In the Spring of 1960, here in Charleston, South Carolina, a group of African-American students donned their suits and ties, their dresses and pillbox hats and seated themselves at the counter of the S.H. Kress & Co. five and dime on King Street. This was the first in a series of sit-in demonstrations coordinated by the youth leaders from the NAACP's local branch. As the year suggests, this was near the height of the Civil Rights movement in the Jim Crow ravaged South.
As the protesters sat shoulder-to-shoulder, they clasped hands. They sat with tremendous discipline and poise. They ignored the looming threat of arrest as well as the stench of ammonia being poured liberally on the counter-top in front of them by frustrated waitresses prompting them to move. They did not. The protests that began on April 1, 1960 help crumble the decaying facade of American apartheid and paved the way for integrated public spaces for our state's Black citizens. Yet, today, in the Summer of 2018, we have somehow found ourselves closer to where our fight for equality began than where it is supposed to end. Today, in the midst of devastating gentrification and sprawl, we are still angling for a seat at the counter.
It feels as if a spate of statewide, racially motivated catastrophes, which reached a fever pitch in 2015, (the Walter Scott murder, the Mother Emanuel massacre and the Spring Valley High assault) and the aftermath has reverberated throughout South Carolina to this very day. Recently, folx in the Lowcountry and Midlands caught wind of another unfortunate story involving local pub co-owner Jimmy Latulipe. Mr. Latulipe is reported to have ownership stake in at least several popular watering holes, including the Main Street Public House of Columbia and the King Street Public House here in Charleston. According to well-known area musician, Donald Merckle, Mr. Latulipe and another Public House associate used a racial slur not once but twice to characterize unwelcome African American patrons. (Read Mr. Merckle's complete account below.)
Sadly, the language tossed around in the above incident is not unusual. Though, modern times have prompted the intolerant among us to conceal their hatred with the use of "coded language" or by discreetly tucking away nefarious intent between the written lines of harmful legislation. For many, these all too familiar slurs still roll off the tongue. When hearing or reading that word used hatefully, it's jarring. Yet, not surprising. But the language used is more than an insult. It's a tacit approval of the unwritten policy that promotes the exclusion of African Americans from coveted public spaces here in Charleston.
The streets of the Holy City are littered with historical markers that force us to recall how Blackness once was (and is) policed, especially downtown on the peninsula. Now, rather than makers, rapid gentrification alerts us to the fact that the city's long held practice of exclusion has led to permanent displacement.
From realtor.com: "Gentrification potential achieved: 62.5% Median home price increase,
2000 to 2015: $152,100 to $270,000 (+77.5%). The issue of gentrification exploded in Charleston in 2001, when Shoreview Apartments, a large, low-income housing project downtown, was razed to the ground to make way for an upscale community of single-family homes. Other neighborhoods that had long been solidly African-American working class also saw a shift toward white, middle-class families. Since 1990, Charleston's black population has declined from 42% to 23%, according to the Census Bureau."
Charleston is the #1 fastest gentrifying city in the United States. I suspect this was always an intended result. The acceleration of this "new reality" is not only a matter of city planning, it has reeked havoc on our culture. We've criminalized poor panhandlers, young palmetto rose makers and the homeless. We've raised the prices of rental units tenfold. We've pushed out local businesses to make way for Starbucks and The Athlete's Foot. We've refused to invest in public transportation options that would bring brown and black folx to the area while creating low cost or free options for domestic workers to travel into town only so they can keep the city's hospitality economy buzzing right along.
What this vicious trend does is empowers the "Jimmy Latulipes" of the world to turn their own internal biases into a viable business model. Their hatred is now monetized...it is reinforced by our lawmakers' reluctance to create spaces that feature and foster diversity, equity or inclusion. The city has, in no uncertain terms, communicated that the Charleston they want is "specific". It is in the DNA. It's a type of muscle memory, a natural reflex... Charleston has repeatedly attempted to revert back to the days where regressive policies of discrimination were widely accepted. But, the folx of color here in the Lowcountry have their own legacy as well. As displayed in the historical photographs featured above, the displaced have always fought back. We've always raised our fists in defiance. No pub owner, no proclamation and no changing landscape will ever destroy the will of the people. We've sat in this very seat before. Right here on King Street. We will not be moved.