The Center provides services to a seven-county area along the coast of South Carolina in a geographic and cultural region called the Lowcountry (Beaufort, Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton, Dorchester, Georgetown and Jasper). According to the results of the 2010 Census, our service area has a population of 925,890—27% African American—with 10.8% of its families living below the poverty level. The percentage number of families living below the poverty level in the Center’s service area is deceptive. There are 25% of African American families living below the poverty level in comparison to 6% of the Whites. Although 78% of this population lives in urban areas, every county except Charleston has more than 20% of their population residing in rural areas. The largest counties, Berkeley and Colleton, are 29% and 76% respectively.
Located within the “Black Belt” of the South, South Carolina is plagued by similar Black Belt state ailments, such as low educational attainment rates, poor educational systems, limited or no industry, racism, and recovery from the effects of slavery. While there are pockets of measurable success, we are still faced with persistent poverty among low-wealth residents which is historically and nationally recognized.
However, the Lowcountry’s rich history and cultural diversity, temperate climate and ample natural resources are well positioned for economic opportunity – as long as an enlightened balance is achieved between growth and protecting the “quality of life” attraction of its natural environment.
With the increased pressure of development across South Carolina’s coastal areas over the past 20 years, these rural areas are no longer isolated and ignored. A favorable spotlight has been focused on the rural, marshfront properties that were once considered unlivable, undesirable and mosquito-ridden. As a result, land loss across the South among African Americans (mostly heirs’ property) has reached alarming rates, particularly in South Carolina’s Lowcountry.
Our work is cut out for us! According to the Center’s 2012 “Mapping Project”, more than 41,000 acres of heirs’ property remain to be protected across our seven-county service area. Higher concentrations of larger tracts are to be found in Berkeley (12,003 acres), Colleton (11,115 acres) and Dorchester (5,323 acres) counties. These vulnerable lands are often targets for development through the operation of partition sales. Moreover, as heirs’ property owners seek agreements to divide property among their families, they may face planning challenges with regard to water and sewer infrastructure and development restrictions.
Equitable growth in the Lowcountry is a particular challenge because the loss of African American heirs’ property is not only the loss of land, but also the very real loss of cultural heritage, history, customs and traditions that are unique to this place. National recognition of the Gullah-Geechee Heritage Corridor stretching along the coast from Florida through North Carolina is a testament to that cultural heritage that will dissipate if the land is fragmented and disappear when the land is lost.