Why one grandmother’s house has become a national cause

Prosperity Society

Why one grandmother’s house has become a national cause

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Property has always been a primary path to wealth, with Black Americans and other marginalized communities struggling to fend off forces that would take theirs. But there are signs of a shift, and one woman’s case has caught national attention.

But Ms. Wright has fought back. She has built a coalition that includes the hip-hop legend Snoop Dogg and Atlanta film tycoon Tyler Perry, who has said Ms. Wright’s determination reminds him of his own grandmother. Recently, he even vowed to build her a new home. Ms. Love Graves calls her grandmother “a gentle force, always a presence.”

Ms. Wright’s story has resonated because “this isn’t just about money, but … who we are,” says Ms. Love Graves in an interview in her grandmother’s front yard. “The struggle isn’t isolated to history or some remote island. In fact, where isn’t this happening?”

Black land loss

Property has always been a vital way for Americans to accrue wealth, and since Reconstruction, Black landowners have been systematically dispossessed of theirs. In 1910, Black farmers owned some 16 million acres, according to an American Bar Association study. Now, they own only 10% of that land. 

The means of Black land loss are many and varied. Through Jim Crow, Black landowners were killed or violently thrown off their land. Local governments and banks have historically used discriminatory practices. And businesses have swooped in to take advantage of complex laws and cases in which heirs dispute ownership to pick apart properties piece by piece.

The problem extends beyond rural America and beyond Black America. As a primal element of power, land has flowed from the weak to the strong for centuries. White communities in Appalachia and Hispanic and Native American communities in the Southwest see the same trends. But increasingly, forces are aligning around these underserved communities to help them maintain control of their land. And Ms. Wright’s story, though not concluded, shows elements of that shift.

“We live in a country which has always seen land as the major source of wealth, and, as a result, there are a bunch of people both empowered and disempowered – we’re now living with 300 years of that having played out,” says Scott Schang, director of the Heirs’ Property Project at Wake Forest University School of Law in Winston Salem, North Carolina.

“What’s changed,” he adds, “is suddenly some people have rights again, and now you’re trying to untangle a legal system that tries very hard to make sure property ownership is clear and uninterrupted – and that’s clashing with people trying to save not only their wealth but also their sense of identity and culture.”

There are common denominators in heirs’ property losses, says sociologist Ryan Thomson at Auburn University in Alabama. The first is the marginal status of owners. This is compounded by a lack of access to trustworthy legal services, and an inability, without clean title to property, to tap into equity and government benefits.

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“Shark repellant” wards off developers

During the past decade, however, more than a dozen states have reformed these laws to create what some experts call “shark repellant.” The new laws make it harder for predatory land prospectors to strike low-ball deals with distant heirs.

The shift has begun to seep into how disputes are resolved in courts and in the public square.

For example, in rural Karnes County, Texas, a county court this summer adjudicated a long-running dispute between a white ranch family and the descendants of a Black family who both held title to land targeted by oil and gas prospectors.

The jury waded through the complex web of deeds, titles, and historical documents to find that the more than 100 descendants of the Black Eckford family were entitled to what may amount to substantial royalties from tapping the land. 

Here in South Carolina, leaders in Beaufort County – which includes Hilton Head Island – took their own steps to help. In the 1990s, they created a heritage zoning overlay for neighboring St. Helena Island that bans gated communities and golf resorts. But this summer, a developer asked the local county commission to waive those restrictions to build a new golf course. 

The developer, Elvio Tropeano, noted at a hearing that the association of a golf course with culture loss had created difficulties in explaining a project that he proposed as a “purpose-built community” that would be an engine for revitalization and include environmental and cultural conservation.

The county commission denied the request, stating that the overlay was intended to bar golf course development. Hundreds of locals appeared in opposition to the project at multiple hearings. Mr. Tropeano appealed.

Ms. Wright is now caught in the middle of a different project. The developer, who did not respond to the Monitor’s inquiries, claims in a lawsuit that parts of Ms. Wright’s house are on land already sold by other heirs. The family sees it as a ploy to force a sale. But local elected officials took note. The Hilton Head Town Council this summer halted all permitting on the project until the dispute is settled.

The history of Black land loss is particularly fraught here on the Sea Islands, a necklace of barrier islands that spills from North Carolina to Florida. A century ago, the region was a center of Black land wealth. Most owners were Gullah Geechee, descendants of formerly enslaved people brought to Charleston and Savannah from West Africa.

For decades, the islands were considered inhospitable, if not unlivable. Yet the Gullah Geechee thrived by fishing and farming, often in near-complete isolation. (As a result, many natives still retain a distinct brogue.) But the rise of air conditioning and mosquito control created powerful incentives to transform the islands.

Barrier islands of white wealth

“All of a sudden, these places are where a lot of white wealth wants to be and wants to develop,” says Jessie White, the South Coast office director of the Coastal Conservation League in Beaufort, South Carolina. “A combination of multiple forces” led to rapid land loss.

Clouded titles often resulted from complicated heirs’ property laws. And skyrocketing property taxes created a growing burden that many could not afford.

“If the Native people are not able to afford to live in the paradise that they’ve lived in for generations, how is it considered paradise anymore?” says Luana M. Graves Sellars, founder of the Lowcountry Gullah, a nonprofit that assists families in protecting land. “How can you call it paradise if it’s only for someone else?” 

In his book, “The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South,” Andrew Kahrl, an African American studies professor at the University of Virginia, links the role of land ownership and development strategies along the Atlantic Coast to a broader struggle for economic empowerment for Black Americans.

The high rate of land loss, he writes, “causes us to reassess … the slow, painful but nevertheless inexorable progress toward a just and equitable future.” In September, Black residents of the tiny Gullah-Geechee community on Georgia’s Sapelo Island sued to stop a new zoning that allows for bigger houses – and thus higher taxes that will push them off their land, they say.

Hilton Head “was the first great island to fall” to development, says Professor Thomson at Auburn, who studies the impacts of heirs’ property laws on communities.

Today, gated communities dominate Hilton Head’s beachfront and interior, while a few Gullah Geechee settlements remain tucked away on the island’s marsh side. Once-massive Black landholdings have been reduced to “crumbs,” says Ms. White, of the conservation council.

The 10,000 formerly enslaved people who remained on Hilton Head after the Civil War “knew that nothing in the United States was more important than land,” says Ms. Graves Sellars. “They understood the value of the land, but their blood, sweat, and tears are also in that land. Today, you can say a piece of property is worth a million dollars. Yet it’s priceless because of what went into it to provide the land for future generations.”

That is what Ms. Wright is fighting for. The Hilton Head Town Council putting a pause on development was a small victory. But Ms. Love Graves sees a bigger factor at work, too – South Carolinians’ desire to safeguard the value of home.

“We want to show … that it’s possible to keep the land, generate wealth and live life on the land in peace,” she says.


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