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Friends Of DeReef Continue Fight To Save Park
12/18/2013 2:45:34 PM

The historic African-American church in DeReef Park shown above had to be relocated as plans were made for a new residential development in January of 2013.

By Barney Blakeney

Last week The Friends of DeReef Park launched another salvo in their battle to save DeReef Park, a 1.2 acre plot of land on Morris Street near Smith Street in the Elliottborough neighborhood, once the site of an enclave of houses where some 100 Blacks lived until the latter part of the 1900s. The Friends of DeReef Park have filed a lawsuit to prevent development of the park.

DeReef Court, named for one of the richest Black men in Charleston during the early 19th century, was surrounded by a thriving culture of Black commerce and community. Today it is surrounded by renovated homes, apartments and condominiums occupied by an affluent gentry class.

The Friends of DeReef Park are challenging plans to develop the park that was created following the demise of DeReef Court which became a victim of urban blight during the 1970s.

DeReef Park is the last remnant of the proud history of a community where Blacks lived and owned businesses that included fish markets, lawyers and dentists offices and restaurants. The community still is home to two of the city’s largest Black church congregations - Morris Brown AME and Morris Street Baptist churches - and the nation’s first Black YMCA.

The city acquired the property and the park was created in 1981. It was improved in 1991 to include a gazebo, playground and landscaping. A praise house also was located at the site. The Chapel opened its doors in 1944. The Sons & Daughters of Joseph Society was last to worship there before selling the building to the city in 1980.

City planners recognized the chapel’s historic importance in 1985 when Holt Renfrew & Associates, a Washington, D.C. architectural firm, was hired to conduct a survey of all buildings of historic importance north of Calhoun Street.

Charleston’s Quaker community approached the Charleston Parks Department in 1995-96 expressing interest in providing funds for the chapel’s rehabilitation with a plan to use the structure for a dual purpose - as a Meeting House and as a Community Center. Their offer was dismissed.

In 2003 the city conveyed the property to developers who plan to develop residential housing at the site in addition to that already developed across from the park on Morris Street. The Friends of DeReef Park hope to prevent the development and restore the park.

Mary Miller, an advocate for the park said the change that has come to the Morris Street community isn’t a bad thing, but those who have come with that change should recognize the cultural heritage of the neighborhood. Restoring the park and praise house is an essential part of that recognition, she said.

Charleston City Councilman Robert Mitchell, who represents Dist. 4 where the park is located, said while the Friends of DeReef Park have waged an ongoing battle, the reality is that the property has been sold to a private developer who has the right to develop it.

The Elliottborough community as it was in the past is gone, Mitchell said.

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