the new nonprofit's success.

"The Charleston area’s historic African-American settlement communities are facing intense development pressure," he said, "and we hope to help the AASC preserve the unique characteristics of these culturally significant places."

Robert MacDonald of the Mount Pleasant Historic Commission said the group is urging the town to consider a moratorium on new development in the town's Sweetgrass Basket Overlay Zone, which was designed to protect communities north of the Isle of Palms Connector, between Highway 17, Porchers Bluff Road and Rifle Range Road.

He plans to push to preserve an abandoned but intact African-American school house along Long Point Road in the Snowden community and to help find a compromise to protect the Phillips community during the widening of  Highway 41.

"These communities are really invisible to many people who live in Mount Pleasant," MacDonald said, "which is really a tragedy."

New preservation ordinance?

Many of the communities are situated mostly in unincorporated Charleston County, which is drafting an ordinance to expand its historic preservation protections.

The ordinance, if approved, would create a new commission tasked with making an inventory of properties worthy of protection, said county Planning Director Joel Evans. Currently, only properties on the National Register of Historic Places have that.

The Charleston County Planning Commission is scheduled to review the draft ordinance Monday. County Council could take a final vote on it by early summer.

A 2016 county survey — done by New South Associates — looked at about 1,300 properties and deemed four settlement communities eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, including Phillips, Snowden and Scanlonville-Remleys Point in Mount Pleasant, and Sol Legare on James Island.

"We have been getting a lot of folks coming to our Planning Commission from the African-American communities interested in creating protections in their areas along the lines of historic preservation," Evans said.

Cody said the foundation is glad to see the county drafting a new historic preservation ordinance and would like to see the county become a certified local government, a designation that would help it compete for preservation grants. Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Sullivan's Island, Summerville and McClellanville already have that status.

"We will support the proposed ordinance regardless because it represents a drastic improvement over the present situation," he added.

Stokes-Marshall, who serves on the AASC Historic Commission's board, said settlement communities simply want the same kind of review and preservation that already exists in other historic districts, such as the Old Village in Mount Pleasant.

"We're not asking for anything that has not already been put in place and used," she said.

Community's survival

Wright and other members of the AASC Historic Commission gathered recently in the front yard of his family's home in the Phillips community. Nearby, a steady stream of traffic hummed by along Highway 41.

Wright said this community is his top priority. A nearly $132 million project to widen the highway could begin in 2022, and since the road slices the community in half, the details may determine its survival. Will it be four lanes or three? How can the project be built to minimize the ill effects?

Phillip's preservation is less about saving any particular building or landscape than saving a sense of community and unique settlement pattern that separates it from the more conventional developments all around it.

"There are no parcels here," Wright said. "There are acres." 

Asked what they hope Phillips will be in 30 years, AASC board member Adriane Smalls-Owens said she wants to see its different dialect and Gullah culture survive. Even if descendants of early community members don't own all the properties, she would like to see new owners and the larger community embrace the culture.

"We embrace change. We embrace different cultures," she said. "That's what we're taught, but it has to be on both sides."

Wright said he hopes Phillips can maintain its sense of community and become more vital through new commercial endeavors, including ones that use its unique history to attract tourists.

Mostly, he hopes the community survives. He's already seen how its sense of place can be eroded away.

Benjamin Bennett, Wright's great-grandfather's brother, lived in the Phillips community and was buried there. His headstone survives and recognizes his service in Company A of the 128th brigade of the United States Colored Infantry, which fought for the Union in the Civil War.

Wright recently visited his grave. To get there, he drove down 41 and a few miles into the Rivertowne neighborhood. He then set out on foot on a boardwalk quietly tucked between two large homes to reach the Parkers Island Cemetery Park. 

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.