Crisis in the Carolinas: The Lowcountry and Climate

Written by Erica Veal and Karl Malone

Africans are largely left out of conversations about environmentalism, despite the fact that we suffer from the triple threat of climatic, environmental and human rights crises. Our communities bear the brunt of the climate catastrophe, and this is especially true in the South Carolina Lowcountry where sea level rise threatens to wash away our Gullah Geechee homelands. Our relationship to environmental racism stretches back to the emergence of the local phosphate mining industry in the 1860’s and manifests today in the disproportionate exposure of Black and low income residents to environmental hazards. Today, Gullah Geechee communities disproportionately neighbor hazardous waste sites like landfills, sewage plants, incinerators and manufacturing facilities. Add to this gaping racial disparities rooted in the region’s history of chattel slavery, and it becomes clear why Black people should be the vanguard of the environmental movement.

Image of flooding in downtown Charleston, SC courtesy of Andrew Whitaker, Post & Courier

Cooperation Jackson and the Black Environmentalist Movement

When people think about environmentalists, stereotypes about white, tree-hugging hippies come to mind. For Black environmentalist Kali Akuno, co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson in Jackson, Mississippi, it is important for Black people to challenge these stereotypes by taking charge of the environmental movement. As someone who has closely followed the climate crisis, he calls attention to the fact that by 2050 the large portions of the Black Belt will be underwater if the predictions of environmental scientists are accurate. The Black Belt refers to the crescent shaped strip of fertile land in the Southeastern United States which has historically been home to an almost unbroken chain of majority (or near majority) Black counties stretching from Virginia to East Texas. It is the historic homeland of Africans trafficked to North America to build the wealth of this nation during the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade and where the majority of their descendants still live today. According to Akuno, the land millions of Africans in North America currently occupy is some of the most vulnerable to climate change and, as such, Black people are most likely to be displaced as a result of climate change induced natural disasters. The rising costs of housing means finding new homelands for ourselves may prove an insurmountable task, which is why our stake in the environmental movement is so high.

Sitting less than 20 feet above sea level, Charleston, South Carolina is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise. For Gullah Geechee residents, the constant flooding, brought about by regular storms and unusually high tides, exacerbate the racial disparities we face. Flooding causes transportation delays and can mean missing work. It also causes property damage for residents whose homes flood constantly, as is the case for several public housing projects across the Charleston peninsula. Wading through flood waters can mean exposure to raw sewage, which can lead to adverse medical outcomes, medical expenses and the list goes on. For Black residents on fixed incomes, many of whom live below the poverty line, flooding is a constant nuisance and it’s only getting worse.

In the few weeks of lockdown we experienced during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic we saw how quickly the environment regenerated albeit temporarily. Industrial emissions dropped, the air became cleaner, as did waterways, migratory patterns of wildlife improved, and the list goes on. We saw that change is possible, but we live in a capitalist system that puts profits before people and the planet. We cannot afford to be silent and sit idly by while billionaires and private corporations continue to pollute our world and the people living on it to enrich themselves. Akuno says we’ve already surpassed the worst case scenario according to many climate models. Therefore to “curb ecological destruction,” Black people have a compound responsibility to organize against the systems that oppress us and take climate change seriously.

Cuba’s Life Task is a documentary by Helen Yaffe (image courtesy of Canal Caribe Cuba)

Learning from Cuba’s Fight Against Climate Change

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel in our effort to fight the climate crisis. We can learn from places like Cuba, a majority African, island nation in the Caribbean, that is largely the most sustainable country in the world. Cuba has embraced environmentalism like no nation has. It is the only country to meet the World Wildlife Fund’s definition of sustainable development. Its government has implemented policies to reduce the waste of natural resources and minimize its carbon footprint in the form of a successful 100 year plan to combat climate change called Tarea Vida (Life Task). Tarea Vida includes a ban on new home construction in potential flood zones, the introduction of heat-tolerant crops to cushion food supplies from droughts, and the restoration of Cuba’s sandy beaches to help protect the country against coastal erosion. Cuba is a leader in the environmental movement and all while struggling under an unjust and deadly 60+ year economic blockade imposed by the United States government.

Cuba underwent a successful, largely Black-led socialist revolution in the 1950’s, freed itself from the imperialist exploitation of the United States and naturalized its resources. In addition to leading the environmental movement, Cuba leads in medicine (sending doctors all over the world), has eradicated illiteracy, subsidized housing and food, has universal education from pre-K to PhD and is a shining example of what the world could be if we put people before profits. Although socialism in Cuba poses no threat to the United States, the government has kept the blockade in place and caused shortages in food, medicine, gas and other essential items at the expense of the Cuban people. Most recently, under the Trump administration, Cuba was added to the State Sponsors of Terrorism (SSOT) list, further exacerbating shortages on the island.

In the face of all this, there are many parallels around the climate crisis between Cuba and Gullah Geechee communities in the South Carolina Lowcountry, e.g. soil erosion and sea level rise are clear. Additionally, when considering the racial disparities faced by Gullah Geechee people (and the entire Black Belt region), it is as if we, too, are living under a form of economic blockade. Africans in North America are more likely to face food and housing insecurities and less likely to have access to quality schools, day care, health services, and a living wage. We are more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards that expose us to adverse health outcomes and all of this is a direct result of the choices made by our bought and paid for government officials, both democrats and republicans alike. Yet, Cuba, the socialist capital of the western world, has shown us things do not have to be this way. For these reasons and more we should actively organize against the US economic blockade and the removal of Cuba from the SSOT list. The future of Gullah Geechee communities may literally depend on our ability to learn from Cuba’s people centered policies and innovations in environmental science.

Image courtesy of Henry Grabar

Environmental Racism in North Charleston

The socio-economic state of the Gullah Geechee people is daunting and stretches back to the era of slavery. Africans in North America were never meant to be anything more than a source of cheap labor for Europeans to exploit. We were kidnapped, enslaved and trafficked here for our knowledge of rice agriculture and we transformed the landscape of the Southeast Atlantic coast from a vast expanse of Bottomland Hardwood Forests to a seemingly never ending complex of rice fields working in some of the harshest conditions as chattel slaves. As a result, Charleston became the richest city in colonial America and with the the largest slave port on the continent.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, phosphate mining became the most successful form of industry in the Lowcountry, replacing the major agricultural and textiles industries that could no longer be sustained due to the loss of the free labor of enslaved Africans. Since calcium phosphate was discovered in the beds of the Ashley River, it provided former the enslavers who owned this land an opportunity to “recoup some of their financial losses after the Civil War” by either selling their land, leasing it out to mining companies that began forming everywhere, or establishing mining companies of their own. The increasing demand for labor was quickly filled by newly “freed” Gullah Geechee people, who dominated this industry due to their being locally available and accustomed to working in the sub tropical Lowcountry climate.

Though the rise and fall of the phosphate industry in South Carolina lasted roughly 20 years, the long term damage to the environment is still being felt today. This period marked the beginning of a long history of environmental racism in the Gullah Geechee community. Studies show that “exposure to these harmful conditions results in negative health outcomes, stressed communities, and reduction in quality of life and neighborhood sustainability.” The Environmental Protection Agency has identified many of these old mining and processing locations as hazardous waste sites. One such waterfront site in North Charleston, could potentially be developed into another heavy industrial boat manufacturing facility, but Black residents are actively fighting against this.

In 2015, the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission (CCPRC) acquired the former Baker Hospital site off Azalea Drive in North Charleston with the intention of developing the 57 acre property into a waterfront park. It has since leased 11 acres to a local company called Sea Fox Boats. According to an online petition circulated in March 2024, although “The City of North Charleston has zoning in place that will keep industrial uses off of the park property,” CCPRC applied to change the zoning to either heavy or light industrial to accommodate their new lease agreement. CCPRC claims profits from the tenant will fund the environmental cleanup and development of the remaining 46 acres park site while representatives for Sea Fox claim the manufacturing plant will bring jobs to the community. Black residents like KJ Kearney, from communities surrounding the proposed park site, are pushing back on this saying they already have jobs and this segment of North Charleston has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the area. Others have said they don’t need or want heavy industry in their communities, particularly on a site that is already contaminated because of decades of industrial use. Jobs won’t matter if residents are sick from exposure to contaminants and they don’t want jobs that will lead to the death and destruction of the environment.

Image courtesy of ABC News 4

While North Charleston’s city planning commission voted to deny CCPRC’s recommendation to rezone the site in March, the ultimate decision is up to city council. On Thursday, April 18th, 2024, Black residents again voiced their concerns at a public meeting saying they felt left out of the decision making process. Yes, residents want a waterfront park in that area of North Charleston, but not at the expense of exacerbating environmental conditions and hazards. The controversy surrounding the Baker Hospital site is an example of environmental racism at its best. While proponents of Sea Fox push the narrative of job creation, Kearney says, “the community is not against jobs” rather they are against the idea that “the only value historically Black communities have to their city is as a labor force.” He went on to talk about how the plant will produce tons of hazardous air pollutants and that, for a community which ranks” in the 95 percentile for asthma,” that is a risk they cannot afford to take. He suggested that the paternalistic framing of the situation by Sea Fox supporters is clear– Black people should be grateful for the opportunity to work for a rich white man who wants to invest in their communities and simply ignore the impact of the plant on their quality of life. After a long and heated meeting, the council voted to postpone making a decision on the rezoning for another 60 days so the council can gather more information, but the people who live in this area have made their position clear.

While the city council in North Charleston is mostly Black and so is the new mayor, that is not enough to ensure the will of the people is carried out. The masses of Africans in the Lowcountry must continue to actively organize against this type of blatant environmental injustice to mitigate damage to our communities and the environment. We already suffer tremendously under the crushing weight of capitalism and its partners in crime (racism, white supremacy, sexism, gender bias, etc.), but this isn’t just about us. We know the success of our liberation struggles benefit all oppressed people. If we don’t act, the climate crisis will be the death knell that marks the permanent destruction of our communities. None of us will be free until all of us are free, but what use is freedom on a dead planet?

Sources:

  1. Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi, edited by Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya
  2. “Is Pollution Poisoning Charleston’s African American and Low Income Communities?” https://charlestoncitypaper.com/2016/03/09/is-pollution-poisoning-charlestons-african-american-and-low-income-communities/
  3. “Free the Land w/ Kali Akuno” Hood Communist Radio https://open.spotify.com/episode/789OXvt1LdjEJ5e8pFCMUp
  4. The Black Belt Thesis: A Reader by the Black Belt Thesis Study Group
  5. “Flooding Intensifies Charleston Region’s Racial and Wealth Inequalities” https://pulitzercenter.org/stories/flooding-intensifies-charleston-regions-racial-and-wealth-inequities
  6. Could Covid lockdown have helped save the planet? https://amp.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/29/could-covid-lockdown-have-helped-save-the-planet
  7. Cuba’s Life Task: Combatting Climate Change documentary by Helen Yaffe https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APN6N45Q6iU
  8. “Consequences of a Blockade of Cuba” 23 April 1962 Central Intelligence Agency https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP79R00904A000800020016-7.pdf
  9. “The State of Racial Disparities in Charleston County, South Carolina, 2000–2015” https://avery.charleston.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/The-State-of-Racial-Disparities-in-Charleston-County-SC-Rev.-11-14.pdf
  10. History of the Corridor: Industry https://ashleyriverhistoriccorridor.org/history/industry/#:~:text=In%201883%20over%203%2C000%20African,well%20as%20state%20convict%20labor
  11. History of the Corridor: Bulow/Long Savannah https://ashleyriverhistoriccorridor.org/sites/long-savannahbulow-plantation/
  12. “A History of the Phosphate Mining Industry in the South Carolina Lowcountry” http://nationalregister.sc.gov/SurveyReports/hyphosphatesindustryLowcountry2SM.pdf
  13. “Baker Hospital site to become a new county park” https://www.postandcourier.com/archives/baker-hospital-site-to-become-a-new-county-park/article_0630e058-999d-5de4-9319-5addea566537.html
  14. “Public input process to start this winter for Charleston County Parks’ North Charleston Ashley River Site” https://www.ccprc.com/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/1423
  15. “Preserve the Former Baker Hospital as a Park” https://www.change.org/p/preserve-the-former-baker-hospital-site-as-a-park?original_footer_petition_id=35513102&algorithm=promoted&source_location=petition_footer&grid_position=15&pt=AVBldGl0aW9uAEWcQgIAAAAAZe1wynNJJ%2BAxMzdmNTMxMQ%3D%3D
  16. “N. Charleston argues plans for former Baker Hospital site, fate in council hands” https://www.live5news.com/2024/03/12/n-charleston-argues-plans-former-baker-hospital-site-fate-council-hands/
  17. “Delay in North Charleston zoning decision fuels frustration over old Baker Hospital site” https://abcnews4.com/news/local/delay-in-north-charleston-zoning-decision-fuels-frustration-over-old-baker-hospital-site-south-carolina-wciv-news-4