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Commentary: We must preserve, protect African American settlement communities

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Jennie Stephens (copy)

Jennie Stephens of the Center for Heirs Property Preservation says economic development "isn't just for for-profit institutions.” The nonprofit she leads will move its operations into the new Opportunity Center on Rivers Avenue from West Ashley. Provided

Charleston County soon will be home to the International African American Museum, which will showcase objects of historical, scientific and cultural interest of enslaved Africans and their descendants who shaped every aspect of Charleston and our country.

Gadsden’s Wharf, where the museum is under construction, was the entry point for thousands of enslaved Africans.

Although they didn’t all remain in Charleston, many did in communities we know such as Snowden, Scanlonville (Remley’s Point), Sol Legare and Phillips.

It is unfortunate that growth and development are slowly erasing these African American settlement communities and their traditional activities.

The community that has been in the news lately is the Phillips community, and the impact the proposal to widen Highway 41 would have a serious impact on its quality of life and future existence.

It is ironic that Phillips is mentioned in Charleston County’s comprehensive plan as worth of national historical recognition, while Mount Pleasant’s comprehensive plan calls for maintaining its neighborhood character.

“Cultural, historic and archaeological resources, unique settlement patterns of traditional Lowcountry communities (such as historically African American communities and family settlements), and traditional activities (such as Sweetgrass Basket Making) should be preserved and protected from potential negative impacts of growth and development.” — Charleston County

“Protect the integrity of settlement communities by limiting further encroachment and deterioration of the original development patterns and ensuring any redevelopment is as compatible as possible with the community standards.” — Mount Pleasant

Charleston County officials who are considering the tangible cost of improving traffic flow in Mount Pleasant have decided that it would be better to widen Highway 41 and require the limited number of landowners in the Phillips community who would be impacted to make a sacrifice for the greater good.

Consequently, these landowners would be compensated for their inconvenience through the condemnation process. In theory, that sounds logical; however, a significant number of these landowners own their land in the form of heirs’ property. Several generations of heirs would be involved in this condemnation process and would have to be identified to access these funds.

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While the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation does not normally handle condemnation cases, numerous heirs have sought our services (post-condemnation) because they were unable to access the associated funds due to their inability to obtain a clear title.

Some have contacted us after the five-year escheatment period has run, and funds have reverted to the state, and they are no closer to resolving the title issues associated with the land.

In addition, on several occasions, we have been approached by courts and municipalities from across the state asking us to take the proceeds of a condemnation or tax sale for this very reason.

However necessary the condemnation may be for the public good, the unique problems associated with generational heirs’ property significantly increase the economic impact on these landowners as compared to those whose property is condemned with clear title.

The inability to access funds immediately leaves heirs’ property homeowners with few good options.

As a result, relocation becomes extremely problematic for heirs who may not have the resources to secure other housing.

Will the history, culture and artifacts of the African American settlement communities in Charleston County be destined to be contained within a museum?

Will the legacy of these families who helped make Charleston what it is be lost as development occurs to accommodate this growing region?

Or, as promised in the comprehensive plans of Charleston County and the town of Mount Pleasant, will partnerships be established to preserve the unique settlement patterns and community character?

Jennie L. Stephens is CEO of the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation.

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