FEATURE ‌ Reinventing a Mistake 

'Whites only' school now viewed as 'investment' property

click to enlarge Riverland Terrace Neighborhood Association President Judy Pardue wants to see a park spring up where a formerly all-white elementary school once existed
  • Riverland Terrace Neighborhood Association President Judy Pardue wants to see a park spring up where a formerly all-white elementary school once existed

Charleston has more than its fair share of blue blood, with the Jenkins family being a prominent example. Wealthy Welsh landowners, the Jenkins family originally moved to the Carolinas in the 1700s when this was still a land-grant colony. Settling in Edisto, they dabbled in plantation life and prodigiously produced children. Micah Jenkins, The Prince of Edisto, was famously one of their brood. A Citadel graduate and one of four General Officers of the Confederacy, he was considered General Longstreet's right-hand man.

More recently, the Jenkins line included the civic-minded J.T. and C. Bissell Jenkins, industry and real estate tycoons in their own rights. Among the most prominent Charlestonians in the first half of the 20th century, C.B., an officer in the South Carolina Historical Society and an original trustee of the Historic Charleston Foundation, famously donated 115 acres of James Island for the creation of the Charleston Municipal Golf Course.

In 1928, the illustrious Jenkins brothers were feeling particularly generous, at least to part of the Charleston community, and deeded to Charleston County four acres nestled in the live oaks of what is now the Riverland Terrace neighborhood. Wanting to ensure that the land was put to good use, the deed stipulated that the County use the land to "erect, maintain, and operate a public school for white children."

Making their wishes more explicit, the Jenkins family added a barbed "reverter" clause to the deed. If Charleston County were to "at any time abandon and cease to maintain and operate upon the premises hereby conveyed a public school for white children, then the estate hereby conveyed shall revert to the Party of the First Part," meaning the Jenkins family.

At the time, the deed's racist language was commonplace; thanks to the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, segregation was still the law of the land.

"Society has evolved since then, but these deeds were very common then," says I. Richard Gershon, dean of the Charleston School of Law.

It wasn't until 1948, in the Shelley v. Kramer case, that racist property deeds like this one were addressed, making it illegal for the sale of public property to include restrictive covenants based on race or religion. Two decades later, in 1968, the federal Fair Housing Act finally made it illegal for the sale of private property to include these kinds of restrictions.

Despite these changes in the law, other stipulations in the Jenkins deed might prove to be a battle for the Charleston County School District (CCSD). While it is no longer legal to enforce the "white only" portion of the deed, the stipulation that the County "erect, maintain, and operate" a school on the property is still, according to some legal scholars, viable and enforceable.

This would require an interpretation of the deed using what Dean Gershon describes as the "cy pres" doctrine, which states that when literal compliance is impossible, the intention of the donor should be carried out as nearly as possible. In this case, the intent was for a school to be operated on the Riverland Terrace plot.

In 1934, six years after receiving the four-acre plot, the County erected a school, which it operated until 1970. Whether the original building was "maintained" is up for debate. When it was closed in 1970, it was closed on the orders of the fire marshal, who had concluded that the building was in such disrepair that it needed to be condemned.

Portable and ancillary buildings were used to operate the school until 1977, when it was officially closed. The school district does not have a record of why Riverland Terrace Elementary, which was eventually integrated, was shut down.

Tommy Townson, CCSD archivist, says that the school could have been closed for any number of reasons: rezoning, a dwindling number of students, structural concerns with the school, or further consolidation of the school district.

From 1977 until just a few months ago, the remaining school building was boarded up and sat fallow on the overgrown, weed-ridden plot.

And then two years ago, a girl was reportedly attacked in the abandoned school.

After the incident, the City determined that the building had become a "nuisance," as characterized in an e-mail obtained from Bill Lewis, CCSD executive director of facilities and improvements.

The building also had an asbestos problem. Fitting, perhaps, given that C. Bissell Jenkins, co-signer of the Riverland Terrace deed, was Charleston's first asbestos magnate. In February of 2006, the Charleston County School Board had the building demolished.

As a result, there is no longer any educational facility on the Riverland Terrace land "erected, maintained, or operated" — for whites, blacks, or any other hue.

While the historical issues of intent, ownership, and inequity are being mulled over by legal minds, the future of the Riverland Terrace land is being addressed by community activists and neighborhood associations.

Currently, the School Board leases the demolished school's baseball field to the City of Charleston's Parks and Recreation department. The Riverland Terrace Neighborhood Association and the City have a proposal they wish to present to the school district which includes lengthening the City's current lease and expanding the area of the lease to include all of the land where the school once existed.

Amanda Barton, chair of the Parks and Recreation Committee of the Riverland Terrace Neighborhood Association, has created a "Parks Task Force" in the neighborhood. The task force did a clean sweep of the land two Saturdays ago, clearing out trash and old growth in order to make the park area safer and more visible.

Barton says that the task force is currently in the process of collecting information and working on plans for the proposed park. Still in the planning stages, the committee would like the park to include a dog run, picnic shelter, and children's playground.

"The school district has been very receptive and would like to see the area remain a space for public use," says Colleen Carducci, director of real estate management for the City.

Regardless of these plans, CCSD properties manager Bill Lewis says that the School Board has "made it clear they were interested in keeping this property as an investment property."

Given the skyrocketing property values in Riverland Terrace, this may prove to be a wise move on the Board's part, even though the handful of millions the land could bring if sold to a developer pales in comparison to the district's total yearly appropriations — nearly half a billion dollars for 2006.

While holding on to the acreage may prove tricky for the district if the Jenkins family chooses to sue for the rights to the property, selling it may cause even greater legal entanglement.

According to Gershon, the land is now still being used in the public-minded manner intended by the deed.

"Times change, demographics change, but public use is still in the spirit of the deed," says Gershon "If the County were to sell the property there is nothing to insure that the land would continue to be used in this way."

However, Gershon also argues that the Jenkins' claim to the land rests on very uneven footing.

"Ultimately, the issue is that they ceased using the land for a school in 1977."

Because the Jenkins family has not asserted a claim to the property in the 29 intervening years, it would be difficult for them to do so now. Several descendants of the Jenkins family were unavailable for comment.

Of course, members of the neighborhood association would like to put the entire mottled history of the school behind them. They do not believe that it represents the kind of community they are trying to build. Neighborhood association president Judy Purdue believes that the creation of a park would be "incredibly positive for the neighborhood."

In ostrich-like fashion, the School Board has chosen not to comment on the matter, as if their approach to points of embarrassing educational history is to keep them buried; and if they can't stay buried, demolition might do the trick.


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