Group seeks to grow state's black tourism

More than 60 people converged in a reconstructed, one-room schoolhouse in Berkeley County on Saturday to strategize and network on developing the African-American tourism niche in the Lowcountry.

The first-ever “Raising the Curtain: African-American Niche of the Tourism Industry” conference was hosted by Wando Huger Community Development Corp. and featured sessions on developing business, public grants for nonprofits and growing the niche.

One of the main organizers, former Charleston City Councilman Kwadjo Campbell, was a driving force behind the conference.

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Photo by David Quick

Mount Pleasant Councilwoman Thomasena Stokes-Marshall (left), organizer of the Sweetgrass Festival, talks to a tourism panel Saturday in Berkeley County as Sherry Suttles of the Gullah Geechee Corridor and Charleston City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie listen…

“Our whole goal is to help African-American communities, or just disadvantaged communities, develop self-sustaining programs to help our economy,” said Campbell, whose firm JC and Associates specializes in helping to grow the African-American niche.

Campbell said the conference also hoped to raise awareness of the niche to local agencies that attended the meeting.

The conference drew the attention, and attendance, of the state’s highest-ranking tourism official.

Duane Parrish, director of the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, said he thinks the state already is promoting its African-American heritage and culture, but can do more.

“As the economy improves, people going on vacations are looking for something out of the ordinary,” said Parrish.

“The African-American heritage here with the Gullah Geechee, everything from the foods to the languages, to the different sites around the Lowcountry, there’s a phenomenal opportunity for businesses to provide that different experiences to a lot of different people.”

Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, spoke during lunch and noted that he thinks the impact of African-American tourism on the state is larger than most think.

Ford scoffed at a 1997 study that set that economic impact to the state at $300 million annually, in part because the state doesn’t account for the impact of thousands of family reunions held in South Carolina every year.

“I think it’s closer to $1 billion,” said Ford, noting that he tells blacks to ignore the NAACP’s continued call to boycott the state because of the Confederate flag on the Statehouse grounds.

Ford added that knowing the economic impact numbers are important because African-American cultural and historical events and sites would have more leverage to win private and public grants for marketing and development.

Campbell said one of the goals of “Raising The Curtain” is to get a new economic impact study started.

During one of the sessions on public funding, Ford pointedly asked if blacks were on specific accommodations’ tax advisory committees, charged with making grants, and if not, why not.

Meanwhile, the setting itself had a role in the conference.

Keith School, a school built by African-Americans in the 1920s with no help from the government, was reconstructed on site on Clement’s Ferry Road a few years ago to help preserve the black history of the Cainhoy community.

Fred Lincoln, vice chairman of the Wando Huger Community Development Corp., said the corridor — and its villages of African-American families settled after slavery ended — have been under attack from “overdevelopment” for years.

“Development was going up so fast,” said Lincoln. “The recession was a blessing in disguise for us. We were going to Berkeley County and Charleston city council meetings every week over issues such as people wanting to put a trucking company next to people’s home.”

Rebuilding the school, he said, was one way to have a visible presence of the area’s heritage.

“If the school wasn’t reconstructed, the whole history would have just vanished. So now by connecting with the tourism industry is a source of protection of itself because now you can see there’s a community here and a history here.”

Bringing tourism officials and other stakeholders to Keith School helped to highlight its role in Cainhoy.

Lincoln added it might be one of the biggest events held at the school, which also serves as a community center. This summer, the community hopes to teach math to younger children in an effort to encourage math studies later in their education.

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