In 1965, the house at 270 Ashley Ave. was bulldozed.
This was no ordinary Charleston house. This was the home of J. Arthur Brown, president of the South Carolina NAACP. This was where NAACP attorneys Thurgood Marshall and Matthew Perry stayed when they were in town, and where civil rights and political leaders such as Herbert Fielding, Roy Wilkins and Harry Belafonte’s first wife, Marguerite Belafonte, found sanctuary.
This was the place where plans were laid — to integrate the Charleston County public schools, to join the Kress sit-ins — where the civil rights movement pulsated strongly in Charleston. This was a house in the heart of a mostly Black, mostly self-sufficient community during the period of legalized segregation.
“We literally were a prime example of the strength that communities bring forth, because it wasn’t about closing off and fencing off,” said Brown's daughter Millicent Brown. “There was this cross-fertilization that comes because you have people of different backgrounds, income and education levels, but intermingling.”
Then came the surveyors, the heavy equipment, the cement.
Then Brown’s neighborhood was split in two.
At least 150 homes disappeared to make way for “The Crosstown,” a six-lane highway connecting Interstate 26 with the Ashley River Bridge.
Flash-forward to 2020. The Phillips community, a settlement of African Americans who can trace their lineage to slavery times, faces the prospect of a road-widening project that is certain to weaken an already tenuous hold on their inherited land. The Phillips community, divided by S.C. Highway 41, now is the focus of an intensifying debate about the impacts of residential and economic growth, and an imbalance of political power that favors wealthy, mostly White homeowners over their Black neighbors.
In the Charleston region, several road projects have impacted Black neighborhoods. Highway projects such as the construction of I-26 into the Charleston peninsula, and the adjoining Crosstown, were part of an effort that compromised African American communities, according to residents and scholars.
Numerous road projects were undertaken nationwide in the 1950s and 1960s as part of the federal interstate highway program. Project managers knew their roads would damage and divide Black communities, pursuing them in the name of “slum clearance” or “urban renewal,” according to Richard Rothstein, author of “The Color of Law.” Constructing highways became an excuse for the large-scale transfer of Black populations.
Slum clearance reinforced segregation and impoverishment, making it ever more difficult for Black families to find their way to the middle class, Rothstein wrote.
Other projects changed Black neighborhoods incrementally and indirectly, not because their architects wanted to inflict harm, but because these areas provided the path of least resistance.
Policymakers must weigh and balance competing priorities, said Maren Trochmann, professor of political science and public administration at the College of Charleston, who spent years working for the federal Housing and Urban Development agency. “In the Lowcountry, this is complicated by ... the history of land loss among African Americans,” she said.
Decisions often are made in good faith, but our socioeconomic system favors the privileged and powerful over the disenfranchised, Trochmann said.
“Policymakers now should be aware of this history, but then determining how you make right decades of racist housing policy, redlining, and interstate highway construction that destroyed that ability of Blacks to accrue wealth — that’s another problem,” Trochmann said.
Folly Road and 41
Sixty years ago, the city of Charleston was contained to the peninsula. Highways tended to have two lanes. Cross the Ashley River and you were soon in the country. Cross the Cooper River and you found the small town of Mount Pleasant, beyond which were African American residential enclaves and mom-and-pop shops along U.S. Highway 17.
Daniel Island? Undeveloped. James Island? A stretch of land that was half-suburban, half rural.
Bill “Cubby” Wilder, 75, drove a bus along Folly Road when it was two dusty lanes. In the late-1800s, Wilder’s great-grandfather bought land on the Sol Legare Island, nestled in the marsh that separates the mainland from Folly Beach. It was a farming and fishing community then.
Wilder said he grew up in a segregated bubble — until the nearby beach, which featured a famous pier and pavilion that was open only to White people, began to draw visitors, along with African Americans who found low-wage jobs in the emerging tourist economy. In the summer of 1920, a private toll road and causeway made of sand, clay and gravel opened to automobiles. It cut across Wilder’s island, separating most of the residents from the Stem Point Memorial Cemetery where their dead were buried.
Residents living near the new roadway complained about the dust churned up by the passing cars. So, in 1926, Charleston County applied a thin layer of asphalt, then thickened it little by little in subsequent years, Charleston County Public Library historian Nic Butler said. In 1955, work began to widen the road to four lanes. In 1971, County Council and the state's Department of Transportation approved adding a fifth lane.
In the 1960s, Ocean Plaza opened, with its arcade games, Ferris Wheel and other rides, eateries and shops. Wilder’s mother found domestic work there. His father, a fisherman, sold shrimp to the stores.
As Folly Road widened, development ramped up and traffic increased, putting pressure on the Sol Legare community, he said. Under the leadership of Mayor Joe Riley, the city began to annex much of James Island, growing its tax base. As more subdivisions were built, property values increased.
“More and more people were moving to the area, so the old way of life faded,” Wilder said.
In 1989, Hurricane Hugo inflicted terrible damage along the Lowcountry coast. Many Black families could not afford to rebuild and meet new elevation requirements. They didn’t have home insurance, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency wasn’t much help, Wilder said.
“All these Black communities are being affected by overdevelopment and ... (too much) growth, because they didn’t provide the infrastructure — our government didn’t do that,” he said.
East of the Cooper River, a dirt road once wended its way around the Phillips community, providing access to several old plantations.
“The road circled around so everyone could get in and out,” said community leader Richard Habersham.
In the 1940s, state workers rerouted it straight through the Phillips community and paved the arrow-straight two-lane street we see today. That did damage enough, but traffic in the evening was light.
“At night, we would sit on the road,” Habersham said. “It was something we couldn’t change, but we dealt with it.”
As the economy heated up, largely thanks to the old Naval Shipyard, traffic became a serious issue by the 1960s, he said. Drivers sped along Highway 41 at 65 mph. It became perilous to cross the road.
When the Amoco plant was built along the Wando River, just to the north, traffic got worse. It included more trucks, more noise, more pollution, Habersham said. In the late-1980s, the massive Dunes West project got under way, with its golf course, tennis courts, swimming pool and big houses, followed in the 1990s by the Rivertowne on the Wando development on the other side of the highway. The people of the Phillips community, squeezed between these sprawling new residential developments, knew they would never again enjoy the peace and quiet of the old days.
The current plan for Highway 41 would widen the road to five lanes and, if "Alternative 1" is adopted, eminent domain would be used to appropriate private property and secure the right of way. Phillips residents would receive just compensation for their lost property, though many of the people living in the community, founded in 1875, are beneficiaries of what’s called heirs property, owned outright and handed down through generations. These homes often have no clear deeds or named individual owners, which means securing government compensation could require legal interventions residents cannot afford and that might not succeed, Habersham said.
In any case, the money probably would not be enough to enable residents, who don’t have mortgages and don’t pay rent, to relocate nearby, Habersham said.
The widening project is controversial for other reasons. Engineers have noted that traffic at certain intersections likely will worsen, not improve, and the new roadway could further erode community cohesion.
What’s more, studies show that wider roadways generally do not reduce traffic, they merely accommodate more vehicles. And adding new roads simply increases the amount of miles people travel in their cars. Every road has a natural congestion level that might be alleviated temporarily by widening projects, but always will return to its previous level, according to a 2011 report issued by the American Economic Association.
It's possible that officials will decide to route the roadway around the Phillips community, running it along the edge of Laurel Hill County Park to Dunes West Boulevard. This option, called "Alternative 7A," would be more expensive and could include sound barriers to protect Dunes West residents. A Highway 41 presentation to Charleston County Council was postponed until some time in November.
Policy and the law
After World War II, a concerted effort was made to develop the suburbs, and to build the infrastructure needed to sustain them. The low-density residential areas were meant for White homeowners only. Neighborhood associations, with the government’s blessing, inserted segregationist clauses into their by-laws, and the Federal Housing Authority also imposed racial restrictions, Rothstein wrote.
The Federal Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954 and the Federal Highway Act of 1956 provided money and other incentives to cities for the purpose of demolishing blighted neighborhoods.
The practice of redlining designated certain predominantly Black neighborhoods ineligible for home loans, which degraded them economically and helped turn them into the “slums” that federal authorities chose to “clear,” often in order to build highways.
It happened in most major U.S. cities — New Orleans, Houston, Detroit, New York City, Boston and San Francisco — and in smaller cities, too, such as Spartanburg and Columbia. These laws and practices have since been deemed unjust and are no longer in use, but the impacts of decades of road building and redlining still can be felt today.
Jeff Tibbals, a Mount Pleasant-based eminent domain and property rights attorney, said the law is not very good at addressing the concerns of individual communities.
In the early days of highway construction, budgetary pressures propelled engineers and contractors to work quickly, without much regard for environmental concerns, Tibbals said.
“Oftentimes, Black communities were in the path of least resistance. That’s not to say there weren’t good reasons to place these roads there. But the design was based on the individual rights of landowners, and not communities.”
It took new legislation, such as the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, to require road builders to examine social and environmental impacts, he said.
Real estate development generates commercial activity. Homeowners want easy access to dry cleaners, convenience stores, clothing outlets and restaurants. This increases the tax base, which incentivizes public officials to pursue growth as an economic strategy, and laying a road through a poor, semi-rural area is far cheaper than building it through a densely populated one, Tibbals said.
“Money talks, and sometimes poor communities with less don’t have a voice,” he said.
But community engagement can be tricky, Trochmann noted. Too often, for the bureaucrats, it’s just a box to check, she said. And mobilizing communities to participate in public meetings can require more than an invitation. Will child care be provided? Translators? Transportation?
Chad Long, director of environmental services at the S.C. Department of Transportation, said road projects differ depending on which agency is in charge and what impacts are predicted. The old practice of slum clearance effectively ceased, at least as official policy, in the 1970s, when NEPA was introduced, he said. And the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act protects certain areas, such as the Phillips community, that have received historical designation.
Today, agencies follow a defined review process, adhere to current regulations and seek to inform and engage local residents, often with multiple public meetings and community outreach, Long said.
Omar Muhammad, executive director of the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities, said the residents of low-income African American neighborhoods already are isolated socially and economically, in large measure because of decades of government infrastructure projects. The social fabric has weakened, making them less able to defend themselves.
Muhammad, who is focused on the concerns of the mostly Black neighborhoods that comprise the southern part of North Charleston, is a strong advocate for a sustainable regional growth plan that improves public transportation and reduces traffic, encourages economic activity, and adds greenways for biking and walking — all while making social equity a priority.
“As a region, we need to start thinking about growth beyond any single community,” he said.
Today, Millicent Brown’s childhood stomping grounds are changing again. The neighborhood divided by the Crosstown, officially renamed the Septima P. Clark Parkway in 2010 to pay tribute to the indomitable civil rights leader, is becoming more diverse. It’s buzzing with commerce.
As always, the economic forces at play solve old problems and create new ones. Overt racism is uncommon now. But the racial implications of gentrification cause some civic leaders and residents to shiver with a sense of déjà vu.
For Brown, the old neighborhood was a model community, imperfect to be sure, but enriched by its economic diversity and the devotion neighbors showed one another.
Late one night in 1960, the Ku Klux Klan threw a burning cross into Brown’s yard and set the house’s front awning on fire. People nearby quickly extinguished the flames. The family received bomb threats and harassing telephone calls.
“We were an identified place,” Brown said. This was a house with symbolism. It represented the aspirations of the entire community.
Then the highway came through. Residents abandoned their homes, and those with some means — the doctors and dentists, shop owners and schoolteachers — relocated.
J. Arthur Brown, a pragmatic businessman and civil rights leader, had developed a stiff upper jaw. He was not easily shaken, even by threats of violence against him and his family. But this was something different, a seismic force that could not be easily controlled.
“One of the only times I saw my father cry was when we knew we would lose the house, and learned how much we’d get for it,” Millicent Brown recalled.
This was the house her grandfather built in 1920. This was where social justice activists gathered, where members of the community turned when they needed advice.
The Brown family received $25,000. They were among the more fortunate. They could relocate to family-owned property on James Island.
Their old neighborhood, once a safe haven for Black people in Charleston, became a shadow of itself.
“That is how you create a ghetto,” Brown said.
The economic pendulum is swinging, though. Property values are way up, home renovations and new construction are common, families are moving in. And a new greenway project, the Lowcountry Lowline, promises to stitch back together the area divided by Interstate 26, providing a pedestrian and bike path, amenities and perhaps opportunities for neighborhood entrepreneurs.
And residents throughout the Lowcountry have awakened to long-simmering racial tensions, joining national calls for social justice and adding to a chorus of defenders of the Phillips community.
In Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of the Beloved Community, where solidarity trumps bigotry and discrimination, and all people, no matter their station, have access to the wealth of the world.
To get there, though, we’ll need good roads.