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  • Louis Venters

Charleston School District Set to Demolish Historic Black School Building in Favor of Home Depot

Thanks to Joseph McGill of the Slave Dwelling Project for sharing this blog post from our historic preservation colleague Brittany Lavelle Tulla about the slated demolition of an important building in its care in a burgeoning suburb of Charleston:

The building now known as the abandoned Laing Middle School is so much more than just an empty structure. It was constructed in 1953 as Laing High School, a school for Mt. Pleasant’s African-American population. According the News & Courier on Jan. 8, 1953, the building’s construction marked 'the current phase in the comprehensive school equalization program' and was strategically placed in proximity 'to the home locations of the pupils.' The property, originally known as the Joseph Seabrook Estate, was surrounded by lush woods and small Lowcountry Gullah Geechee communities, such as Six Mile, Seven Mile and Snee Farm. No shopping centers. No traffic. Just nature and families.

Former Laing High School (courtesy Brittany Tulla)

Laing High School was part of South Carolina's massive school equalization campaign in the 1950s, spearheaded by Gov. James F. Byrnes with a view to forestalling school desegregation. A South Carolina case, Briggs v. Elliott, and cases from several other jurisdictions were already winding their way through the court system, and Byrnes and the Legislature sought belatedly to reverse generations worth of educational discrimination and make good on the "equal" portion of the "separate but equal" doctrine at the foundation of the Jim Crow order. Ultimately it didn't work, either to bring justice to the school system or to fend off the legal challenge to segregation. But in the meantime it did result in a school building spree that transformed the built environment of the state, consolidating rural school districts; replacing one- and two-room wooden country schools with larger, state-of-the-art, brick-and-block, mid-century modern buildings; and introducing school buses on an unprecedented scale to maintain segregation. The lion's share of the credit for documenting the remaining "equalization schools," found across the state in various states of repair, and bringing these important structures to the attention of the public goes to my friend Rebekah Dobrasko, a fellow-alum of the USC Public History Program and formerly with the SC Department of Archives and History. Her remarkable website, the result of years of research, is definitely worth a look.

Comments by the school district official responsible for property maintenance are particularly noteworthy:

The building has been completely gutted and is uninhabitable. It is our plan to sell that property. It is in a great location and selling it would bring in a chunk of money that we could then use to buy a bigger area of land to build a larger school if necessary. We want to leverage that property to buy another piece of property in a less-desirable location as far as commercial value is concerned.

This is a frank admission of what planners and preservationists call "demolition by neglect": a property owner refusing to maintain a historic structure until the argument can plausibly be made that it's better to tear it down. I don't know the particulars in this case, but whether or not the old Laing High School building is actually beyond repair, there is no doubt that had the district maintained it over the years we would be in a very different position now. Unfortunately, short-term considerations appear to have trumped the interests of community planning, historic preservation, and sustainable economy--factors that seem all the more egregious because the building in question holds value for the local African American community while commemorating one of the shabbier episodes in South Carolina's history. It is also sadly ironic that in a suburb of the city where one can reasonably argue that the modern historic preservation movement was born nearly a century ago, the imperative of maintaining the historic built environment still counts for so little. In my experience, there is always another spot for a Home Depot, but there is simply no replacing the buildings handed down to us from previous generations.

Map of SC school equalization program (courtesy Rebekah Dobrasko & SC State Library)

The unfortunate move by the district highlights the need for a stronger statewide ethos of historic preservation in South Carolina, and a stronger statewide preservation infrastructure. What can the major players in this arena--among them the Department of Archives and History; the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation, a statewide nonprofit affiliated with the National Trust; the Charleston behemoths, the Preservation Society of Charleston and the Historic Charleston Foundation; the smaller but highly successful Historic Columbia Foundation and other local groups; and the Public History Program at USC and the Clemson/College of Charleston program in Historic Preservation--do together to advance a comprehensive statewide preservation agenda that will tell all of our stories? I for one am ready for us to talk.

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