Charleston Co. is digital divide leader

When Mike Shealy drives the back roads of rural South Carolina, he smiles when he sees orange conduits sticking out of the ground. They are signals that new internet connections are spreading like weeds.

But while the percentage of households in rural areas without internet connections are among the highest in South Carolina, Charleston County has more actual households without broadband connections – almost 33,000 — than any other county in the state. The number, in fact, is more than several rural counties combined, according to U.S. Census data.

Shealy, who recently served as budget director for the S.C. Senate, often travels the state to meet with regional councils of governments to encourage elected leaders to support efforts to use state and federal government funds to bring high-speed broadband connections to underserved rural communities.

“Digital inclusion” is now a priority

The nation’s economy has changed so much that governments must assist in making “digital inclusion” possible for all of the estimated 2 million households in South Carolina, Shealy recently told the board of directors of the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments (BCDCOG) meeting in North Charleston.

“We have reached the point that we have to provide this to everybody,” said Shealy, who works for the state Department of Administration as director of statewide leadership and special projects. “It is not an option anymore. It is the way we live, work and play.”

A statewide broadband needs survey is one of the first steps to access federal funding for internet expansion from the U.S. Department of Commerce, he said. The process also includes compiling comments from regional listening sessions on what citizens want from the technology.

He encouraged the COG’s members to take the survey and share it with their constituents before an August deadline.

“What we are doing is compiling all of this information that we will then present to the National Information and Technology Administration that is part of the Department of Commerce,” he said. Once the surveys and a planning process are done “then we will get the keys to unlock grants,” he said. Shealy works in collaboration with the S.C. Broadband Office.

300,000+ S.C. households lack internet connections

It’s estimated that more than 363,000 households in South Carolina lack internet connections, according to U.S Census data for 2016 to 2020. South Carolina is expected to spend $750 million over four years to connect the entire state, Shealy said.

The money is to be used to subsidize the work of some 20 internet service providers that are laying a web of fiber optic cable to homes, libraries and technical colleges. Shealy said it is also important to provide digital training services to recently released prisoners  so they can seek and gain employment. Money is also available to help low-income residents afford an internet service, obtain a device such as a laptop or smartphone and training on how to use it.

Charleston County lags in internet connections

Charleston County leads the state in the percentage of households – 93% – with computing devices, such as smartphones and laptops. But 20.1% of Charleston County households – some 32,861 households – do not have internet subscriptions compared to 12% of the households in Greenville County and 15% in Richland County. Charleston County also leads in the digital gap over Berkeley and Dorchester counties, which report 17% and 16%, respectively, of households without an internet connection.

Shealy said the lower percentage of households without internet connections in mostly rural Berkeley and Dorchester counties is due to fewer internet services providers in those counties as compared to the more urban Charleston County.

He said it is a basic economic fact that companies will install more miles of fiber optic cable in areas where there are more potential customers. The digital gap in more densely populated counties, however, exists because residents might not be able to afford the service or they don’t understand the technology, he explained.

After Shealy finished his presentation to the regional COG the group’s board chairman Caldwell Pinckney Jr., a member of Berkeley County Council, reached out to shake his hand and to say he appreciates the work he’s doing. Pinckney told Shealy he represents Berkeley County, which is mostly rural, except for the fast-growing Cane Bay and Nexton communities.

A gap in broadband service “in rural areas is not a new phenomenon,” Pinckney said. “When it comes to those who are further away from the wheel they don’t seem to get all the grease they need, if any at all. People in rural Carolina and Berkeley County have always been behind the eight ball on this and a lot of other issues.”

Students study, re-enact moments in Charleston’s history

Dressed in 1950s-style attire, elementary school classmates Da’Nae Devore and Chance Washington sat at a dinner table with servings of fried chicken and okra soup reminiscent of a scene decades ago at the Brooks Motel’s restaurant on Morris Street.

Their cute skit was not a simple table etiquette lesson. Instead, it educated them and other students about the history of Brooks and other Black-owned businesses that were essential to Black life in a segregated Charleston.

“Segregation [was a time] when White people and Black people [couldn’t] come together,” said 9-year-old Devore, a third grader at Charleston Progressive Academy. “That was a bad thing because everyone should be treated equally. Black businesses were important so Black people could have a place to stay and eat” when White businesses turned them away, she said.

Charleston Progressive is one of five schools that participated in an oral history project called “Black Wall Street of Charleston.” Students at Burke High School, Julian Mitchell and Sanders-Clyde elementary schools and Simmons-Pinckney Middle School also presented displays featuring current and former Black businesses.

The activity was part of a recent multi-faceted three-hour program that drew some 400 people to Burke’s auditorium. Elementary and middle schoolers danced, sang and played ukuleles. Later, Simmons-Pinckney and Burke students were tutored on how to conduct oral history interviews and access archives.

Inaugural May Festival

The activities were part of an inaugural May Festival organized by the District 20 Principal Collaboration Program (D20PCP), the Burke High School Foundation and the Preservation Society of Charleston (PSC).

Mattese Lecque, the foundation’s vice president, told students, parents and residents that students are immersed in learning the history of Black businesses that operated in the city from the late 1800s to the early 1960s. Through that experience, she said, students have studied Black businesses that were founded with an entrepreneurial spirit during difficult times. Media specialists and a research team with the Burke foundation helped the students prepare the displays.

Anna-Catherine Carroll, the PSC’s manager of preservation initiatives, told the audience: “This is what historic preservation is all about: honoring those who have gone before us, and telling the full story to ensure this significant community history lives on for generations to come.”

The PSC’s partnership with predominantly Black schools represents a new era for the 103-year-old preservation society that has moved toward a more inclusive history. The PSC’s expanded mission “has only been possible through years of listening to and learning from Black leaders and educators in the Charleston community,” Carroll told the Charleston City Paper.

“Long-term collaborative projects like the Morris Street Business District research project, the Charleston Justice Journey and efforts to preserve historic Black burial grounds” led to partnerships with the D20PCP and the Burke foundation, she said.

Brian Turner, PSC’s president and CEO, said in a statement: “Preservation is an evolving practice, and while we are encouraged by recent moves to embrace and protect underrepresented history, there is a long list of lost structures, streetscapes, and stories we can’t get back. But events like [the program at Burke] remind us that not all is lost, and the time is now to document and celebrate this history.”

A hallway of youthful energy

Amid the exhibits of Black businesses and other local organizations that lined the hallway outside of Burke’s auditorium the students’ energy created a hustle and bustle reminiscent of decades ago when Black students at downtown schools gathered for special events.

Dr. Barbara Dilligard, May Festival co-chair and D20PCP consultant, said the group’s goal “is to increase [students’] academic achievement in reading and math, specifically, which will influence their performance in all subject areas.”

The D20PCP wants to connect downtown elementary and middle schools in a “feeder system” to Burke in which students interact in friendly competition through dance, singing and music performances to create a sense of community beyond their school.

“We are also planning other events to involve students in the study of topics such as Black inventors, writers and achieving Burke alumni” to promote an “I can do” mindset among them, said Dilligard, a retired deputy superintendent with the Charleston County School District.

As the students rushed from the auditorium into the hallway, they brushed past Dorothy Jenkins, who was elected in March as president of the Charleston Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Jenkins, a retired special education teacher, said, “I know how talented our young people are. We need to have more [student-driven research] and I am happy to see them doing something in a positive direction.”

Jenkins said she’s encouraging students at Burke, the College of Charleston and The Citadel to form NAACP youth chapters. “We have so many gifted young people,” she said. “They need to be able to showcase their talents.”

Preserving the history of a changing community

College of Charleston (CofC) graduate Riley Conover doubted whether she had the skills to conduct oral histories of longtime residents of the Cainhoy Peninsula and Daniel Island where ongoing residential and commercial development is rapidly changing the communities.

The Daniel Island Historical Society (DIHS) picked Conover, then a CofC senior, as its first intern for the Cainhoy Collective Oral History Project. Conover sat with senior community residents in 2022 and listened to their stories about their lives and development in the community that began about a decade before she was born in Wenonah, New Jersey, just south of Philadelphia.

For that reason, Conover was nervous. “I hadn’t done this before, and I was afraid I would not connect with the people,” she said. “But what we have [now] is some amazing stories that generations to come will be able to listen to these people’s life histories.” She spoke to nine residents and compiled more than nine hours of recorded interviews.

A gleeful Conover called her parents in New Jersey last month when it was announced that the DIHS’s oral history project received an Award of Merit from the Confederation of South Carolina Local Historical Societies (CSCLHS). It was one of two awards the DIHS received. The society also won an Award of Merit for its Historic Cemetery Preservation Project.

“The Daniel Island Historical Society’s efforts to preserve their historic cemeteries ensure that these sacred burial grounds will not be forgotten,” said the CSCLHS awards committee chair J.R. Fennell of the Lexington County Museum.

“The DIHS Cainhoy Oral History Project is a great example of an organization documenting and preserving the history of a changing community. This oral history project will help preserve the memories and stories of a diverse group with very differing experiences.”

When the Mark Clark Expressway opened in 1992 to connect North Charleston with Mount Pleasant, residential and commercial development accelerated in the Daniel Island/Cainhoy peninsula area. It is estimated that the population in the once mostly rural community is now more than 15,000 people. The community has a family history with ties to the Revolutionary and Civil wars. Many Black residents in the community are the descendants of people who were enslaved in the area’s plantations.

“I feel incredibly grateful for the opportunity to sit down with residents and capture their life stories,” Conover said in a DIHS press release. “I think stories are one of the most important catalysts for human connection, and through these oral histories we are able to better understand the shared experiences, culture, and history of the Cainhoy residents. After hearing these stories, I think it’d be difficult for anyone not to empathize with the Cainhoy community and desire the preservation of their culture and land.”

Fred Lincoln, a longtime member of the Jack Primus community near Cainhoy, was Conover’s first interview. “We would like to use [the] Keith School in conjunction with Philip Simmons and Cainhoy schools to bring kids in occasionally and go over this history,” said Lincoln, who serves on the board for the Keith School Museum. “We have kids who know nothing about the history of this community, and they are descendants of this community, and I think that [this project] would be a valuable asset.”

Conover also interviewed MaeRe Chandler Skinner and Cain Simmons of Wando, Alice Washington of St. Thomas Island, Dora Howard of Cainhoy, Henry Carson of Huger, Mimi Howe of Daniel Island and Joey Murray of the old village of Cainhoy, and North Charleston resident Keitt Hane, who grew up across the Cooper River from the Cainhoy peninsula.

The interviews are in the process of being transcribed. The transcription and audio will be placed in the College of Charleston’s Addlestone Library and possibly other sites.

The Cainhoy Collective oral history project is seeking to interview elders who grew up in the community. To participate, email Lee Ann Bain, DIHS project coordinator, at clunybain@gmail.com. Participants will receive a CD containing the recording and transcript. College of Charleston students Blake Gillian and Lily Porter will conduct the interviews.


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