“Building Community Across Walls: A History of an Integrated Church Amid a Gentrifying Neighborhood in Charleston, South Carolina”
“Building Community Across Walls: A History of an Integrated Church Amid a Gentrifying Neighborhood in Charleston, South Carolina” is a study focused upon the integrated history of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, the congregation I serve in downtown Charleston. The church, which was an African American congregation for much of the twentieth century, integrated in the late 1980’s following the gentrification of our Ansonborough neighborhood. This ethnographic study, centered upon formal interviews with both black and white members of my church who experienced this integration together, in addition to clergy and community leaders, is an attempt to both accurately share this history and to critically examine it to mine how it might inform St. Stephen’s present and future. This study makes the argument that St. Stephen’s history of integration must be understood amid the backdrop of urban gentrification and the ways in which this social phenomenon is impacting downtown congregation’s like my own.
This project will therefore be critically examining the intersection of race and gentrification and the ways in which these forces impact any church trying to build community across the “walls” of various social boundaries in urban areas. The argument of this thesis is that no such community can be sustained without awareness of these forces and an ongoing and intentional commitment to diversity, to combating racism and the ongoing reality of white supremacy in our country.
This thesis will have four parts. The first part will aim to offer critical background meant to put St. Stephen’s story into proper context. Chapter one will detail a short overview of the issue of gentrification and focus specifically on its impact upon African Americans. Chapter two will offer a brief reflection on the significance of the black church to African American identity, culture, and collective memory. This chapter intends to impress upon the reader what is
at stake and what is potentially lost when an all-black church wrestles with whether to integrate. These chapters will enable a better understanding and more accurate interpretation of St. Stephen’s story of integration.
The St. Stephen’s story will be explored through a series of ethnographic interviews I’ve conducted with nearly twenty-five black and white members of the church – lay and ordained – who lived through that history together. Archival material will also be utilized and woven into a reflection on the interview responses to deepen learnings and glean insights. Prior to parts two, three, and four pertaining to St. Stephen’s, a brief author’s note will appear. This note will include a fuller description of my interview sample and size along with an acknowledgement of potential biases and the fallibility inherent in a project based upon memory.
The second part will outline and detail St. Stephen’s history leading up to integration. It will include a third chapter that consists of a short early history of my parish and a fourth chapter laying out St. Stephen’s eventful African American history from the early decades of the twentieth century to the late 1980’s. Chapter five will include a description of the gentrification of the church’s Ansonborough neighborhood through historic preservation efforts, spearheaded by the Historic Charleston Foundation, that led to the integration of the parish.
Part three will focus on the parish’s intentional integration. Chapters six through thirteen will constitute the heart of this thesis: an accounting of St. Stephen’s late 1980’s to early 1990’s collective experience and a critical reflection upon its successes, points of tension, and missed opportunities.
Part four will consist of a detailed accounting of St. Stephen’s story since its integrative period in chapter fourteen and fifteen. Chapters sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen will include reflections upon the what the lessons of our past offer us today. I will then highlight a few
significant questions for further study and reflection in chapters nineteen and twenty followed by a conclusion.