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Boom & Balance

Last Black homeowners leave Charleston's Ansonborough neighborhood

On a hot Friday in mid-July, a Black family sold their Laurens Street home to investors. By signing the closing papers, the Jenkins siblings relinquished their claim to a corner of Charleston’s historic Ansonborough neighborhood.

They became the last African American property owners to leave an area that once was predominantly Black.

Graphic: Ansonborough

ANSONBOROUGH: This historic Charleston neighborhood once was working class and mostly Black. It was revitalized in the 1950s and '60s by the Historic Charleston Foundation, accelerating its gentrification. (SOURCE: ESRI)

“We were trying to hold on as long as possible,” said 67-year-old Joe Jenkins. “We were proud to be the only Black family that didn’t sell out in Ansonborough.”

Year after year, potential buyers approached the family with offers. Year after year, the Jenkins siblings refused. Over time, all but one of 10 full siblings moved to other states; one died. One brother, Henry Allen Jenkins, 69, remained in Charleston. Lately, he has become too ill to take care of the property, his brother said.

“There’s a time for everything,” Joe Jenkins said. “We’ve run our course.”

Ansonborough, like many of Charleston’s old neighborhoods, has had its ups and downs. During the Great Depression, Black families began to move into what was then a working-class area bordered by Calhoun Street to the north, Pinckney Street to the south, Meeting Street to the west, and East Bay Street to the east. Back then, the neighborhood included many rental properties.

In the late-1950s and through the 1960s, a preservation project spearheaded by Historic Charleston Foundation quickly transformed the neighborhood, pushing out most African Americans. But not the Jenkins family. In subsequent years, the siblings gathered at their old home periodically, even after most had moved away, even after their parents died.

The sale of their home was one transaction, but it symbolizes something profound about how cities change — and how Charleston has changed.

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A dog walker crosses the intersection of Laurens and Anson streets on July 18, 2022, in Charleston’s Ansonborough neighborhood. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Playing in the streets

Henry and Dolly Jenkins purchased the Antebellum-style house in 1944 for $14,000 and raised their children there. He worked for Charleston Linen Service for 40 years. She worked at the Cigar Factory and, later, at the Medical University as a lab assistant.

Henry Jenkins never completed secondary school. Dolly eventually earned her diploma by attending night classes at Charles A. Brown High School. Their children went to the Buist School, then Burke High School. Like many Black residents at the time, they weren’t zoned for Burke, so they claimed their aunt’s address on Cannon Street as their own.

“Our father made sure all the kids went to school and had college educations,” said daughter Ann Forsythe, 74.

The family worshipped at New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church on the corner of Charlotte and Elizabeth streets. Ansonborough connected to the East Side neighborhood back then and was flush with churches: St. Mary’s Catholic, St. Stephen’s Episcopal, St. Johannes Lutheran, St. John’s Reformed Episcopal, Greater Macedonia AME and, just across Calhoun Street, Emanuel AME.

Before construction of the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium began in the mid-1960s, Wall and Middle streets extended to Calhoun Street. Harborfront docks, where some in the community worked, lay just across East Bay Street.

The homes were modest, and the neighborhood mixed. The south end had more White families than the north end; throughout Ansonborough, working people and members of the middle-class mingled freely.

The Jenkins siblings recalled playing in the streets without concern for their safety. All the children got along, Joe Jenkins said. They would run errands for their parents, buying goods at the Royal Food Market on the corner of Anson and Laurens streets. They would roller-skate through their part of the neighborhood. After Christmas, when the trees were discarded at the curb, the kids would jump them in their skates.

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Joseph Jenkins (from left), Ann Forsythe, Henry Allen Jenkins and Marcellus Jenkins pose for a photo outside their home in Charleston’s Ansonborough neighborhood on July 15, 2022. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

During this period, the neighborhood was changing fast. Homes were purchased, rehabilitated, then sold. Black renters left. City officials, invoking eminent domain in the name of “urban renewal,” bulldozed dozens of houses to make way for the Gaillard Auditorium. They took a portion of the Jenkins’ backyard, and they put up a wall between the homes and the new extension of George Street.

Later, more homes, mostly occupied by African Americans, were demolished or relocated to make way for the Charleston County School District office building and parking garage, and the Charleston County Public Library, all located along Calhoun Street. By the late-1970s, the neighborhood was transformed.

“We stopped seeing people who looked like us in the community,” Joe Jenkins said.

'An undeniable success'

For a long time, the city of Charleston was confined to the peninsula. All the rest was unincorporated land, much of it was rural.

George Anson, a young English ship captain, acquired a 64-acre tract along the eastern edge of the city from Thomas Gadsden in 1726. Anson’s attorney subdivided and sold the land in the 1740s, once it was clear that the naval adventurer would never return.

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The Royal Food Market once was located at 78 Anson St. in historic Ansonborough. Nearly all of the small businesses in the neighborhood vanished after the big revitalization project of the late 1950s and 1960s. Historic Charleston Foundation Archives/Provided

The great Charleston fire of 1838 destroyed whole blocks of the city and damaged many structures, including homes in Ansonborough. The neighborhood was rebuilt and featured wood-framed single houses, which soon were occupied by a mix of Whites, free Blacks and some who were enslaved, according to historian Christina Rae Butler, author of “Ansonborough: From Birth to Rebirth.”

The early 1900s saw an influx of working-class immigrants from Europe, some of whom settled in the neighborhood. The city’s population grew exponentially in the years leading up to World War II. Homes in Ansonborough were divided into duplexes and rented to tenants.

After the war, as the city extended its reach across the Ashley River and farther up the peninsula, many White people living downtown moved to suburban neighborhoods such as Avondale and South Windemere in West Ashley. More homes on the peninsula became rental properties. Black residents mostly remained in the old parts of the city; they were not permitted to move into new communities that often abided by Whites-only covenants.

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43 Laurens St. before renovation in the 1960s. Historic Charleston Foundation Archives/Provided

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43 Laurens St. after renovation in the 1960s. Historic Charleston Foundation Archives/Provided

Historic Charleston Foundation opened for business in 1947, at a time when the population on the peninsula (and in Ansonborough) was about 50 percent White and 50 percent Black. Ten years later, its first director, Frances Edmunds, launched a unique and ambitious initiative to create a revolving fund for the purpose of buying “derelict” Ansonborough properties, renovating them, attaching preservation covenants to the deeds, then selling them. Profits were plowed into the revolving fund, enabling the purchase of additional properties. Thus the cycle continued over the course of more than a decade until about 80 homes — most of the neighborhood — were upgraded.

From a preservationist point of view, the project was an enormous success, and it provided a model that soon was adopted elsewhere, noted Butler. But its social impacts were mixed. It was not lost on anyone, White or Black, that the effort had radically altered the racial makeup of the neighborhood.

“The charitable way of putting it is that no one (White) was disappointed that the demographics changed in the process of saving these houses,” Butler said.

Also lost was the mixed-use nature of Ansonborough. Gone were the sweet shops and groceries and barbershops tucked into corners of the neighborhood, she said.

“They definitely saved the buildings,” many of which were in dire condition, Butler said. “The downside is they didn’t preserve the community that lived there, nor were they really trying to.”

Winslow Hastie, president and CEO of Historic Charleston Foundation, said the project was undertaken in the context of mid-century federal urban renewal and slum clearance efforts. In Charleston, Edmunds preferred to “revitalize” Ansonborough rather than clear it, and sell the refurbished properties to “preservation-minded buyers,” which was a euphemism for White, Hastie said.

Construction of the Gaillard Auditorium required the demolition or removal of perhaps 80 homes at the north end of the neighborhood, displacing 700 mostly Black people. The News and Courier wrote: "Ansonborough: an undeniable success. The clearing of the large area on the northern limits of Ansonborough for the construction of the municipal auditorium gave the rehabilitation project a great boost by removing many of the city's worst slums and adding a valuable facility within short walking distance to the Ansonborough residents."

Joe Jenkins recalls seeing trucks hauling homes away. Contractors were busy at work throughout the neighborhood.

This wasn’t the first time the city cleared an area in the name of urban renewal, Hastie said. In the 1930s, it built Robert Mills Manor — and forced Black families living in the area into housing projects. In the mid-1960s, it joined the effort to bring Interstate 26 through a residential area and connect it to the new Crosstown expressway. That project required the removal of more than 150 homes, most of them occupied by African Americans. And the city demolished the Ansonborough Homes, a public housing project, after Hurricane Hugo rolled through in 1989, saying the soil had been contaminated.

Revitalization efforts “accelerated displacement and gentrification,” Hastie said. “Ultimately, that displacement and gentrification happened anyway. It’s continuing.”

Since 2010, Black households on the peninsula have declined more than 20 percent; the Black population citywide has dropped by 5,000.

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The Charleston Gaillard Center is located at the northern end of the Ansonborough neighborhood. In the mid-1960s, dozens of homes occupied by African Americans were demolished or removed to make way for the construction of the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, which was replaced by the current structure in 2015. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

What they gave up

The Rev. Adam Shoemaker, priest at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on Anson Street and a resident of Ansonborough, wrote his dissertation on the integration of the neighborhood. He said a few Black families commute to attend services. The church once served a predominantly African American congregation but now is mostly White.

“It got to the point, by the late ’70s, early ’80s, that the neighborhood had pretty much changed, and St. Stephens was small, with a dwindling African American congregation made up of several families,” he said. “It was an existential crisis moment for the church that resolved in 1987 when Blacks agreed to integrate.”

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The Rev. Kylon Middleton (left) and the Rev. Adam Shoemaker, founders of the Micah Project, participate in a peace walk in Charleston on Oct. 9, 2021. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

The church’s very survival was on the line, Shoemaker said. The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina would have closed St. Stephen’s if its members didn’t elect to welcome White parishioners. For a short time, the congregation was racially split, about 50-50. But it didn’t last.

“This is the story of gentrification, and what happens to churches all over the country,” Shoemaker said. “Had St. Stephen’s not chosen to integrate in the 1980s, we’d be a house today. Integration saved the congregation.”

During the next several years, though, African Americans slipped away.

“That is what happens when White people come into a Black space. Without constant, vigilant intentionality, which is really hard to do, over time the White people take over.”

For the Black families that remain part of St. Stephen’s, the experience at church is much changed.

“You have to understand what Black people were being asked to give up when they agreed to integrate,” Shoemaker said. “It’s not the same place, it doesn’t have the same centrality (in their lives). ... We can fetishize the integrated church, but I do think there are social goods to having that homogeneity.”

The Rev. Willie Hill, pastor of St. John’s Reformed Episcopal Church just up the street, said his dwindling congregation, like others in the area, faced the dilemma over whether to stay or leave. Members determined it was more important to try to stay because of the church’s history, which dates to the mid-1800s.

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The Rev. Willie Hill (center) presides over communion at St. John’s Reformed Episcopal Church on Feb. 3, 2019, in Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Founded as Community Presbyterian Church, it was a welcoming place for enslaved people, who could sit in the nave, who learned to read, and who benefited from the generosity of White allies, Hill said.

During the religious revival of the late-1800s, the church thrived, sometimes welcoming thousands to a service. Worshippers who couldn’t find a place inside the sanctuary stood outside by the windows to hear the word of God, Hill said.

Today, St. John’s has around 180 members, the vast majority of whom are Black. Some once lived in Ansonborough but now commute from elsewhere, he said.

Meanwhile, gentrification continues apace, now north of Calhoun Street, he said. If the city is serious about maintaining some semblance of diversity, it needs to set limits and allocate money to help Black families stay in their homes or enable them to afford new ones nearby, Hill said.

The real estate market

In the 1970s, Historic Charleston Foundation considered using its revolving fund to revitalize the East Side, but neighborhood residents opposed the idea, historian Butler said. The fund still exists and has been used to pay for modest rehabilitation work over the years — but nothing that approached the scale of the Ansonborough project.

Municipalities have tools to shape growth and minimize its negative impacts, she said. Cities can determine what kind of development is permitted, where that development takes place and how financial incentives are designed and used. They can encourage the construction of small condominiums and studio apartments that sell at lower price points, making it easier for people who work in the city to live in the city. And they can assess taxes at different rates depending on whether a property is owner-occupied or rented.

“Owner occupancy creates long-term residency and investment in neighborhoods,” she said. It also helps keep property taxes under control, since taxes generally go up only when a home changes hands.

Mayor John Tecklenburg, whose background is in real estate and who is quick to acknowledge the housing crisis, noted that gentrification doesn’t treat all people equally.

“For the Jenkins family, at least they built some wealth,” he said. “Where it hurts the most is on the rental side. In Ansonborough, I’m sure a lot of the gentrification over time was properties African Americans were renting.” As rents rise, tenants are pushed out. “That’s the kind of gentrification I hate the most. At least owners can cash in.”

The city has introduced programs to help people pay for home repairs and stay in place, and it has developed a strategy for creating new workforce housing, Tecklenburg said.

“At the end of the day, the best counter is to create more affordable housing,” he said. “That’s a huge challenge. The real estate market is a 500-pound gorilla. It’s crazy what the market has done here. That’s why I think increasing the supply is the critical component of the plan.”

The city has partnered with Charleston’s Housing Authority, One80Place and the Humanities Foundation, and it has banked some land upon which affordable units will be built, he said.

Officials also have revised zoning rules to allow property owners with big enough lots to build accessory dwellings that, because of their small size, can be rented at lower rates.

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Charleston officials take part in a groundbreaking ceremony for the Archer School Apartments on the East Side on July 20, 2022. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

And they have imposed, then raised, fees developers pay to avoid including affordable units in new construction projects. The fees are meant to incentivize developers to add to the affordable housing supply — or, when they don’t, to generate revenues that the city can use to pay for its own housing initiatives.

If it seems as though the city is merely adding drops to an ever-expanding bucket, that’s because the real estate market is booming, Tecklenburg said. It’s hard to motivate developers to be altruistic, and there’s no easy way for the city to introduce permissible controls.

“We have limited tools in the end, and we try to use every one we got,” he said. “Still, you’re up against the private market. It’s difficult.”

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The northern part of the historic Ansonborough neighborhood, seen here on July 18, 2022, once was mostly inhabited by African Americans. Today the area is predominantly White. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

The only thing to give

Marcellus Jenkins, 59, is retired after a career as a police officer in Washington, D.C. He recalled with fondness his youth in Ansonborough, playing football in the street, basketball in the yard. Nearby was Calhoun Street Park, which had a baseball field and basketball court. A stone’s throw from there were the docks where Jenkins would go crabbing.

The tractor-trailers hauling homes from the neighborhood seemed ominous, he said. Few of the young people had any idea of the larger forces at work around them — or what would become of their neighborhood.

Ann Forsythe, one of the Jenkins sisters, remembered her childhood house, with its antebellum patina. It was not among those renovated by Historic Charleston Foundation, and the family never had enough money to get the work done.

“Father said the only thing he has to give us is the house,” Forsythe said.

And now, the family has cashed out. Laurens Partners LLC paid a little more than $862,000 for 52 Laurens St., according to county records.

The proceeds will be divided among eight siblings.

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com.