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South Carolina Honors College

  • Sophie Kahler

Piecing it together

Sophie Kahler knows there’s more to a place than meets the eye. In Columbia, where the Honors geography senior grew up, the mysteries abound. Why is the Forest Hills neighborhood designed so that you can drive into it from one direction but not another? Why are there so many public housing projects in the greater Waverly neighborhood? And just two miles from her family’s bungalow on Wheat Street, in the Shandon neighborhood, why is an old AME church wedged so tightly into an expensive new neighborhood?

It was just that incongruity — an old Black church in a new White neighborhood — that ignited Kahler’s career in the South Carolina Honors College.

“Neighborhoods have a lot of power over what our lives will look like,” she said, recalling how she decided to study that neighborhood — Wheeler Hill — during the first semester of her freshman year. In his “Race and Space in the American City” geography course, associate professor Conor Harrison assigned a final project in which students were to study and report on a Columbia neighborhood. As Kahler began doing her research, she learned there wasn’t much. Unlike the larger Ward One neighborhood nearby, Wheeler Hill formed, existed, changed and shrank without much documentation. With Harrison’s encouragement and an Honors College exploration grant for an independent study, Kahler got to work.

Two years later she was lead author on “Wipe out the entire slum area”: university-led urban renewal in Columbia, South Carolina, 1950-1985.” The nine-page article, complete with 88 footnotes, ran in the January 2020 issue of Journal of Historical Geography. It represented countless hours digging through about 10 binders of scattered documents and meeting minutes of the Columbia Housing Authority and 15 boxes and cartons of documents, letters, and newspaper clippings in the university’s own archives. One archive box is 12 x 15 x 10 inches. That’s a lot of sorting.

“I would be going and going through the university archives and once every box of papers I’d find the words ‘Wheeler Hill,’” Kahler said. “It was a lot of gathering material and learning best strategies of taking as much information and trying to piece together a narrative from that.”

Because of her studies with Harrison, Kahler knew that after World War II many city-based universities across the country were expanding their campuses by moving into the low-income, minority neighborhoods surrounding them. The University of South Carolina was no different, using Section 112 of the 1949 Housing Act to access federal aid for urban renewal projects that would “promote public welfare and community development.” That meant colleges and universities could leverage their power to level poor communities, building dorms and athletic fields, for example, where working-class families once lived, played, and worshipped.

And that was the case with Wheeler Hill. Shotgun houses and unpaved roads gradually gave way to the Blatt Physical Education Center and Bates House dorms. New streets were carved from old ones. Most upsetting to Columbia Black residents, the esteemed Booker T. Washington High School,  for decades the only school for African Americans in the city, was demolished, save for the historic auditorium that remains.

It’s not a pretty history, but it was all right there in the university’s archives. Kahler realized she was the first person doing this specific research.

“There’s something exciting about knowing no one had gone as deep into the history of this area,” she said. “If I can do this and put a history together, I’m doing more original research and not copying what someone else did.”

By far the most dramatic item she found was a letter from the university’s 23rd president. Dated February 22, 1968, and addressed to members of Columbia’s city council and housing authority, Dr. Thomas F. Jones wrote this: “For many years it has been the goal of the University and the City of Columbia to attempt to wipe out the entire slum area of approximately twelve blocks known as Wheeler Hill.”

“Chilling” is how Kahler describes that letter. “Slow, intentional and destabilizing” is how she describes Wheeler Hill’s methodical crumbling and reshaping, as higher property taxes for bigger, newer homes forced long-time residents away. “The redevelopment didn’t occur until the late 1970s, and homes were being built well into the 2000s. It was a long process, but not as far removed from today as we might think. That was interesting from a history student’s perspective, because my historical research seemed to not be entirely in the past.”

Kahler’s discoveries about Wheeler Hill led to her senior thesis. In “The Evolution of Columbia’s Neighborhoods: 1937 to Present,” she studied four historic residential neighborhoods in the core of the city, including Wheeler Hill. Using the 1937 Home Owners’ Loan Corporation redlining map of Columbia, which appraised neighborhoods and encouraged lenders to deny loans in predominantly nonwhite areas, she shows how affluent White neighborhoods fared over the decades compared to the neighborhoods of poor Blacks.

“Sophie’s research is, in many ways, turning common histories of Columbia upside down,” says Harrison, Kahler’s geography professor and senior thesis director. “Through her careful analysis of neighborhood development and neighborhood change, Sophie has captured how race has been a defining factor in the development of the city of Columbia. More than this, Sophie’s research demonstrates that the histories of Jim Crow segregation are not confined to the past, rather they are inscribed in present-day neighborhoods in myriad ways.”

In August Kahler will enter George Washington University’s Media & Strategic Communication program. As a high schooler, she wanted to leave the state for college, but a raft of scholarships — including Palmetto Fellows, Dean’s, Presidential and William A. Mould and Peter C. Sederberg — convinced her to enter the SCHC. She wants her career to be as broad as her time here, perhaps working in political communications or non-profit advocacy.       

She knows her research at the university will serve her well.

“I find urban development in American cities so interesting – it’s a social justice issue,” she said. “It’s interesting to me to realize the landscape you’re looking at isn’t indicative of its history and there’s a lot buried beneath it.”

See Sophie Kahler’s research on Columbia neighborhoods, including maps and photos

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