Environmental Racism in South Carolina

Paul Conklin DOCUMERICA photograph of St. Helena’s Island, May 1973 (National Archives)

The American metropolis and perceptions of the so-called “urban crisis” have loomed large in previous installments of my Race and Documerica series for Black Perspectives. In cities such as Chicago, Illinois, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Birmingham, Alabama, DOCUMERICA photographers produced assignments that highlighted the interconnected experiences of environmental, class, and racial inequality. Across the country, inner-city Black communities were reshaped by urban renewal, white (and Black) flight, economic stagnation, public health crises, and related challenges. Through both political and popular culture, a preoccupation with America’s “inner city blues” and the racialized “fear city” shaped the 1970s in profound and long-lasting ways.

To an extent, this preoccupation reflected accelerated trends of Black urbanization. At the turn of the twentieth century, around 23 percent of the African American population was classified as “urban,” around half the comparative number of white urban residents. By the beginning of the 1970s, these numbers had flipped, with Black urbanites constituting a significantly higher percentage of the overall Black population than the comparative percentage of white urbanites within the total white population. By the end of the 1970s, more than half the nation’s African American population lived in central cities, and six million more lived in the suburbs. Only a fifth of African Americans lived in rural areas, compared to more than a quarter of the nation’s total population.

However, it is important to remember that the impact of environmental racism, and the experiences of African Americans in the 1970s, stretched far beyond the limits of cities such as Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. This included sites such as the Lowcountry and Sea Islands in South Carolina and Georgia. Beyond the hubs of Savannah and Charleston, many African Americans continued to live in small towns and rural areas. Many identified as Gullah Geechee, an African American ethnic group whose historic connection to the region helped cultivate distinct cultural, religious, and linguistic traditions.1

It was here that the EPA sent photojournalist Paul Conklin during the Spring of 1973. Born in 1929, Conklin attended Wayne State University in Michigan before earning a Masters from Columbia University. His breakthrough came after being hired to work for the Peace Corps in 1964, and by the end of the decade he had become a regular contributor to National Geographic, Time, the New York Times, and other major publications.

It is unclear why Conklin, a white photographer who appears to have spent little time in the Deep South, was given the Sea Islands assignment. The decision may simply have been one of proximity, as Conklin based his freelance work out of Washington, D.C., close to the EPA’s central headquarters. Conklin’s correspondence with the agency indicate that he spent around two weeks in South Carolina and Georgia in late May and early June 1973. Around ninety of the photographs he shot as part of the assignment have been archived and are available through the NAID catalog.

Conklin’s assignment provides a reminder of how a national focus on race and the inner-city often obscured the true diversity of Black America and continued geographic and cultural contrasts between the Black urban and rural experience. Photographs of Black tenant farmers working the fields appear frozen in time, as do images of local churches and homesteads in less developed sections of Johns Island in Charleston County, South Carolina. Many such photographs serve as a counterpoint to those that appear in DOCUMERICA assignments of photographers such as John White, LeRoy Woodson, and Tom Hubbard. More broadly, they help to complicate the image of Black America that dominated public policy debates and that proliferated through Black urban crime fiction and the rise of Blaxploitation cinema.

If the specter of racialised urban pathology was often framed as a crisis of modernity, then Conklin’s DOCUMERICA assignment arguably depicts a Black community entrenched in the past. In some ways, the relative isolation of Black rural communities on Sea Islands such as Johns, Sapelo, and St. Helena contributed to high rates of poverty. At the same time, it helped to preserve Gullah Geechee traditions such as quilting as a continuation of West African craftways and cultural practices. These traditions were proudly displayed to Conklin by local residents such as Mrs. Hunter who was reportedly “well known on John’s Island for her beautiful quilts.”

Other aspects of Conklin’s DOCUMERICA assignment speak to growing political and business efforts to develop the Lowcountry and Sea Islands as a tourist destination, and the complex impact of such efforts on the lives of local Black residents. While Southern politicians and business leaders claimed that development would benefit everyone, it is hard not to draw contrasts between images of ocean resorts and luxury condos (populated predominantly by wealthy whites) with photographs of dilapidated Black residences. In this regard, there are clear similarities between the experiences of Black inner-city residents: just as “urban renewal” was often characterized as “Negro removal” by Black communities in cities such as New York and Chicago, so too did the Sea Islands tourism boom actively contribute to the displacement of Gullah Geechee people and their descendants.

In the decades since Conklin’s assignment, these tensions have continued to shape the experiences of Black communities across the Sea Islands. Between 2010 and 2019, the number of Black households on Johns Island declined by 31 percent. During the same period, the number of white households increased by 64 percent. Historically a center for Black farming and smallholdings, the island “has quickly become part of Charleston’s expanding suburbia.”

On Johns Island, and on neighboring islands such as St. Helena and Sapelo, community activists are fighting back. Protests against the development of luxury resorts and condominiums and the theft of Gullah land form part of ongoing efforts to safeguard linguistic and cultural traditions that stretch back generations. In 2006, these efforts led to the creation of the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which was established by Congress to help “preserve and interpret the traditional cultural practice, sites, and resources associated with Gullah-Geechee people.” Beyond providing us with a fuller visual portrait of Black life in the 1970s, Conklin’s DOCUMERICA assignment is an important reminder that these struggles have been going on for generations.

  1. Over recent decades, the history of Gullah Geechee people has attracted renewed attention from scholars. For a sample of such work, see Philip Morgan ed., African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry: The Atlantic World and the Gullah Geechee (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010); William Pollitzer, The Gullah People and Their African Heritage (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999); LeRhonda Manigault-Bryant, Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music, and Lived Memory Among Gullah/Geechee Women (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014); Eric Sean Crawford, Gullah Spirituals: The Sound of Freedom and Protest in the South Carolina Sea Islands (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2021).
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E. James West

E. James West is a UK-based writer and historian, currently working as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Northumbria University Newcastle. Her is the author of 'Lerone Bennett, Jr. EBONY Magazine and Popular Black History' (University of Illinois Press). Follow him on Twitter @ejwestuk.