Crossing a Great Divide

Chapter 7 | Black, white and green

Southern conservation has a problem: The inhabitants of remaining natural areas often are poor, rural blacks longing for development.

May 17, 2007 

Dorothy Pugh-Hodge and her brother Arthur run a general store near Sparkleberry Landing. Inside, Dot’s is sparsely stocked; so is her competition at the next landing. Customers are mostly sportsmen looking for snacks.

PHOTO BY GERRY MELENDEZ

The clash is guaranteed: Poor, rural black communities vs. environmentalists.

After all, what's left to preserve? The land that, once upon a time, those in power didn't want: Remote rural areas, sandhills, tidal wetlands, swamps, sea islands.

Who lives on this land? In South Carolina, mostly poor blacks.

It's almost a one-to-one match, poor blacks and rural areas, poor blacks and unspoiled areas. Race becomes an inevitable issue in Southern conservation.

In North Carolina, an environmental group mapped the match: Persistently poor counties are also important natural areas, says Mikki Sager. She directs the Resourceful Communities Program for The Conservation Fund-North Carolina.

After U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn proposed the bridge across upper Lake Marion, Sager visited at the environmentalists' invitation. They hoped she could suggest some way to negotiate.

As she could have predicted, the counties surrounding the lake and swamp — Calhoun, Clarendon, Orangeburg and Sumter — possess bird preserves, good hunting and fishing and farming, and a greater minority population and greater poverty than the state average.

Sager visited and declined the assignment. She remembers being torn about several things, particularly "the whole race issue." Bernie Mazyck sums it up this way: "We kept it. We farmed it. We preserved it. You like it." So tension arises, says Mazyck, president and chief executive of the S.C. Association of Community Development Corporations.

"Environmentalists don't trust the local community to know what's best. Definitely, the local community doesn't trust the environmentalists, who say, ‘You can't use this land to support your community.'"

Jennie Stephens offers a similar summation: "You've got yours, but you want to tell me I can't have mine." The executive director of the Center for Heirs' Property Preservation in Charleston, Stephens calls the clash an issue of fairness and justice.

Currently, more than a third of rural property owned by African-Americans is heirs' property, scholars estimate. Heirs' property is land held without clear title, often lived on communally by people who may trace ownership back to former slaves. Obviously, a lack of clear title to land complicates everything.

Says Stephens: "You hear what the environmentalists are saying about wanting to protect land, but what about people who for so long protected land not valued and now have the opportunity to reap the benefits of their property?"

· · ·

Another clash is guaranteed: Poor, rural black communities vs. developers.

Who can say that if Clyburn gets his wish — the proposed roads and bridge followed by ecotourism, golf courses, retirees — rural residents would profit?

When Sager visited Lake Marion, she had another concern besides the clash between white environmentalists and black rural residents: If the bridge were built, she feared ensuing development would be gated communities.

It seems a given that any development in the rural counties surrounding the lake would include — as neighboring Santee at I-95 already does — retirement and vacation homes behind gates.

And that calls up Hilton Head.

Hilton Head Island haunts any discussion of race and land and profit in South Carolina. While tourists see shops and big beach homes and golden sand, others see blacks' land loss.

In 1910, African-Americans' land ownership peaked at 16 million to 19 million acres nationally. Today, ownership is down to 7.8 million acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A startling 98 percent of agricultural acreage is owned by whites.

As the Center for Heirs' Property Preservation notes of land remaining in blacks' hands: "In the Lowcountry, that land borders the marshes, wetlands and coast. Once considered ‘mosquito-infested' and undesirable, it is now prime real estate."

The good and the bad of this began in the sea islands, small islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed more than 10,000 slaves on the S.C. coast and sea islands, according to "Forever Free" by Eric Foner, a Columbia University historian.

Thanks to an 1865 field order by Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman reserving sea islands for freedpeople, 40,000 settled on the coast and islands, working 400,000 acres.

After Lincoln's death, President Andrew Johnson restored land to former plantation owners. Three freedmen on Edisto Island petitioned: ".æ.æ. We were promised Homesteads by the government." But the freedpeople were evicted.

About 2,000 former slaves kept "Sherman land." Through tax-sale auctions and the S.C. Land Commission, another 16,000 black families obtained about 50,000 acres, historians say.

That gain-and-loss story is the story of Hilton Head Island, then and now, a story Clyburn and others invoke.

Headquarters for a Union blockade squadron, the island became a refuge for escaped slaves during the Civil War. In response, Mitchelville, named after Union Gen. Ormsby Mitchel, was established, becoming the nation's first town for freedmen.

At century's end, an estimated 3,000 blacks, owning about 10,000 acres, lived on the island.

In 1950, about 1,000 people, 90 percent of them black, still lived there. Then Charles Fraser bought 19,000 acres; a bridge, a golf course and a hotel followed. Sea Pines Plantation, a gated community, made Fraser's name as a developer. Blacks' land ownership dwindled.

Today, the population of Hilton Head has dramatically increased, but the percentage of African-American residents has dramatically decreased: 34,000 people live on the island, 8 percent of them black.

"Land gives you power. Land gives you choices to make," says Mazyck of the S.C. Association of Community Development Corporations.

"Land loss in African-American communities is one of the biggest crises in the South," says Sager. Clyburn believes blacks' land loss, and the history of Hilton Head in particular, argue for the bridge. He thinks of the bridge as a pre-emptive strike.

In 2001, he wrote: ".æ.æ. Once the development came, so did the bridges. I am seeking to reverse that trend. Build the bridge first, so those who still live on their family's land hold on to it and reap the benefits æ.æ.æ."

He also calls the bridge symbolic, an offering up to the past as well as the present.

· · ·

Will Lake Marion be a story of conservation or development, or a thoughtful merging of the two? And who benefits either way?

Attorney Faith R. Rivers argues for efforts to "bridge the ‘black-green-white' divide" that pits local leaders' wish for a higher standard of living against environmentalists with an "anti-growth" stance.

"The strategy of always saying no to infrastructure as a way to prevent growth has consequences for African-Americans, who need infrastructure for their health and to occupy their properties," says Rivers, a professor at the University of Vermont.

While executive director of the S.C. Bar Association from 1998-2005, Rivers established the Heirs Property Preservation Project. She continues to work on blacks' land loss in South Carolina.

"Denial of infrastructure isn't the answer," she says.

Either way, it seems there's danger: harm to the environment, harm to people's dreams. So the environmental conversation remains a race conversation, and the race conversation remains undone.

And what's best remains elusive.

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