header image

Call to Action: Protect the Phillips Community from Highway 41 Expansion

Posted by: Julia Eichelberger | August 27, 2020 | No Comment |

Guest Post by Brian Walter, Affiliate Faculty, C of C Program in Southern Studies and PhD Candidate in Anthropology, U of California-Santa Cruz.

Photo of Brian Walter on SC coast

Brian Walter’s ethnographic fieldwork is on flooding and sea-level rise

NOTE: Charleston County has announced the location for widening Highway 41 in Mt. Pleasant. The decision runs a 5-lane highway down the center of Phillips, a historic African American community founded in the 1870s on land purchased by ex-slaves. The best method to stop this project is to submit a public comment and contact your County Council Member. Contact information and suggestions for how to reply are below the post. Feel free to skip the rest of this and go do that!


The historic African American Phillips community is facing a struggle that threatens its continued existence. Charleston County recently selected a plan to expand Highway 41, the road running through the center of the community. This expansion will bring 5-lanes of traffic through the area and dispossess 85 Phillips residents of portions of their property. Families will lose land worked and purchased by their formerly enslaved ancestors, to accommodate traffic caused by the outburst of suburban development surrounding their community. Why not redirect the highway through the very suburbs causing the traffic issue? That option was evaluated, but was dismissed because it costs more, damages 4 additional acres of wetlands, and might be less efficient. How much is a thriving historic Black community worth in this analysis and why does Phillips have to shoulder the burden of a problem they didn’t cause?

aerial map showing location of proposed project

Locations of  options for widening of Highway 41 

I have been lucky to get to know the Phillips Community over the past two years in my research on flooding and the politics of sea-level-rise in the Lowcountry. I was introduced to Phillips through Richard Habersham, president of the Community Association, who contacted me about their flooding issues. Habersham showed me how Phillips’ flooding issues were not natural, but caused by neglectful maintenance and harmful building practices. He also laid out a convincing pattern of how growth and development around Phillips had been built from resources extracted from the community—a pattern perpetuated by the Highway 41 expansion.

Formerly enslaved Africans founded Phillips in the 1870s, in marshy, wooded land alongside Horlbeck Creek. Many residents trace their history back to these original settlers. The land purchased from the South Carolina Land Commission between 1869 and 1890, was formerly part of the Laurel Hill Plantation. Residents I spoke with often emphasized their long lineage of land ownership, and connection to the struggles and successes of their enslaved ancestors. Because of its importance in postbellum African-American life (a legacy that continues to this day), Phillips was recommended for the National Register of Historic Places by the South Carolina State Historic Preservation Office.

Residents in Phillips contended with different mechanisms of land-dispossession over time. About half of Phillips’ parcels are Heirs’ property, which creates loopholes exploited by predatory developers, and adds difficulty applying for building permits, and receiving federal housing assistance. In part through purchasing Heir’s property, multiple large subdivisions cropped up around Phillips, causing a spike in property taxes, threatening already precarious residents with tax increases. These developments also impacted flooding and drainage, my area of research (a report I conducted with 3 excellent UCSC undergraduate researchers is here).

Community members note connections between increased inundation and suburban development around the low-lying Phillips Community. Homeowners in Phillips who didn’t have past flooding issues now watch water creep up to their foundations with every hard rain. Elderly residents worry about traversing flooded streets or even leaving their driveways. Charlestonians are familiar with the implications of fill and build construction, where new developments built at higher grades flood out lower, older neighborhoods. However, in this case, impacts of fill and build are distinctly racialized. As one resident described it, “All this water, where is it going? To the settlement that was here before–the water is going to take the path of least resistance and come to us.”

Phillips resident’s car next to a flooded garden

As with flooding, the Highway 41 expansion places burdens of continuous growth on the community least responsible for it. This highway project continues a pattern of takings from Black communities to facilitate the growth of largely white ones. As one community member implored in the public meeting discussing the expansion: “we’re not creating this issue, [traffic] is growing all around us, and you could eliminate it by going around us!” Yet, the County remains resolute in their decision to route traffic through the heart of the Phillips.  Despite a long pattern of racial dispossession, community members remain determined to keep their property, and bitterly oppose the partial buyouts suggested by County officials. They will continue to oppose this project until the very end.

As a group of students and scholars using diverse methods to examine that prickly cultural object “the South,” we are obligated to respond. Phillips’ residents have already made generous contributions to our scholarship on slavery, Reconstruction, and Black life in the Lowcountry (and of course my current work on flooding). A quick Google Scholar search reveals multitudes of work built off insights from Phillips residents, who have generously offered time and information to folks like us. Let’s make sure Phillips receives attention as a living community, not only as an intriguing object of cultural analysis or preservation. This is a choice opportunity to intervene in the enduring structures of white supremacy and settler colonialism we frequently analyze and critique. For now, opposition is easy—follow the instructions in this post, and tell as many people as possible to do the same. If the County moves forward with their current plan, seek out information about next steps and continuation of the struggle.


photo of Brian Walter in Lowcountry marsh

Fieldwork in a Lowcountry marsh

HOW TO TAKE ACTION: The easiest way to stop this project is to get Charleston County Council to oppose it now, rather than wait for regulatory review. We are in the 30-day review process (ending September 11th) so any letters opposing the project are especially helpful. Letters can be short and to the point. They should simply communicate that you are a Charleston County taxpayer and do not support your tax dollars going to a road project that destroying a historic Black community. Feel free to use this as a sample:

“I am a Charleston County taxpayer and I do not want my tax dollars to be spent on Highway 41 alternative one. I will not contribute to the destruction of the historic Phillips Community, which was founded on land purchased by freedmen in the 1870s and persists to this day.”

Letters can be submitted here:

-Visiting   http://hwy41sc.com/getinvolved.html

-Emailing Hwy41SC@gmail.com

-Calling the Project Hotline at 843-972-4403

-Sending mail to Highway 41 Corridor Improvements, 4400 Leeds Avenue, Suite 450, North Charleston, SC 29405

Feel free to email and call your County Council Member as well and tell them how you feel about this project, you could use the sample provided here as a simple script.

  1. Elliott Summey(District 3)
    (843)958-4031 (O)

Herbert Ravenel Sass, III (District 1)
(843)766-7500 (O)
(843)693-8305 (C)

  1. Victor Rawl(District 6)
    (843)766-7334 (H)

Dickie Schweers (District 2)
(843)513-9229 (C)

Henry E. Darby (District 4)
(843)901-6793 (C)

Teddie E. Pryor, Sr. (District 5)
(843)958-4030 (O)

  1. Brantley Moody(District 7)
    (843)270-2483 (C)

Anna B. Johnson (District 8)

Jenny Costa Honeycutt (District 9)

County Council Maps



under: Charleston, Charleston History, Racial Disparities, Research Projects, SC

Leave a response -

Your response:


Skip to toolbar