Black Families Are Working Against Developers to Keep Their Land and History

Slave survivors bought pieces of their farm near the South Carolina coast after the Civil War, and the Reverend Elijah Smalls Jr. used to grow okra, butter beans, and other crops there. The drainage system was soon overwhelmed by a new neighborhood of half-million-dollar homes. The 80-year-old veteran can no longer cultivate because of the sewer runoff that collects in his backyard.

Many African-American families, like Smalls’s in Phillips Community, have remained in the original Charleston area settlements. Lands like theirs are being eyed by builders of resorts and permanent residences all along the South Carolina coast.

Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head have seen a surge in real estate prices, and with that has come an increase in confrontations between Black property owners and investors and even family members.

In 2017, the state legislature passed a set of laws that its backers have dubbed “shark repellant” because they make it more difficult for developers to negotiate below-market deals with long-distant heirs. But rising property taxes are becoming increasingly onerous. The elderly are concerned about the loss of their family legacies, which were built by ancestors who overcame ingrained racism across the defeated South to gain land.

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Faith Rivers James, director of the Coastal Conservation League, warned, “If we don’t take steps to protect them, we’re going to lose them parcel by parcel.” Josephine Wright’s ranch-style home in the middle of a new development is surrounded by an orange mesh fence. The Hilton Head Island land on which the 93-year-old woman now sits was originally owned by her family during the Reconstruction era.

30 years after her husband’s death, Wright moved back to his house in Jonesville’s Historic Gullah Neighborhood, where the 2020 Census predicted there were still approximately 440 people living. “I’m being surrounded, really,” she said with a Brooklyn accent. Because of the progression of his Parkinson’s condition, they sought peace and quiet.

The 29 acres of land around Wright’s house that their families had held are now barren. Bailey Point Investment, LLC, a developer based in Georgia, began construction on a 147-unit vacation rental complex there last summer. The trustees of her family’s trust had ignored rising tax obligations. At a tax auction in 2014, the land was sold for only $35,000. This price is a mere fraction of its current market value.

The investment firm then filed a lawsuit against Wright, who owns her own one acre of land, claiming that her screened-in porch, shed, and satellite dish are in the way of the building site. The Associated Press’s call to the company’s attorney went unanswered. She seems unfazed by the possibility that they are trying to get rid of her.

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Kyrie Irving of the NBA and Tyler Perry of the movies have both voiced their approval. Until this matter is resolved, town officials have no plans to issue any new building permits. She claims that her fellow residents appreciate her fortitude. On Hilton Head Island, freed slaves established the first community in the United States to govern itself.

Caesar Jones, a freed slave and Civil War soldier, bought more than a hundred acres of marshland that the colonists had written off as unusable and settled there, giving the area now known as Wright its name. It’s hardly unwelcome now, if ever.

The site became more desirable because of the air conditioning. South Carolina’s new highways have made it easier for people to go to the shore, which is why it has become the tenth fastest-growing state in the country over the past decade.

The Gullah Geechee community was an easy target for those looking for property because it was owned by the ancestors of West Africans who were enslaved on rice, indigo, and cotton plantations. They had a chance to build a distinctive culture on the outlying islands, but without protection from American law, they were open to exploitation.

Many times, developers took advantage of heirs’ property, which is land that has been passed down through the family without a will and is now owned by an increasing number of people. Inexperienced families who must suddenly navigate a complex legal system may lose everything if investors buy even a single heir’s interest.

The property of slaves’ heirs, which has been a source of contention throughout the Black Belt since the end of the slave trade, is under attack. Researchers at Auburn University, lead by rural sociologist Ryan Thomson, estimate that land titles for over 5 million acres across 11 states are still unclear, with a total value of approximately $42 billion.

According to Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation’s Josh Walden, some predatory behavior was thwarted by South Carolina’s legislation in 2017. Since 2009, the Charleston-based charity has assisted in the title clearance of approximately 3,000 parcels with an estimated value of $17.5 million. According to Walden, there are still some 40,000 acres of land owned by heirs in just six coastal counties.

Even those who legally own their land may be at risk due to the intense demand in the market. James refers to this as “the next frontier in preserving African American property.”

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For the same reason that tax credits for preserving historic structures are already in place, she has proposed that state lawmakers enact a new “cultural property preservation” tax exemption to create incentives to assist historic towns. “Property is not just a commodity,” James said. “Property has a sentimental value that the law should recognize.”

Longtime residents say they see a change in the way the name Phillips Community is pronounced. A road bustles with activity. Walking to the adjoining creek no longer features the scuttling of fiddler crabs. The woods that used to echo with the sounds of raccoon hunters are now occupied by peaceful homes.

And more change is on the horizon. Dozens of new homes are planned for the heart of Phillips Community by a private Charleston firm, encroaching ever closer on the 35 acres that the Smalls’ great-grandfather purchased in 1875. The Reverend Elijah Smalls Jr. has overheard chatter about the possible entry of new businesses into the uproar.

If that comes in, that would definitely be the death of the community,” the pastor said. His sibling Fred Smalls has also stopped moving. He wore a black baseball cap that read “ARMY” and said that many of the group’s early members fought in the U.S. Colored Infantry for their own independence. While in the military, he served in Germany, Turkey, Alaska, and Oklahoma. Yet he had no doubt that he would eventually come back.

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