The name speaks volumes.
Liberty Hill, North Charleston’s oldest neighborhood, was founded by and for free African Americans.
In recent decades, it has coped with rising poverty and crime. And, most recently, pressure from real estate development.
Local residents now are marking 150 years and, in so doing, hoping to galvanize neighbors, raise awareness of the area’s important history, and find ways to improve and protect the community.
Paul and Harriet Trescot, free persons of color, owned 112 acres at the time of the Civil War. They sold the land to Ishmael Grant, Aaron Middleton, and brothers Plenty and William Lecque after the war so that a settlement could be established to accommodate the formerly enslaved. The founders designated an acre at the southeast corner sacred ground, where the African Church (now St. Peter’s AME Church) could be built.
In 1871, Liberty Hill was born, its name an expression of the founders’ pride and commitment. For nearly a century, residents here went about their lives, practicing self-determination during a long period of social and economic oppression.
This history, and the possibility of a better future, are central to the agenda of the Liberty Hill 150th Reunion Committee, which includes descendants of the community’s four founders. Three days of celebration are planned for Sept. 17-19, at the transit center, North Charleston High School and at neighborhood churches.
The event is the brainchild of the Rev. Lisa Robinson and comes two years after the neighborhood held a homecoming celebration with a similar goal of sharing Liberty Hill history to encourage investment in the community.
Liberty Hill, about nine blocks wide, is surrounded by new development. The booming Park Circle area sits to the east with all of its restaurants, retail and new apartment buildings in the city’s old downtown district. Just to the north is Oak Terrace Preserve, an upscale subdivision. And to the south is the growing Mixson neighborhood, which presses up against the border of Liberty Hill.
Nowhere is this real estate development activity more visible than from the St. Peter’s AME churchyard. The brick house of worship is surrounded by newly cleaned tombstones. Looming over the graves are Mixson’s townhouses.
So this is no ordinary anniversary celebration.
‘One united community’
Carolyn Lecque, great-great-granddaughter of Liberty Hill co-founder William Lecque, said affordable housing is a key issue. The community once was full of families who walked everywhere — to school, to church and to the store, she said.
Bonds-Wilson High School, which graduated its first all-Black class in 1953, was a 43-acre campus in Liberty Hill that drew students from all over the North Area.
“We became one united community in Liberty Hill, from all of the pocket communities,” the Rev. Roger Washington, president of the Bonds-Wilson Alumni Foundation, said. “It was our nest for education.”
Valerie Harper Young remembers the days when the neighborhood was bustling with businesses. Her father’s gas station was frequented by children who sneaked goodies from the store’s candy counter. Her grandparents owned a grocery store.
Liberty Hill and other African American neighborhoods in the city provided a network of Black-owned businesses. Young’s father would bike to a cleaners in Union Heights then return to Liberty Hill to distribute the clothes.
“They all supplied a need,” Young said.
It was important for the neighborhood to have its own resources because leaving the community could be dangerous. When Young’s cousin ventured into the adjacent Ferndale neighborhood to do a little shopping, White residents attacked him.
“They didn’t like the fact that he crossed the tracks,” she said.
Around 1970, Liberty Hill’s status as a thriving community began to change.
Desegregation of the public schools triggered the decline of Liberty Hill Elementary School and Bonds-Wilson High School. The Vietnam War took a toll: 66 men joined the service, representing about 10 percent of Liberty Hill’s total population. Eight of them were killed.
East Montague Avenue was widened in 1972, an infrastructure “improvement” that forced some businesses to close.
By the mid-1980s, Bonds-Wilson, once the heartbeat of the neighborhood and an institution that symbolized self-sufficiency, was no more. (Today, Liberty Hill’s students attend North Charleston High School, Morningside Elementary and other schools — all outside of the neighborhood.)
By the mid-1990s, the former Charleston Naval Base, which employed several people in Liberty Hill, closed permanently. Then came an increase in crime, and the advent of the citizen patrols organized by local leaders to chase away people driving into the area to buy drugs. This was a period of economic stagnation and community worry. The future had become uncertain.
Lecque wants walkability to reign once again. She and the others on the committee want city investment in the neighborhood, improved streetscapes and greenways, palm trees planted along East Montague, just like those found a few blocks to the east.
“The city should be proud to help Liberty Hill,” said Benjamin Grant, the 72-year old great-grandson of Ishmael Grant. “We’re paying taxes!”
Maybe with the right kind of support some mom-and-pop stores can return to the neighborhood, he mused.
“We are doing all we can,” Grant said.
Housing solutions are one of four main goals of The Charity Foundation, an arm of Charity Missionary Baptist Church. The foundation recently launched a program called Transformation: Liberty Hill, which operates according to a basic connect-the-dots proposal: If public schools are first-rate, then families will want to live near them, and if families move into the neighborhood, they will seek good jobs so they can maintain their homes.
In this way, fortune can find fertile soil, said the Rev. Nelson Rivers III, Charity’s pastor and vice president of religious affairs for the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.
So the foundation focuses on constructing the four legs that will support a communal table of prosperity. They are high-quality public education accessible to all children in Liberty Hill, affordable housing nearby, workforce development and financial literacy training.
The neighborhood has a number of vacant residential properties that can be renovated and made available to those who qualify, Rivers said. The foundation also is planning to build multifamily units.
The people of Liberty Hill lack good jobs, in some cases because criminal records weigh them down, Rivers said. So the foundation is seeking corporate partners willing to provide training and a chance at a career.
Rivers also hopes that a Black-owned credit union will open in the area and provide financial assistance to residents who go through the foundation’s financial literacy training.
“It’s hard to shake off the poverty label.” You’ve got to change the perception of Liberty Hill as somehow down and out or lost to overwhelming economic forces, he said.
The community once had around 350 single-family homes; today it’s closer to 250, with several vacant lots, Young said. About half are owner-occupied. Some are lacking proper deeds because they are what’s called heirs property, passed down through the generations.
About a third of Liberty Hill now is White, Young said. Most residents are working people or retirees on fixed incomes.
“To transform Liberty Hill, we’ve got to transform lives,” Rivers said. And to do that the community must be unified. “The gift of Liberty Hill for me is it has been consistently owned and operated by Black people since its founding. Liberty Hill has always been able to respond to what’s going on from within Liberty Hill.”
The community’s autonomy is reflected in the name itself, Rivers said. While other neighborhoods were named for people or geographical features (consider nearby Union Heights, Rosemont or Accabee), this place was named for an abstract ideal — liberty — and for the hard truth that land ownership was the manifestation of freedom and power.
“ ‘Liberty Hill.’ That’s a courage statement, a radical statement,” Rivers said.
And the community must strive to uphold its significance, today and in the future, he said.
“This is the last stronghold against gentrification we have left,” he said. “We’re being squeezed on every side.”
On the map
City Councilman Sam Hart still lives in the brick home he constructed, with the neighborhood’s help, when he moved back home from college in 1982. Investment has been lacking over the years, but the close-knit nature of the neighborhood remains intact, he said.
From his front porch, Hart can see the 6-foot monument to the founders, recently installed at the Felix Pinckney Community Center across East Montague Street.
He was elected to City Council at the beginning of the 1990s, and helped to ensure housing funds were used to construct 19 homes in Liberty Hill. City funding meant for affordable housing now is directed to Metanoia, whose main focus is the Chicora-Cherokee area to the south.
Hart would like to see a similar effort made in Liberty Hill, the result of more collaboration between the neighborhood, nonprofit sector and the city.
In the Liberty Hill room at the Amtrak train station, collaboration was among the topics discussed by members of the anniversary committee as they considered the big map on the wall and the informational displays. The small space was designed by Mount Pleasant-based firm HW Exhibits, with input from community leaders.
The committee members hope that information kiosks will be installed soon so visitors can delve deeper into the stories of Liberty Hill. And they hope that local residents will join the revitalization effort.
Among the things they are doing is filing an application to add Liberty Hill to the National Register of Historic Places, Lecque said. That would bring recognition and potential funding.
Another thing is the partnership Liberty Hill forged with Habitat for Humanity, which resulted in $30,000 to help neighborhood seniors fix up their houses.
The Chicora-Cherokee-based community development corporation Metanoia also is involved in the neighborhood thanks to a long-term lease arrangement with Lecque’s family, enabling Metanoia to construct eight affordable housing units. The project is unique in that it will be managed by the nonprofit but the land will still belong to the Lecque family.
In recent weeks, committee members and local volunteers have been working on local improvements. They cleaned all the gravestones in Grant Cemetery and in the St. Peter’s churchyard. They arranged for the installation of the monument honoring the founders. And they invited students from Clemson University and the College of Charleston to help with historic preservation.
They also engaged North Charleston’s city leaders, calling for more municipal support, and reached out to the three big churches in the neighborhood.
This is a living example of African American determination and creativity, an urban oasis of historical importance that should be part of a network of tourist destinations, Lecque said. Its residents should have a voice.
Committee members argue that their neighborhood is among the city of North Charleston’s valuable assets, that its historical importance lends cache and its tax-paying residents deserve more support.
“They use us to get money, but we get no benefit,” Lecque said.
The anniversary committee members now are trying hard to protect, and share with others, the legacy of Liberty Hill and the potential within.
For 150 years, Liberty Hill has made history. At stake now is its very existence, and whether it can find a way forward.