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Hurricane Florence and the Displacement of African-Americans Along the Carolina Coast

Some of the wealthiest towns in the hurricane’s path were once home to African-Americans seeking freedom from the Jim Crow South.
Library of Congress

People in coastal areas 100 years ago lived much more in harmony with these volatile, mercurial environments. First of all, the areas were sparsely populated, which makes sense because they were highly prone to storms that caused substantial damage.

The folks who lived there had a better understanding of nature’s limits. In the 20th century, the Army Corps of Engineers, federal programs and agencies, local governments, as well as private developers came in. They thought that coastal areas could be stabilized and made suitable for large-scale development.

That has really led to the point where not only do these areas continue to be subject to massive storms, but the sheer number of people who are living in these areas is mind-boggling, given how vulnerable they are.

Once these federal agencies came in, what did they do?

Bridges and causeways were built right up to the ocean’s door and, all of a sudden, Americans were flocking to the sea to build second homes. Suddenly, African-Americans are in the cross hairs of this growth industry. Many of the decisions that were being made were similar to the decisions that were being made in the cities with urban renewal, where black neighborhoods were the ones being demolished and cleared out.

Similarly, decisions were often being made by the Army Corps of Engineers and local officials that would literally eat away at black-owned land. There were communities whose acreage was washed-out to sea, as a result of erosion that was directly caused by the engineering decisions that were being made by public officials in the interest of facilitating commerce and growing the economy. Again, growing the economy at the expense of vulnerable populations.

Here we have this effort to enhance the environment in the interest of economic growth, but doing so in a way that really destroyed the foundations of black communities.

What were the long-term consequences of these decisions?

The very types of environmental engineering practices and other measures that aimed to make these areas what they are today, and worked to build up the coastal real estate markets, ultimately did so in ways that were damaging to the environment and unsustainable. They were the very same measures that worked to displace and dispossess black people of their land a century ago.

These are the same areas that are now facing a dire threat from this hurricane.