Black Community In Charleston, Destroyed For Interstate, Not Forgotten

Apr 17, 2020

Why was the Triangle neighborhood, once steeped in the richness of black music and culture, demolished in 1974 in Charleston, W.Va.? Why were some residents unaware that their neighborhood was being torn down until the bulldozers showed up? And why do some members of Charleston’s African American community today believe that this history could repeat itself in the city’s West Side neighborhood 50 years later, unless this history is reckoned with and remembered?

We explore these questions in this week’s episode of “Inside Appalachia.”

Life can be dramatically different depending on where you live. If you belong to a minority group, statistics show you face further disadvantages. 

Cities are technically integrated, but undertones of racial discrimination still affect how our communities are developed and the funding that is distributed among different neighborhoods. All this influences health and well-being. 

People who grow up in neighborhoods with a high concentration of low-income residents, or where a majority of people are black or hispanic, are less likely to graduate from college, or earn a living wage. They have worse health outcomes, and lower life expectancy. 

Before COVID-19 disrupted daily life, our “Inside Appalachia” team began working on a story about a community in a predominantly black neighborhood in Charleston, W.Va. In the 1960s and 70s, hundreds of people were pushed aside to make room for urban development and an interstate overpass. It took place nearly 50 years ago, but emotions are still raw over what happened.

You’ll also hear from residents of Charleston who live on the city’s West Side and hear why these residents believe that events that happened to the Triangle neighborhood in 1974 still are having ripple effects in the black community today.

We’ll meet several of these residents who are helping their neighbors find healing and recovery in different ways. 

Tom Tolliver, a resident of Charleston, W.Va's West Side in one of the community gardens he supports.
Credit Aaron Henkin / WYPR

Tom Tolliver has a vision for how community gardens can help. “If you notice, a tomato rots from the inside out,” he said. “So, when you deal with people, you better deal with the inside so you can develop the outside. So, if that’s the case with a tomato, then we’ll see people rotting from the inside, so let’s deal with that and in a progression of time, maybe they’ll develop better.”

The Triangle District

A map of the Triangle District, outlined in black. It was identified as "the city's worst slum."
Credit The Charleston Gazette

In the 1950s and 60s, African Americans mobilized in an unprecedented fight for equality. The Civil Rights Movement was a national struggle for social justice. It played out in every community as a battle against racism and violence. 

As interstates were built across the country, these projects brought economic opportunity, but also forced residents — often poor and non-white — out of their homes. They often had little assistance finding a new place to live. 

For Myrna Geiger, a former Triangle resident, who still lives in Charleston, the feeling of loss never goes away. She still attends the Metropolitan Baptist church, which stands in the neighborhood where she grew up. 

“As I look out the front door, I can visualize our house across the street. I can see the neighborhood that’s not there anymore. And it gets pretty hard. I miss those ties. Quite a bit,” she said. Her church was able to stay in the Triangle, though they had to relocate to a different lot. The neighborhood no longer looks anything like what it did before, said Geiger. 

The amended Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1968 was designed to protect residents like Geiger from being displaced. It said the government did not have the authority to remove people for interstate projects if it didn’t have an adequate plan to relocate them. 

Protestors hold signs at a march, trying to bring attention to the loss of homes and community in the Triangle for the construction of the interstate.
Credit West Virginia State Archives

One of the first tests of the law played out in Charleston, W.Va. Residents of a predominantly black neighborhood known as the Triangle District were forced out, and their community, once steeped in the richness of black music and culture, was demolished. In its place, the city built a water treatment plant, and then new stretches of interstates 64, 77 and 79. The situation was so contentious, it led to angry protests beginning in the mid-1960’s. 

Part of the problem was housing. The people being shoved out of their homes didn’t have anywhere to go. “We didn’t have the resources — or the houses to accommodate that many people,” said Carl Foster, a protestor who later took a job with CURA to help people find homes. 

Former Triangle residents say they were deliberately ignored and shut out of the process. “Some people were still asleep in their homes when the bulldozers came in,” recalled Carol Tillman, a community organizer who worked with some of the residents. “These people didn’t know what was going on until it started happening, because they didn’t have any power.”

Will History Mirror Current Events?

The Charleston, W.Va., City Council recently relaxed its zoning rules for the neighborhood known as the West Side, a community that struggles with a reputation for high crime rates and abandoned homes. The change could lead to the construction of affordable housing.  

Opponents of the zoning change argued that the city doesn’t have a master plan for the West Side. Some residents wonder if the history of the Triangle could repeat itself. 

Robert Burton, a West Side resident, said he thinks the city council should not have voted while people were at home sheltering in place because of the coronavirus. He said it mirrors the way the black community was not consulted properly during the redevelopment of the Triangle District. 

Out of the Blocks — The West Side 

Out of the Blocks” podcast producer Aaron Henkin, of WYPR in Baltimore, teamed up with West Virginia’s state folklorist, Emily Hilliard, to record a series of interviews with West Side residents. Hilliard is the founding director of the West Virginia Folklife Program at the West Virginia Humanities Council. She and Henkin, and “Out of the Blocks” co-producer Wendel Patrick produced a series of audio vignettes as residents described the challenges and triumphs they saw in their community. 

Rev. Matthew Watts, a West Side community leader stands in the sanctuary of his church where he fights for the West Side community.
Credit Aaron Henkin / WYPR

Three residents made recordings at Mary C. Snow Elementary, the 2nd Avenue Community Center and the West Side Jamboree. There are also individual stories from Rev. Matthew Watts, a West Side community leader, and Tom Tolliver, who works as a volunteer teaching young people how  to garden at a community garden on the West Side. They made other recordings that we couldn’t fit into our podcast this week. We encourage you to listen to the full two-part podcast series about the West Side of Charleston. 

Thanks to everyone who helped collect interviews for the Triangle segment: Nathan Tauger, Alex and Erik Abrahams, Reverend Paul Dunn and Reverend Matthews Watts. Trey Kay, who hosts the Us and Them Podcast from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and Larry Groce, host of Mountain Stage.

Also, thanks to Anna Sale, whose research into the protests against the urban renewal project in the Triangle was the subject of her bachelor’s thesis, which helped us put our story together. 

We had scripting assistance this week from Jesse Wright at 100 Days in Appalachia, which is published at the West Virginia University Reed College of Media Innovation Center. We also had help from the West Virginia Humanities Council, and WYPR in Baltimore and their podcast “Out of the Blocks.” 

Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by The Freedom Singers, Rhiannon Giddons, as heard on Mountain Stage, Marisa Anderson and Dinosaur Burps. 

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Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Glynis Board. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi helped produce our show this week. Suzanne Higgins was the editor and our guest host. 

You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.

Inside Appalachia is a production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.