By Barney Blakeney
From Mount Pleasant to North Myrtle Beach, African American voters November 7 will share a common concern as they go to the polls – and that is how gentrification and increasing development will impact their traditional communities.
Last week former Town of Atlantic Beach business owner Town Councilman John Skeeters voiced concerns that without revitalized municipal leadership the “Black Pearl of the Grand Strand” will become another pebble enamored by the pale of development along the South Carolina coast.
Myrtle Beach healthcare professional Robin Gause says that’s part of the reason she’s running for S.C. House Dist. 106 seat. “I’m tired of the status quo,” said the mother of six whose work in prenatal and childbirth healthcare has taken from her native Hampton to communities throughout Williamsburg County, Horry County and beyond.
As a woman Gause knows what it means to be in the breach with respect to diversity.
She’s the first Black female to seek the House 106 seat. Last year she was the first Black female to seek election to Horry County Council. She joins the political fray again because she doesn’t want her grandchildren to fight the same battles she’s fighting. “If you see a problem that continues to be there, it’s waiting on you to do something about it,” she believes.
That’s also how former Mount Pleasant Town Councilwoman Thomasena Stokes-Marshall feels. The retired New York City police detective whose family is from the Snowden community grew up in ‘The Big Apple’. After 24 years with the NYPD she moved to Mount Pleasant in 1993. In 1998 she became the first and only African American to serve on the town council. She left the council after four terms. During those years Stokes-Marshall saw the town grow as the East Cooper’s Black settlement communities dwindled.
Like Mount Pleasant’s Black communities, Skeeters said development along the Grand Strand threatens to strangle Atlantic Beach. Except for the annual Atlantic Beach Memorial Day Bikerfest begun in 1980 that at its peak drew some 300,000 people and injected over $50 million into the local economy, Atlantic Beach is suffering a slow economic death, Skeeters says. Developers who have laid claim to beachfront and adjacent properties along the strand are making bids to buy Black landowners’ properties in Atlantic Beach, he said.
Gause said in Myrtle Beach the predominantly Black Booker T. Washington community is being encroached upon by affluent homeowners and businesses that signal gentrification. Without voices that reflect the concerns of minority communities in local, county and state government those communities will be displaced, she said. The issues aren’t just minority issues, she emphasizes. Grand strand residents must elect representation that is as much concerned about emergency evacuation as gun control, she said.
Stokes-Marshall said in Mount Pleasant where on average only about 11 percent of registered voters cast ballots, Black history and culture always hangs in the balance. Mount Pleasant’s affluent transplanted majority constituency, for the most part, isn’t engaged politically. And residents of traditional Black settlement communities like Snowden and Remley’s Point are seeing themselves cut off by the gates, fences and signs erected within their neighborhoods.
Mount Pleasant voters have the opportunity for the first time to elect two African Americans to the town council. Rodly Millet and John Wright are among the 10 candidate vying for the four seats up for election. Gary Santos is the only incumbent seeking re-election in the non-partisan race. Stokes-Marshall thinks that’s possible. The town’s single digit percentage Black population can’t elect representation on its own. She notes, however, she got elected to four terms in that same political environment. More important than ethnicity in the Mount Pleasant elections will be sensitivity to community issues such as its growing senior population, affordable housing and public transportation, she said.