Alvin Townsend and Samuella Williams Holmes greet Dee Costella Green as past and present residents of Liberty Hill gathered for a homecoming reunion on Saturday, September 21, 2019. The oldest neighborhood in North Charleston was founded in 1871 by four freedmen. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

North Charleston's historic Liberty Hill isn't what it used to be.

But its residents hope their new effort to share the neighborhood's rich history will help restore its former vitality.

The traditional African American community, founded shortly after the Civil War and slavery's end, has helped sustain its members through decades of oppression and inequality.

But as with Mosquito Beach on James Island, a former black-only beach during the days of Jim Crow, Liberty Hill has seen its fortunes lag after the Civil Rights movement brought new gains and integrated African Americans more into their larger community.

Located off Montague Avenue just east of Rivers Avenue and a set of railroad tracks, Liberty Hill once was a vibrant neighborhood with a laundromat, grocery store, beauty salon, restaurants and several other black-owned businesses.

Today, most of those businesses are long gone. Its homes are nestled along streets among vacant lots and boarded-up buildings. 

But there are still bright spots.

The community is home to many who take pride in their neighborhood. It boasts a community center that serves as a hub for local events and three major houses of worship that welcome thousands of parishioners each Sunday.

Natives cling to memories of growing up in the neighborhood where they attended school, went to church and formed lifelong bonds. They share inspiring testimonies of their ancestors' perseverance through slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow.

Those stories came alive on Sept. 21, when hundreds of Liberty Hill residents and others gathered for a day-long homecoming celebration. Held at a neighborhood community center, the event featured historic artifacts, pictures and fellowship among loved ones.

An exhibit featured sweetgrass baskets, irons, trophies, ancestry posters and other artifacts that illustrated the area's history. Outside, vendors set up tables. Friends and family members hugged, laughed and shared memories. 

Liberty Hill has had smaller-scale homecoming celebrations before. But this year's was the first to incorporate historical displays. The idea stemmed from the fact that residents, while appreciative of soon-coming exhibit to be displayed inside the new North Charleston Transit Center, felt they needed to tell their own story.

"We felt we could take it a step further," said Liberty Hill native Carolyn Lecque.

Neighborhood leaders plan to host the celebration every two years, giving them an opportunity to feature dozens of artifacts while explaining their roots.

Residents also hope these homecomings will spark interests of people willing to invest.

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Rosalie Grant Simmons, a descendant of Ismael Grant, one of the founders of the Liberty Hill community, looks through the information gathered on the histories of families from Liberty Hill at the Filex Pickney Center on Saturday, September 21, 2019. Past and present residents gathered in the Liberty Hill community for a homecoming reunion and to gather historic information on the oldest neighborhood in North Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

'It's so glaring'

The name "Liberty Hill" stems from the neighborhood's 1871 founding when four freed black men acquired land. The city's oldest neighborhood existed more than a century before North Charleston's incorporation.

Those who grew up here recall a tight-knit community where children walked to school and neighbors went next door for a cup of sugar.

Valerie Harper Young's family established a building that was first a deli and then an elderly care facility on Nesbitt Avenue. The property was later sold to Royal Missionary Baptist Church.

"Whatever needs they saw, they developed a business," Young said of the community members.

The community's self-sufficiency was pertinent because blacks had access to resources that they could not access outside the community due to racial discrimination. 

Liberty Hill native James Lecque recalls going to an ice cream shop in North Charleston's Olde Village, located just outside the African American community, where discrimination prevented him from entering.

"We couldn’t go in the store," he said.

Liberty Hill's prosperity wouldn't last. After integration, many natives left the neighborhood and vacant properties provided the opportunity for public housing, residents said. This brought outsiders who didn't have the same pride in the neighborhood.

Additionally, pockets of prosperity popped up on the outskirts of the neighborhood, including developments like Oak Terrace Preserve, Mixson Apartments, and new businesses in Park Circle. 

On both ends of Montague Avenue, around the North Charleston Coliseum on the west and the city's revived downtown to the east, restaurants and retail shops welcome shoppers.

But that kind of prosperity is absent along the East Montague stretch that runs through North Charleston's oldest neighborhood.

“It's so glaring," Lecque said. "It's ridiculous.”

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Bishop Thomas Joy and Lillie Gailliard reminisce as they look through an old bible on Saturday, September 21, 2019, at the Felix Pinckney Community Center. The bible belonged to Joy's mother, who lived in Liberty Hill in North Charleston. “She used to teach us out of that old Bible” said Gialliard, who also grew up in Liberty Hill. "We'd have to memorize chapters." Past and present residents gathered in the Liberty Hill community for a homecoming reunion and to gather historic information on the oldest neighborhood in North Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Downtown North Charleston

City and faith leaders have cited the need for improvements in Liberty Hill and have helped bring some changes there. 

City leaders agreed last year to offer land on Mint Avenue to Charity Missionary Baptist Church, where the church's foundation plans to build affordable housing units.

The Liberty Hill Improvement Council has offered to buy properties to keep them affordable, said James Lecque. But that has been difficult since many of the homes are heirs property.

The Rev. Isaac Holt, who has pastored Royal Missionary Baptist Church in the community for 25 years, says things are moving in the right direction. 

He remembered when crime was worse. Once, a drug dealer threw drugs under the church bus. The worship service had to pause so members could move the van.

But Holt believes Royal also has helped bring change.

The church built a $6 million Family Life Center that contains a gymnasium and banquet facility, and it has become a regular spot for conferences and political rallies. The center also serves as a Charleston County polling place.

“I think the facility has helped take away that darkness of being crime infested," Holt said.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said the city's growth in areas like Park Circle will help pay for improvements in the low-income communities.

He also pointed to the city's $1 million donation to the International African American Museum to ensure North Charleston's history is represented. 

“My vision is, one day, the Coliseum all the way to the river is going to be the downtown North Charleston. Liberty Hill is right in the middle. We need to make sure it's part of that past history, but also part of the future.”

The challenge will be to welcome change while keeping the area affordable — and home to future generations of those who first settled here.

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