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Charleston Councilmen Speak Out About Riley Legacy
Published:
1/6/2016 5:09:53 PM


Mayor Joseph P. Riley
 

Kwadjo Campbell
 

Wendell Gilliard
 

Rodney Williams
 
By Barney Blakeney


As Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley leaves office after an historic 40-year tenure, his legacy to the city is incomparable. He transformed urban blight created by white flight from inner cities into a world class tourism destination. But for Blacks in Charleston, a community that has colored the character of the city over 300 years, what is Riley’s legacy?

We asked three Charleston councilmen. Former Charleston councilman Kwadjo Campbell said Riley brought back Charleston’s glory, but at the expense of its Black residents.

Former councilman Wendell Gilliard said Riley’s administration created opportunities, but for lack of visionary leadership, the city’s Black community failed to take advantage of them.

Current councilman Rodney Williams says Riley’s legacy still includes opportunities for the city’s Black residents.

“Riley’s tenure will be defined by how he revitalized the city, but he did it at the expense of Black folks,” Campbell extolled. “The city received Urban Development Action Grants (UDAG) funds because of its poor Black census tracks and used the money to create Charleston Place. And the Aquarium Wharf on Concord Street was made possible by the elimination of affordable housing previously located there.

“Riley’s administration cruised to victory each election cycle largely due to the 70 percent -80 percent vote he received in the African American community. That gave Riley the mandate to accomplish feats like annexing Daniel’s Island and James Island and building Joe Riley Baseball Stadium the the new Gailliard Center.

“And finally, Joe Riley has used mitigation resources from the Cooper River Bridge construction to attract hotels and high-end apartments to upper Meeting Street. In each of these cases, the African American community received the short end of the stick.

These exploitive events cannot be erased from history or his story, and as such become part of his narrative in regards to race relations.

“It probably will be a while before Charleston or the world is prepared to critique these aspects of Riley’s 40-year tenure.

Unfortunately we don’t have another 40 years to learn from this type of neo-colonial legacy,” Campbell said.

Gilliard said leadership in the Black community must shoulder some of the responsibility for a legacy of exclusion being left by Riley’s administration.

“Among Charleston’s gains have been some Black losses that are most visible by the loss of Black homes and businesses on Spring and Cannon streets where Black owned hotels and restaurants once existed,” Gilliard said. “In a community that boasts an annual $9 billion tourism industry there is no Black business participation. Something’s wrong with that picture. I can’t say the Black community gained anything from from Riley’s administration, but the opportunity was there. Our leadership didn’t facilitate it. We have to take some of that responsibility,” he added.

Williams, who was in eighth grade when Riley first took office in 1976, said he won’t throw rocks at the administration he’s been a part of the past two years. And while there’s little comparison between the city Riley took over 40 years ago and the one that exists today he credits Riley’s administration with eliminating much of the racial isolation that previously existed within municipal government.

Riley bridged the gap in racial isolation by naming several Blacks to key positions in his administration, Williams said. With Jim Ethredge as head of finance, Vanessa Turner-Maybank as clerk of council and Pat Crawford as director of housing and community development, Riley’s administration was unprecedented for its racial inclusion. “That’s the first time that ever happened!” Williams exclaimed.

The decline in the city’s Black population can’t all be contributed to Riley’s administration either, Williams says. Growth is the culprit that most has impacted the city and region in housing and economic development, he says. Municipal leaders now have to find ways to engage developers to produce greater inclusion, he believes.

“I believe Mayor Riley leaves the city geared up for opportunity. And for the Black community, much of that opportunity exists in West Ashley communities. As West Ashley communities are redeveloped for residential and commercial spaces, transportation will be vitally important to the survival of Black communities,” he said.
 

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