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The Struggle to Preserve Historic Black Communities: A Complicated Battle

by Andrew Wright
1 comment
Heritage Preservation

Sallie Ann Robinson proudly stands amidst the backdrop of her grandmother’s home in South Carolina. As a sixth-generation native of Daufuskie Island, once a thriving Gullah community, she cherishes memories of family gatherings and invaluable life lessons passed down through generations.

“In this very house, I was born, just like many generations of my family before me,” says Robinson, who wears multiple hats as a chef and tour guide. “My childhood was spent here, and these woods served as our playground.”

Long ago, the dirt roads of Daufuskie Island teemed with a bustling community that boasted its own bartering system and a thriving oyster industry.

“At one point, there were over a thousand people living on this island,” Robinson recalls. Today, she and a few cousins stand as the sole descendants of Gullah heritage who remain.

Historic Black communities, such as Daufuskie Island, are facing extinction, and dedicated descendants like Robinson are grappling with the challenge of preserving a history that is rapidly fading away.

“These towns represent the genuine wellspring of our culture, our history, and the physical embodiment of our heritage,” emphasizes Everett Fly, a landscape architect who has meticulously uncovered more than 1,800 Black historic settlements in his research.

Scholars define historic Black communities or towns as settlements founded by formerly enslaved individuals, typically during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These enclaves often boasted their own churches, schools, stores, and economic systems.

Today, the sad reality is that there are fewer than 30 incorporated historic Black towns remaining in the United States, a stark contrast to the more than 1,200 that thrived between the 1880s and 1915.

“The ones that endure are exceedingly rare but of immense significance,” Fly remarks.

The root of these communities’ decline can be traced back to their inception, when white supremacists terrorized Black residents by destroying homes and businesses or forcibly driving them out of town, as exemplified by the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921 and the Rosewood, Florida, massacre in 1923.

In more recent times, the erosion of Black strongholds is attributed in part to amended ordinances, disparities in tax rates, property devaluation, and political hurdles that render these communities susceptible to developers and rampant gentrification.

“Something as seemingly minor as rezoning can have a profound impact,” notes Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, director of the public history program at Howard University. “Those in positions of political power can make decisions that spell doom for these towns.”

Marquetta Goodwine, known as Queen Quet and leader of the Gullah-Geechee nation, laments the encroachment of gated communities, golf courses, and planned developments that have raised taxes and displaced native Gullah-Geechees along the coast.

On St. Helena Island in South Carolina, large banners proclaim “Protect the culture, protect the history, protect the land.”

In the ongoing battle to safeguard these historic communities, residents are confronted with complex challenges that require innovative solutions. Developers, armed with lower property appraisals in majority Black neighborhoods, capitalize on these disparities, contributing to the gentrification process.

As attorney Rukaiyah Adams, who runs the nonprofit “Rebuild Albina” in Portland, Oregon, points out, it’s essential to create new models that promote equitable homeownership and counteract the predatory practices of developers.

Eatonville, one of the earliest self-governing Black municipalities in the U.S., grapples with the Orange County Public School Board’s ownership of 100 acres of land within the town. This property, once home to the Robert Hungerford Normal and Industrial School, has stirred controversy as developers sought to build commercial and residential units. The Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community is actively pursuing legal action to protect the land’s educational legacy.

In the face of these challenges, the descendants of historic Black communities are resilient. They strive to bolster their economies and preserve their local heritage and culture, as seen in events like the annual ZORA! Festival in Eatonville.

Returning to Daufuskie Island, Sallie Ann Robinson tirelessly works to restore ten vacant homes that were once filled with her extended family. Her most significant obstacle is finding support for grant writing to fund her community’s restoration.

“I’m not asking for people to dig into their pockets,” Robinson emphasizes. “I simply ask for help in understanding the available methods for securing funds.”

As Robinson gazes at the headstones nestled amidst tall grass in Mary Field Cemetery, where many of her relatives rest, she draws inspiration from their indomitable spirit.

“Here lies my baby sister, my cousin Marvin, and my great-grandfather,” Robinson says, pointing to each marker. “For them, the impossible was just a challenge waiting to be overcome. They didn’t accept limitations. If it could be done, they found a way.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Heritage Preservation

What are historic Black communities, and why are they important?

Historic Black communities are settlements founded by formerly enslaved individuals, typically during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They often had their own churches, schools, stores, and economic systems. These communities are crucial as they hold the authentic source of Black culture, history, and physical heritage.

What has led to the decline of historic Black communities?

The decline of these communities can be attributed to various factors, including white supremacist violence during their formation, amended ordinances, unequal tax rates, property devaluation, and political challenges. These factors have made these communities vulnerable to developers and gentrification.

How has property appraisal disparity contributed to gentrification?

Research shows that homes in majority Black neighborhoods are appraised at lower values than those in predominantly non-Black areas. Developers capitalize on this by buying properties at lower costs and selling them at higher prices, contributing to the gentrification process.

What efforts are being made to preserve these communities?

Descendants of historic Black communities are resiliently working to preserve their heritage through legal actions, community initiatives, and events like the ZORA! Festival. They are also seeking innovative models to promote equitable homeownership and counteract predatory practices by developers.

How can people support the preservation of historic Black communities?

Support can come in various forms, including advocating for equitable property appraisals, backing nonprofit organizations dedicated to heritage preservation, and participating in community events that celebrate and raise awareness about these historic communities.

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1 comment

Reader123 December 26, 2023 - 1:13 am

wow, this article so interestin! I didnt know abt these histroic black communities. its so sad that they gone now. #HeritageMatters

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