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Black History Month – In Charleston, Blacks are History!

Lee Walton

As Charleston’s African-American citizens celebrate their culture’s many important and diverse contributions to our region’s history, it seems appropriate that we pause and take stock of just how relatively few now remain on the Peninsula and other historically black, albeit quickly disappearing, neighborhoods within the City of Charleston. Over the past three decades Charleston’s minority population has slowly, but steadily dwindled as property values and taxes have continued their relentless rise. Realistically affordable housing and a “living wage” sufficient to support minority families above the poverty level are essentially nonexistent on the Peninsula.

Gentrification, fueled by the unending influx of those “from off” who demand and are willing to pay the high prices for a trendy historic home anywhere below the Neck, is rapidly driving African-Americans further and further from their historic neighborhoods, churches and near-by centers of employment in the service industry and ports. Accelerated redevelopment within the East Side, precipitated by the recent removal of the old Cooper River Bridge approaches, has taken on the appearance of a deal-estate development stampede.

But how was all this allowed to happen under the very noses of the many Black City Council members supposedly elected to represent the best interest of their own single-member district constituents? The short answer is that the only interest of their concern has been their own, with the help and encouragement of none other than Charleston’s too-long-serving Mayor, Joseph P. Riley.

For the past three decades, Riley has handpicked, cultivated and supported the election of all but a very few of the Black members that have served and are now serving on City Council. Through experience gained at expense of at least a generation of Charleston’s most vulnerable citizens, Riley, for all intent and purpose, has reduced the City’s Black population to the point of political and economic irrelevance. Had he purposefully started to execute such a plan to depopulate Charleston’s historically Black communities thirty years ago, the outcome could not have been more certain than that we witness today. But he couldn’t do it alone; he needed help, and time and time again, he got it from the Black members of City Council. Most benefited greatly from Riley’s patronage as they accumulated personal wealth or status within their own spheres of influence. All the while, they each have and still are playing the roles of wiling accomplices, if not servants, to Riley’s shop-worn and dated dream of what he, and only he, wishes Charleston to become.

Similar to the fabled Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Charleston’s Mayor currently has his own Three Geldings of Riley’s Acropolis - Greed, Power and Glory, aka Council Members Waring, Gilliard and Gallant in that respective order. Each of these subservient steeds eagerly strains at their yokes of self-gratification as they blindly pull the plow of gentrification through the historic fields of their own ancestors, forever guided by the strong reins of Riley. Can they not see the sorrow and affliction they bring upon their own constituents?

Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.

…John Newton

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