The environmental racism threatening South Carolina’s Black communities

Hurricanes like 2019’s Dorian continue to threaten Pawleys Island in South Carolina, home to many members of the Gullah/Geechee nation.
Hurricanes like 2019’s Dorian continue to threaten Pawleys Island in South Carolina, home to many members of the Gullah/Geechee nation.
Image: REUTERS/Randall Hill
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Black history in Charleston sits at the water’s edge. On the same spot where thousands of enslaved Africans took their first steps on South Carolina’s shore, a monument to their endurance and their descendants is under construction. The International African American Museum (IAAM), set to open in 2022, faces the Cooper River just over a mile from where it pours into the Atlantic Ocean.

The museum will stand in defiance of centuries of Black South Carolinians’ erasure from the historic record. But even as IAAM’s pillars are being poured, climate change threatens to uproot the people and heritage the museum represents. Those Black communities in South Carolina’s Lowcountry region are searching for ways to ensure their culture outlasts ever-strengthening storms and the economic losses that could follow in their wake.

Black South Carolinians have a long history of surviving disasters, natural and unnatural. The Lowcountry—a stretch of counties and islands where most of the land sits just above sea level—has always been prone to hurricanes and flooding. And like much of the American South, the Lowcountry has historically had high proportions of Black residents.

It’s a reality born of slavery: Hundreds of thousands of people were enslaved on the rice and indigo plantations that stretched down the state’s marshy coast, and some of their descendants have passed family homes and land from generation to generation.

“Climate change really is a Black issue,” said Bernard Powers, interim CEO of IAAM. “People who live close to the coast as we do, we’re the ones who are going to be affected by potential damage from increasingly devastating hurricanes.”

But natural disasters are not the only force threatening to unseat Black South Carolinians from their homes. In the last 60 years, as politicians and developers sought to turn the region into a tourism powerhouse, rising costs have displaced many Black residents. Those economic realities make it far more likely that a storm will turn temporary dislocations into permanent ones—threatening the Black Lowcountry’s cultural survival.

Promotional poster for Leeside climate haven.
Image: Matt Chinworth

How will history remember the cities that adapt to climate migration? Visit the museum exhibition for Leeside, climate haven of the future.

The land is the culture

The tension between the Black Lowcountry’s cultural riches and existential threats is especially apparent to the Gullah/Geechee—a nation of people whose customs and language draw from the west African traditions of their enslaved ancestors.

The nation, which declared itself independent in 2000, stretches from the coast of southern North Carolina all the way down to northern Florida, and casts out to each state’s small islands. In 2009, the 12,800-square-mile national heritage area the nation inhabits was home to just over 3 million people, 24% of whom were Black or African American, compared with 14% of the US as a whole.

Gullah/Geechee people, who live in rural, agricultural communities as well as the region’s cities, are united by their language, a creole of west African languages and English. Other elements of the culture, from spiritual practices to natural crafts, maintain and celebrate ties to west Africa. But it is also deeply connected to the southern US coast that finds itself threatened by encroaching seas.

Queen Quet, born Marquetta Goodwine, is marking her twentieth year as the elected queen mother and head of state of the Gullah/Geechee nation. “Gullah/Geechee culture is inextricably tied to the land and to the waterways from Jacksonville, NC to Jacksonville, FL,” she wrote in an email. The nation prizes its fisheries, which support employment and food sovereignty. Gullah/Geechee artisans, who make intricate baskets for community use and tourist sales, rely on sweetgrass gathered from sand dunes and brackish marshlands. Rice and seafood are central to the nation’s cuisine.

“Gullah/Geechee communities and culture is place-based. It’s family-based,” said Dionne Hoskins-Brown, a marine biologist who chairs the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor Commission. (Hoskins-Brown noted that she herself is not Gullah/Geechee.)

Such place-based cultures share certain traits, said Todd LeVasseur, a visiting assistant professor of religious studies and environmental and sustainability studies at the College of Charleston. “These are largely isolated communities using what we would call a traditional ecological knowledge, ethical knowledge,” he said. “That is a knowledge that is accumulated over time through trial and error.”

What happens to generations-old knowledge as the land it is built on becomes uninhabitable is a question tugging at the roots of many place-based cultures threatened by a changing climate. For peoples whose history, traditions, and livelihood have been inextricable from their forebears’ lands for centuries, it is difficult to imagine what, if anything, would remain after the land is gone.

As Queen Quet wrote: “To harm [our waterways] means you are harming us!”

Out of place

The Gullah/Geechee land is being ripped away slowly, as the waters creep up, and all at once, as storms devastate homes and push the barriers between saltwater and freshwater further inland. “Climate change has not only contributed to rapidly eroding the shoreline of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, it has also started ocean acidification which is affecting our fisheries, […] and increased the intensity and quantity of tropical storms and hurricanes that we deal with annually,” wrote Queen Quet.

A great deal of Gullah/Geechee land, though, has been taken not by storms but by the coastal development that threatens the Black Lowcountry as a whole. Entire islands that were once refuges for the Gullah/Geechee and other Black Carolinians have been converted into white-owned condos, resorts, and golf courses.

That gentrification disproportionately impacts Gullah/Geechee families, many of whom purchased their land and homes generations ago, at the end of the US Civil War. Shut out from court systems, this first generation of landowners often passed their land down to descendants without a will. As their heirs multiply, each is given an interest in the property. Land passed down this way is called heirs’ property, and ProPublica reports that the legal loopholes associated with it are the leading cause of involuntary land loss among Black Americans.

Josh Walden, an attorney and chief operating officer of the Center for Heirs’ Property, a nonprofit legal advocacy firm based in Charleston, breaks it down this way: “If there were 10 heirs in a scenario, and one heir sold their interest to a developer, now that developer owns a one-tenth interest in that property. He has the same rights afforded to the rest of the tenants, which include forcing a sale.”

That hypothetical, Walden said, is reality for many families, and it has wide-reaching consequences.

“Without our family on this land, depression and heart disease would likely kill the majority of us, as it has done to many others taken away from the island due to displacement,” Queen Quet wrote. By providing community, food, and employment, the land supports both spiritual and physical health.

Queen Quet emailed on an August weekend, as she prepared for Hurricane Isaias, the first major storm of the season.

“What I have heard repeatedly while we prepare for the storm that is getting ready to head past us as I write this to you—‘Where am I going? I have nowhere else to go.’”

A culture of survival

As communities face down displacement from a commodified and vulnerable coast, they have come to different conclusions about whether cultures so rooted in place can survive being replanted—or whether they will be uprooted at all.

“We WILL NOT be displaced from our land!,” Queen Quet insisted. “We da binya and ain gwine nowhey! Those narrating our demise are telling lies.” It is a sentiment many share. The Gullah/Geechee Heritage Corridor Commission and Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation said they work with people who are serially displaced by storms, who whenever possible, return and rebuild.

Not all Black Lowcountry residents are as certain of a future in the region. A 2013 report released by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources said rising temperatures and sea levels and increasingly frequent and severe floods and storms could endanger the state’s natural resources, which at the time generated $30 billion and 230,000 jobs. More recently, in 2016, the US Environmental Protection Agency said that coastal South Carolina land is sinking, leading to observed sea level rise that outpaces the global average.

Experts who spoke with Quartz said that long before these forces make the Lowcountry unlivable, they will weaken its economy, which relies heavily on its natural resources and coastal tourism. The first to be forced out, they said, will be Black residents already grappling with other forms of economic displacement.

“[Displacement] is going to be subtle, and it’s going to be economic,” said Hoskins-Brown. Gentrification in cities. Development in rural areas. Blows to the tourism, agriculture, and fishing industries as storm damage intensifies. Financial barriers to rebuilding after storms hit, thanks in part to the limited relief available to people who cannot prove traditional property ownership. “There’s some people who cannot recover from disaster,” Hoskins-Brown said.

South Carolina native Bakari Sellers said government neglect has left Black communities like his hometown of Denmark to “vanish.”

“Because of government basically turning their back on them, [these towns] are disappearing, are dwindling,” said Sellers, who served for eight years as a South Carolina state representative. “It’s bad policy and an inaction on global climate change. It’s the systemic and institutionalized racism that is pervasive against communities of color. It’s environmental injustice. Probably most glaring is the economic inequality.”

Preserving a people

Regardless of when they believed mass displacement would occur—now or in one lifetime or never—advocates who spoke with Quartz agreed that investments in people, not just the land they live on, is crucial to the Black Lowcountry’s cultural survival.

“The culture’s in the soil, in the food,” Sellers said. “But as long as we’re sharing our stories, no matter where we are in the world…the culture is still there. We just have to make sure it doesn’t die.”

Hoskins-Brown said sharing those stories depends on economic empowerment. “Cultural preservation is connected to economic resilience among families,” she said. “If people can have a good job, a good education, healthcare or a roof over their heads, they will take care of themselves and their culture.”

At the International African American Museum, Bernard Powers is trying to walk the line between preserving Black history and helping protect Black futures. “One of our goals as a museum is to show the extent to which African people are even today still connected to one another,” he said.

Powers envisions hosting climate change exhibits and events that bring Caribbean and Southern Black communities together to share their knowledge of the water and land. He also knows historians like him are racing against a clock, trying to unearth Black coastal artifacts before rising waters swallow them whole.

He pointed to the example of traditional cemeteries: “For historic reasons, they were placed in these [waterfront] areas, so the spirits would return across the water by which the people came.”

IAAM, a new waterfront memorial, will stand on 13-foot pilings meant to protect it from the rising river and coming storms. It is a site designed to keep stories of Black survival just above the water’s grasp—and just within its reach.