Facing Climate Gentrification, an Historic African American Community Outside Charleston, S.C., Embraces Conservation – InsideClimate News

Flooding the Market: First in a series about climate change and coastal threats in South Carolina.
TEN MILE, S.C.—At high tide, the marsh alongside Seafood Road disappears under an inscrutable mirror of water. Then, as it drains, reeds resurface and begin to trace hundreds of paths through the marsh, etched by generations of subsistence fishing. 
Ten Mile’s community center looks over the water from red brick stilts while a heron flaps across the marsh. Local artist Dana Coleman stands out on the road in a black, short-sleeved shirt with chunky turquoise embroidery. Every passing car honks affably because Coleman grew up in Ten Mile, a community settled behind Seafood Road by freed slaves after the Civil War. Now there is a new noise: rhythmic hammering over his shoulder from a block of houses under construction on the Ten Mile Eagles’ old baseball diamond.
As climate change threatens South Carolina’s coastal riches—from sunswept resorts like Hilton Head to huge future developments—the state’s historical African American settlements are also at risk. Squeezed between luxury homes and rising water, Coleman and other locals spy an opportunity to get creative. 
While the county council considers a pause on new developments, settlement leaders are turning to forestry projects, land trusts and greenbelt initiatives. Land trusts and the county greenbelt program prohibit development on tracts reserved for conservation, while sustainable forestry offers landowners a way to make money from their family’s land without selling to a developer. Green programs like these could help preserve the character of historic Black neighborhoods, Coleman hopes, while enshrining as much flood resiliency as possible. 
“We know some secret spots,” said Coleman. “Wait till the tide goes out, walk about a quarter mile and there’s hundreds of little channels going all different directions.” Pick the right one and before long, the marsh under your feet is more oyster than mud, he said. “We get a bag full—fresh oysters, clams, crab, everything—come back and steam them right here in the yard.”
He points over the water: Between two palmettos in the distance is a channel leading to the Atlantic. “This is what we’re trying to protect. And this is why the developers want it.”
In recent years Ten Mile has found itself in the path of one of the country’s fastest growing cities: the affluent suburban sprawl of Mount Pleasant, just east of Charleston. As well as driving up house prices, locals say development is exacerbating sea level rise by replacing absorbent trees and marshes with concrete. Experts warn that this worsening sea level rise, in turn, will fuel more gentrification—which is why locals feel such urgency to act.
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First, Ten Mile petitioned Charleston County to become a historic district. Granted in 2022, the designation means that new construction must be approved by a county commission. Now, community leaders hope green programs could help preserve the community into the future. 
Critics say development restrictions could harm property values, or push development into neighboring Black communities that have not yet organized. But Coleman hopes Ten Mile can be an example to follow for the other 23 historic black settlements scattered across the county. 
“We’re getting more, for lack of better words, bullets in our guns now,” he said from a bench under the community center. Between him and the hammering construction is an 11-acre copse. The neighborhood association bought it with greenbelt funding: a program where Charleston County offers cash to protect green spaces from development in perpetuity. “We’ve got stuff in place to fight for the land for our kids and grandkids.” 
Jesse M. Keenan, a Harvard professor focusing on urbanism, first noticed climate change and gentrification walking in lockstep on a research trip to Denmark in 2011. San Kjeld was a working class, portside neighborhood of Copenhagen a decade earlier, but when Keenan arrived, all the amenities of gentrification had beaten him to it.
“I remember walking around with the vice mayor at the time and it was apparent that this neighborhood had gone through a kind of transformation physically,” Keenan remembers. “When you see neighborhoods that go through change there’s little details about the type of retail, how people put planters and flowers on streets, how trash receptacles are located.” The catalyst of San Kjeld’s change, Keenan learned, was an experimental climate resilience program, and the investment that came with it.
Around the world, “climate gentrification” was working in two main ways, according to a Harvard paper Keenan finished seven years later. He found that low-income communities would be squeezed out of elevated neighborhoods as the cost of flooding grew clearer and high ground took on a premium. And, as happened in San Kjeld, poorer people would also be edged out of low-lying areas as the cost of repairs, insurance and resilience infrastructure increased, for those able to afford them
Communities like Ten Mile are being squeezed by the latter. In coastal South Carolina, waterfront land is more valuable than ever, despite accelerating sea level rise. Charleston harbor is now seven inches higher than it was in 2010, according to tide gauges. Federal scientists predict it will rise over a foot more by 2050, at which point two days out of every three in the City of Charleston will see tidal flooding.
“When you’re talking about waterfront development in pretty high-risk areas like Charleston, there are people who are willing to absorb not only the risks of flooding and storm damage, but also the insurance cost of doing so,” said Keenan. 
Only wealthy owners can afford the new houses, such as those nearest Seafood Rood largely built on brick stilts. That development pushes up property taxes across the neighborhood. And at the same time, the new houses make flooding worse.
When he grew up in Ten Mile, Coleman said, Seafood Road would only flood if a big storm swept through, once a year at most. “Now it floods on a regular tide with no hurricane, excess rain or anything. These tides that come in now that never were a thing in the past.” He laughs a little incredulously. “They’ve got names for them, man: king tides, wolf tides.”
Seafood Road runs alongside the marsh of the Copahee Sound in coastal South Carolina, ten miles west of Charleston. According to locals, the road floods five or six times as often as it used to. Credit: Courtesy of Dana Coleman
The historical irony, he explains, is that settlements only formed along marshes and wetlands because white landowners sold cheap after the Civil War. Charleston was once home to the busiest slave port in the U.S.—so prolific that two out of every five enslaved Africans arrived in the country through a single wharf downtown. Few freed slaves were given land after emancipation. Instead, most bought it, often by working for meager wages at the same rice or indigo plantations they were enslaved on. For that reason, many freed communities found themselves pushed towards the cheaper, marshy areas white landowners did not want.
“They didn’t want to live in the country; they didn’t want to live close to the water; they didn’t want to live near swampland because of mosquitos and everything—so they let slaves have it,” said Coleman. “But now it’s reversed.” He can’t help himself from chuckling. “They want to be out on the water. Waterfront is the thing now.”
In the 1980s, the same decade Hurricane Hugo tore through Charleston’s suburbs, Mount Pleasant’s population doubled. Since the turn of the century, it has doubled again. Instead of growing denser (Mount Pleasant already has a ban on new apartments or condos, extended in March for the fourth time), the town continues to sprawl outwards into rural and waterfront areas. “The majority of population growth occurred in entirely new subdivisions located within recently annexed neighborhoods,” according to the town’s development plan.
An important historical factor made settlement communities uniquely vulnerable to predatory developers and helped propel such growth: Since the first generation of Black landowners, most settlement land slipped into so-called heirs’ ownership, when land is inherited without a public will or deed proving legal ownership, leaving the property informally split between all living heirs. Each heir can sell their stake. 
Then if any stakeholder—whether they are an original member of the family or bought a stake from one—wants to sell the land itself, a court tries to divvy it up physically. Often that is not possible, in which case the whole tract automatically goes on the market, as a way of severing co-ownership. Each state has different statutes for resolving disputes like this: Some put the tract up for auction; others, like South Carolina, put it on the market.
Jennie L. Stephens is CEO of the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, a nonprofit educating South Carolina’s settlement communities about property law. She said the beginning of ownership was a pivotal historical moment: hopeful, but vulnerable. “As African Americans, we went from being property to owning property,” Stephens said. “But think about it: There were not a lot of Black attorneys they could go to to help them navigate those waters.”
In one case the Center found that a single deed from the 1950s was now split between over 200 heirs. If a developer were to buy a stake from any one of them, the developer would have the same ownership rights as any other heir. “Developer X, Y or Z becomes the newest member of the family,” Stephens said. 
From that position they can effectively force the entire property on the market: ask the court to sell against the wishes of familial heirs. When a judge almost inevitably finds the property cannot be physically divided, the entire tract is put on the market to resolve the co-ownership dispute.
Coleman’s grandfather, John Wright Sr., saved up from farming, carpentry, lumber work and shifts as a chef to eventually buy a tract in the early 1900s from another Black family. The paper document itself was destroyed when Storm Hugo hit Coleman’s mother’s house, but Coleman has since put the plot he now lives on under his own name.
The burden of updating old land titles falls onto individual owners and is not always straightforward, according to the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation. For many settlement descendants, selling can seem easier than a protracted legal battle against developers or other heirs.
Mavis Gragg left her job at a financial law firm when her parents died in a car crash and she became an heir to their property. “It became crystal clear that my own family was land-rich, cash-poor: that our generational wealth was very precarious.” She set up a private practice helping other heirs clear their titles in North Carolina. But in two decades of practicing as a self-described “death and dirt” attorney, she reached an epiphany of frustration. 
“‘I had to choose between you and the property taxes,’” she said one client told her a year after dropping her calls. “He hired me to help save the property, but he risked losing the property if he paid me instead of paying the tax. I felt like I needed to have a bigger impact. I wanted to see systemic change.”
In 2020 Gragg started HeirShares, an online platform for real estate ownership education, developing tools to estimate how many heirs might be alive today, reconstruct family trees and trace ownership. Both HeirShares and the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation use sustainable forestry as a means for keeping heirs property owners on their land. The latter offers consultation with a professional forester for any owner who commits to workshops on water management and regenerative alternatives to clear-cutting. 
Gragg picked up on the power of conservation initiatives serving as director of the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program. The federally funded initiative connects Black landowners in Southern states with markets for sustainable lumber. “We found that doing conservation, stewardship and sustainable forestry actually motivates people to take action on the legal part that makes their ownership so precarious,” Gragg said.
Forestry programs not only offer landowners a way to retain their property and make money off it. Recent research has found that healthy forests also play an outsized role in mitigating flood risk. 
While we know that trees suck up water, understanding the exact role forests play in flood resilience has long confounded scientists. More than a decade after Einstein offered his theory of relativity, the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded that barely any scientific studies had produced useful findings about forests and flooding, “because of the inherent difficulty of isolating variables from the complex interacting factors in watersheds.”
But last summer, German scientists—spurred by 2021 floods that killed 243 people across Europe—found that forests can both help and hinder flooding. Their findings suggested that for forests near infrastructure, like drains or bridges that can get clogged by timber and debris, the kind of management that comes with sustainable forestry can reduce deadwood and lessen the threat of flooding. 
In addition to forestry programs for individual owners who retain their property, communities like Ten Mile are turning to funding from the county greenbelt program to intercept land before developers get to it. 
For Coleman, that’s why a development moratorium—which passed its first reading at the county council but awaits final approval—is so important. “It slows the growth, gives us time. Then we can talk to the community and educate them,” Coleman said. At first the council approved a decade-long moratorium, but in June voted to shorten it to two years. “We’ve got all these things that we can put in place so right after that [moratorium] developers swoop in and people will be like, ‘Nah, we’re good.’” 
Since it began in 2007, the greenbelt program has protected almost 45,000 acres across Charleston County, mostly in rural areas and wetlands, according to county figures. A third of the publicly accessible land was purchased for settlement communities or other neighborhoods with a majority Black or Indigenous population. So far Ten Mile’s neighborhood association has bought almost 20 acres, and Coleman is eyeing 50 more that fit the bill. 
Even without turning the land over to green programs, land use patterns in settlement communities are naturally more flood resilient, according to county planning documents. 
While new developments already constructed in the neighborhood can average more than seven houses per acre, the rest of Ten Mile is much sparser, averaging less than one house per acre. The space between houses, often forested or broken up by wetlands and tidal creeks, absorbs water during floods and releases it slowly.
“African Americans were environmentalists before the word was even created because of the way in which we live,” Stephens, with the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, said about the original settlers of Ten Mile. “That community might not have known about sea level rise, but they understood certain things: If you move from one spot to another, the water is going to adjust. They knew that and they were mindful of their surroundings.”
Hurricane Hugo hit the coast of South Carolina in September 1989. Suddenly, that instinctive flood resilience was clear to Donna Brown Newton, a grandmother and now-retired administrator at the local school district in Snowden, another settlement just west of Ten Mile.
“It was so weird how one house can be demolished and the next house be standing,” Newton said, driving through the neighborhood one recent afternoon. “It was really, really creepy—as if it selected which houses would be destroyed.” It’s the same in Ten Mile: Brick bungalows with a low center of gravity survived; wooden new builds were washed down the street.
These days, her hair braided and dyed orange, Newton catalogs from behind her steering wheel how Snowden is slipping underwater. “They built a subdivision over there,” she said, pointing to a clutch of brightly painted wooden houses. “That was a marshland and it’s filled in with dirt.” She remembers playing out of her driveway in the rain as a child. Now every hard rain floods the main road, and each month another car slides off a turn into the ditch running alongside it. “I’m being squooshed out here,” Newton said.
Despite the signs of rising flood risk, Snowden, like most other settlements, does not have the same protections as Ten Mile. Locals like Newton fear that while the county’s greenbelt restrictions and historic designations set a good example for preserving community land, they may also push development into Snowden and other adjacent, unprotected neighborhoods. In the meantime, she is fighting against distrust to get her neighbors to petition for the same historic designation as Ten Mile: the first step in limiting development.
“There’s lots of old-school thinking that if it becomes a historical district, then the white man will come and take it,” Newton explained, “but I’m hoping people here will understand the importance: We’re going to lose the sense of community, the sense of family, a sense of somebody having your back. You can’t build that no place else, no matter where you go.” 
Snowden’s community center has used greenbelt funding to buy and protect four acres, but blocks away another 20 acres just went up for sale. Newly built homes already edge back from the main road towards the community’s historic core, along with Planet Fitness and a Chick-fil-A. Since Newton began trying to bring new protections to the neighborhood, two of her brothers sold their lots to developers and moved out without telling her, she said, decisions she called “heartbreaking.” Neither could be reached for comment.
“What bothers me about my brother selling the property is I know how much our ancestors had to sacrifice,” she said. Newton’s great-great-grandfather bought the family’s lot in the 1890s for $120. “You’ve got to figure back then for a Black man to get that kind of money to buy five acres of property …” She shakes her head. “The sacrifice he had to make to do that.”
Newton isn’t blind to the attraction of selling. “Sometimes I think I could just give all this up and be done with it,” she said, “but I will stay here and fight to the bitter end. I think selling to me is just giving up and saying, ‘It’s not worth it. You’re not worth it. The people here are not worth it.’”
While she tries to get Snowden protected, Newton is also aiming higher. This summer she advanced from her district’s Democratic primary and will face the incumbent Republican representative in November. In a majority white, affluent, Republican district, she admits, “It’s an uphill battle.” But she is not in the habit of giving up.
Like much of South Carolina’s coastal Lowcountry, settlement communities face dramatic, accelerating sea level rise in the coming decades. Eventually moving inland will be inevitable, coastal scientists say. But for Newton and Coleman, any kind of retreat, managed or not, loses its meaning if the community is broken apart by development.
“We know that eventually parts of this will probably be underwater, and that’s kind of the reason we want to preserve what’s here now,” Coleman said. 
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Just like he knows the marsh’s secret fishing paths, the community knows how water moves through Ten Mile: where the ground is higher, and where it stays dry. “When stuff like that is happening, we have an area where we can go.” He smiles. “If people are still here.”
In the meantime, Coleman is working to protect Ten Mile, both the land and its stories. His latest painting is only a monochrome foundation so far, but the outline is clear: From a corridor of reeds, a young man in rubber boots leans into the foreground, picking an oyster from the mud. Sometimes Coleman paints from distant memory or imagination, he said, but this time that wasn’t necessary. All he needed was a fishing trip with his son out from Seafood Road.
Daniel Shailer is a freelance journalist covering climate change, conservation and the environment. His reporting has appeared in a number of outlets including The New Yorker, The Guardian, Scientific American and Mongabay. He previously worked as a general assignment reporter for local nonprofit the Tucson Sentinel in Arizona, and at the Associated Press’ Latin America bureau in Mexico City.
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