The Knife’s Edge of Ruin
This article uses largely untapped source collections to show how African Americans built movements for economic and environmental justice in Lowcountry South Carolina by the early 1970s. Looking at the area around Hilton Head Island, the essay starts by explaining how Black Gullah communities faced devastating land loss due to economic, legal, and demographic pressures. Into this context, the BASF company announced plans in late 1969 to build a petrochemical plant just west of Hilton Head. Although many Black leaders saw the plant increasing the purchasing power of their communities, others dissented out of concerns for industrial pollution’s threat to maritime industries. By June 1970, a temporary alliance between a Black fishing cooperative, white developers, and white retirees defeated the project. By studying these unusual alliances, this article helps explain how Black southerners shaped national debates about environmentalism even as Hilton Head became a well-preserved but exclusive landscape.