By Barney Blakeney
Proponents for the infill of Gadsden Creek which runs from Hagood Avenue to the Ashley River on the west side of the Charleston peninsula say that not only would facilitate the $20 million 20-year WestEdge development project, but also would protect the remnants of the decades-old Black community contemporarily known as ‘Back Da Green’, a mix of low to moderate income single family homes and public housing units. Proponents for saving the creek say the plan is a continuation of ongoing efforts to displace the community’s residents.
What’s become known as the ‘Back Da Green’ neighborhood dates back at least 150 years. Originally known as Fiddlers Green, it was home to freed Blacks who created a self-sustained community of homeowners and businesses at the river’s edge. It had access to the river via Gadsden Creek. Some remember launching boats to commute to Maryville/Ashleyville on the western shore of the Ashley River. It was considered the largest group of Black homeowners in any single are of the city. But in the late 1930s that began to change.
As the city expanded, then Mayor Burnett Maybank declared the area a slum and used federal funds to create a public housing complex first completed in the early 1940s over the objection of homeowners like John A. Harris of 49 Norman St. who was secretary of a group protesting the seizure of homeowners’ properties to facilitate the construction. He was joined by others such as John B. Howard of 9 Fludd St., Augustus Parker of 217 Line St. and Mrs. R.A.Y. Ferrette of 4 Pine St. who signed a March 1940 letter to Mayor Henry W. Lockwood challenging the seizure.
They declared 75 percent of the residents who included “mechanics, artisans, school teachers, and others who have definite ways of supporting themselves” either were buying or owned their homes. “If we are forced to give up our homes at this time, it will be the greatest tragedy to befall an unfortunate people,” they wrote. But the seizure took place.
Barbara Gathers, a Charleston businesswoman and founder of the Tri-County Women’s Project, grew up Back Da Green and lived there from the 1940s through 1960s. “There were a lot of homeowners in the community during my time,” she recalls. “There was a church, a kindergarten and three grocery stores. Residents were teachers; one was a lawyer – working people. The creek was a place for swimming, fishing, even baptisms. We had no idea about the plan that would make our community a dump, then a landfill and now an invasion to accommodate new residents.”
Cyrus Buffum first became aware of the WestEdge Project as an environmentalist seeking protection for Gadsden Creek. He said he soon realized the proposal to infill the creek is part of a larger traditional process of usurping Black land to accommodate an already privileged segment of Charleston residents.
“I think the city’s been operating a certain way for a long time,” Buffum said. “The Gadsden Creek infill is symbolic. We know Charleston in the past was a community that extracted wealth and value off the backs of Black and disadvantaged people. Seizing over 100 homes in the 1940s took some assets, but the community’s wealth included the resources of the tidal creek and cultural wealth that was the Colored Farmers Fair which was ended in 1956.”
“But is that who Charleston is today?” Buffum asks. “We must see Gadsden Creek through a larger lense. Where’s this train heading. Should we allow that sickness to continue and fester or should we be healers and cure it? More people need to be aware,” Buffum says.