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RACIAL SHIFT: Charleston peninsula's makeup reverses in 30 years, with blacks leaving for suburbs, area becoming two-thirds white

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RACIAL SHIFT: Charleston peninsula's makeup reverses in 30 years, with blacks leaving for suburbs, area becoming two-thirds white

Wade Spees // The Post and Courier

“I love flowers and gardening,” said Peggyann Godfrey while decorating her West Ashley yard Monday. The retired elementary school teacher moved from peninsular Charleston in 2005 and is part of the significant decline in the black population downtown.

The racial makeup in the heart of Charleston County's principal city has been reversed in just 30 years, going from roughly two-thirds black in 1980 to two-thirds white in 2010.

"It's so obvious, all you have to do is get in your car and drive," said Louise Mitchell, a longtime upper West Side resident and part of what was once the black majority population there.

"It was happening for a long time," Mitchell said. "Then, you wake up one morning and walk outside and say, 'Wow, what is going on?' "

What's going on is the black flight from the Charleston peninsula continued during the past 10 years, while the white population rose sharply, leaving the downtown area with a large white majority for the first time in memory.

The peninsula's population has been falling since the mid-20th century, dropping from more than 70,000 in 1940 to about 32,000 today. But the big change since 1980 has been the large decline in the number of black residents. Every 10 years the Census showed another big loss, with the black population falling by about 5,000 each decade.

Meanwhile, the already much-reduced white population on the peninsula bottomed out in 1980 at 15,134, then started rising, and jumped by more than 4,000 during the past decade.

Gentrification and rising downtown rents, along with a broader national trend of urban black families moving to the suburbs, are believed to have played key roles in the population changes.

Peggyann Godfrey, a retired teacher, watched the neighborhood around her family's house on Rutledge Avenue near Cannon Street change dramatically.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, college students moved in, popular restaurants opened, property taxes soared as property values increased, and parking became scarce.

"I think that what happened with a lot of blacks in the city was that they rented," Godfrey said. "The house across the street, there were blacks living up and down, and they had to move when the owners decided to do something different."

Downtown City Councilman Robert Mitchell, also a housing counselor for the United Way, said that's certainly what happened.

"A lot of people moved out because of rents and housing costs," he said. "I know a lot of people who moved to the Summerville and Goose Creek areas.

"Some people look at it like other people are moving in and forcing them to move out," said Mitchell, who is not related to Louise Mitchell. "If you can't afford something, you can call that gentrification."

Godfrey owned her home -- her parents had bought it 35 years earlier -- but by 2005 she was living there alone in a big house with big expenses.

"I thought maybe I can do a little better if I move and get something smaller," she said. "I loved the big house, with the high ceilings, but I was by myself and getting close to retirement."

So Godfrey did what the national Census suggests countless urban blacks decided to do during the past decade: she moved to the suburbs. Now, she lives on a cul-de-sac in the Melrose subdivision in West Ashley.

Godfrey said her new neighborhood is nice, and quiet, but doesn't have the same sense of community she recalls from living downtown.

"Nationally, it's certainly a trend that African-American populations in center cities have been going down," said Tim Keane, director of Charleston's Department of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability. He cites Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland and St. Louis as examples.

In a counter-trend, whites have been returning to urban centers in large numbers, although the suburbs still get most of the growth. The peninsula's white population shot up by more than 24 percent in the 10 years through 2010.

Keane noted that the city as a whole gained more population than any city or town in the state during the past decade, even as the population on the peninsula declined slightly. Some of the nearly 5,000 black residents who no longer live downtown may still be within the city limits but in West Ashley, or on Johns Island, James Island or the Cainhoy peninsula.

"I think it is part of a trend, that is not unusual in this country, of people at a certain stage in their lives decide to move to the suburbs," Keane said. "Larger yards, more affordable housing, easier parking -- all the things that make the suburbs desirable for people."

Dot Scott, president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, said she was not surprised by the Census numbers, but she said the trend of black residents leaving downtown areas now is quite different from when whites left cities for the suburbs in the 1960s.

"When you had whites going to the suburbs, they chose that because they thought they would have a better quality of life," she said. "I think when you see African-Americans move, it's because of gentrification, and not being able to afford to live there anymore."

There's no doubt that some of the black residents who no longer live on the peninsula did not choose to leave.

Louise Mitchell was among hundreds, for example, who lost their homes when the privately owned Shoreview low-income apartments were demolished by The Beach Co., which built the upscale single-family home development Longborough in Shoreview's place.

The city, in one of many initiatives aimed at creating downtown homes middle-class families could afford, reached an agreement with The Beach Company to build 42 condos for middle-income residents, next to the Longborough development.

Former Shoreview residents got first dibs on the condos, but Mitchell was the only former Shoreview resident to return and buy one, which sold for about $115,000.

"I think it's about different levels of affluence," she said. "There's some racial in it, too, but that's not the main thing.

"It used to be Shoreview, and there was nobody back here but blacks," Mitchell said. "You have to move with the times."

The results of the downtown racial realignment have broad implications for urban planning and political power, and point to the changing face of the suburbs as well as the urban core of the city. The Census results will be used to redraw political boundaries, including Charleston City Council districts.

The last time district lines were redrawn, the city went from six black-majority council seats to five, and with the Census that number could drop again.

Robert Mitchell lost his seat after the last redistricting, when his district was merged with another, then later returned to the council. He said he'd be surprised if the city doesn't lose another black-majority seat after this Census.

But ultimately, he said, voters will decide if black or white really matters.

"You can have a majority white district and still win," he said, "if people look at a council member and see that he's working for the betterment of the whole community."

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