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Freedom Gained and Lost

In 1861, coastal South Carolina witnessed an experiment in what Southern slave emancipation could have looked like: communities of freedmen owning their land and passing it on to their heirs. Those island communities have survived to this day — but real estate development is now threatening to destroy them.

Fourth of July picnic, St Helena Island, South Carolina, 1939. Library of Congress / Wikimedia

In November 1861, just months after the Civil War began, the Union Army occupied the Sea Islands of South Carolina, freeing ten thousand slaves and sending Confederate soldiers and rice plantation owners fleeing for their lives.

Before the war was over, the emancipated black population worked for wages for the Union Army, which had converted the island’s mansions into barracks. Known as the Port Royal Experiment, this period was a trial run for emancipation.

When the war was over, the fields were ruined by neglect. Former plantation owners were nowhere in sight, and Reconstruction-era authorities made little attempt to track them down. Northern business owners bought many of the properties, and before long the former Sea Island slave population — known as the Gullah people in South Carolina and the Geechee people in Georgia — had earned enough money to buy some acreage of their own.

At delinquent tax sales, the Gullah Geechee paid pennies on the dollar for the land on which they had been held in bondage just a few years before. They began rehabilitating it, growing grains and vegetables for personal consumption.

It wasn’t long before some former owners returned, seeking to recover their lost plantations. In part to protect their claims to the land, the Gullah Geechee developed a deed system known as “heirs’ property,” under which an equal share of the land was granted to each descendant of the original owner, but without the descendants’ actual names listed on any given deed. That way, it was difficult for former slave masters to know whom to sue, and many gave up.

For more than a century, the Gullah Geechee lived on heirs’ property in relative peace and isolation. They maintained a distinctive culture, speaking Gullah creole and preserving spiritual practices that drew on African traditions. They lived in family compounds, fishing and farming the land in common. With their harvests they made Gullah Geechee dishes like conch stew, fried shark, and deviled crabs.

But now Gullah Geechee heirs’ property is in danger, and with it their way of life.

More than a century and a half since the end of the Civil War, the descendants entitled to a share of each property now number in the hundreds, and many of them live scattered across the country, with no attachment to the Sea Islands or its people. With the arrival of the internet, and especially the accessibility of digitized ancestry and property records, it’s become easier for developers to locate heirs and bombard them with offers.

Theresa White, a descendant of Gullah freed slaves on St Helena Island in South Carolina, says she receives these requests constantly. “I have gotten numerous letters in the mail from people trying to get me to sell them my share of my family’s property,” she says.

If just one heir sells their share of the property to a developer, the developer has a legal right to develop the land. People who still live on the property may come together to buy out the heir, but they often struggle to come up with the money, especially as waterfront property on tourist-friendly islands goes for hundreds of thousands of dollars an acre. Heirs may push back in court, but “the judge will often say it’s too many people involved,” White explains, “so they order the property sold, and divide the money among all the people who have an interest.”

“For a person who has lived there all their life and has no place else to go,” says White, “by the time they finish dividing the money up, it’s not enough. You end up in a public housing complex, or Section 8 housing, or in the mobile home park.” Many displaced people leave the area entirely.

White says displacement poses a grave threat to the Gullah Geechee culture. It’s nearly impossible to maintain traditions like family housing compounds in a city environment. White’s father’s family, who are “freshwater Geechee” from mainland Georgia, managed to approximate something like a family compound in Savannah, living within walking distance of each other, but it’s “hard to make it work, especially with so much gentrification.”

Furthermore, White says, Gullah Geechee traditions “require you to be able to pick the correct plants for medicinal purposes or to make sweetgrass baskets.” Displaced people living in remote environs find this difficult, but even those who remain on the islands face obstacles, as the land is increasingly carved up and developed. “They’ve blocked a lot of waterfront property,” White says. “Before, it was an open area where people could go to fish and crab and shrimp. Now they put up signs and fences to keep you out.”

Fishing, farming, and artisanry are not only vital to cultural continuity — they’re also sources of income for the Gullah Geechee, without which it’s difficult to make ends meet. The loss of income fuels further displacement.

Between twelve-hour shifts at a private transportation company that caters mostly to island tourists, White organizes with the Pan African Family Empowerment Network, which attempts to help the Gullah Geechee stay on their land. In her activist work, she has encountered yet another tactic used to separate the Gullah Geechee from their land: delinquent tax sales.

Because heirs’ property lists no single owner, it’s up to heirs themselves to decide who pays property taxes. If the appointed party is unable, or if they pass away and nobody else assumes the burden, the property can go into foreclosure and up for auction.

White’s organization has raised money to stop several delinquent tax sales in the final hour, what she calls “end zone interceptions.” But without help from organizations like the Pan African Family Empowerment Network and the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, the prices are often just too steep for descendants to afford.

White lives in Beaufort County, where she says they used to have a public treasurer who sided with the Gullah Geechee. Heirs would attend delinquent tax auctions and say, “I’m an heir, please don’t bid against me,” and the treasurer would ask bidders to respect their request, she says. But that treasurer has since been replaced by someone with different allegiances. Now heirs in Beaufort County are forced to bid on their own property at auction. Wealthy prospective buyers can simply outbid them until the heirs fall into defeated silence and the deal is done.

Recall that delinquent tax sales are the means through which most Gullah Geechee freed slaves acquired property to begin with. “We don’t think that’s ironic at all,” White says. “It’s no accident. What’s happening now is a systematic effort to reclaim what white people think is their rightful property, which they believe has been stolen from them.”

Hilton Head Island in South Carolina was once home to three hundred Gullah Geechee families, who together owned much of the island’s 27,000 acres. Today they own less than one thousand acres. Four thousand island acres comprise the Hilton Head Plantation, a luxury gated community. Thousands more have been transformed into beach resorts and timeshare condos. The island now boasts twenty-six golf courses and attracts two million tourists per year.

Mitchelville on Hilton Head was the first self-governing community of freed slaves in the US, established during the Union Army occupation of the Sea Islands. Today, historic Mitchelville is preserved as a tourist attraction, while the Gullah Geechee are squeezed onto ever-smaller tracts of land. Or they’re forced to leave the island entirely, their family compounds — the living legacy of those freed slaves — permanently dissolved.

White is acquainted with one of the Gullah Geechee families on Hilton Head who lost their property. “They had a family member who lived in New York who hooked up with some developers up there,” she says, “and made a deal that resulted in the land being sold out from under the people who were living on it.”

When the Gullah Geechee lose their land, White says, they’re often losing not just “their ancestral property,” but “probably the only property that they will ever own in their lifetimes, because they can’t afford to replace it.”