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Gullah Geechee Strugle to Retain Land Holdings

Mon, Jul. 17, 2006

Ex-slaves' land heirs struggle to keep property in family hands

By Dahleen Glanton

Chicago Tribune


WARSAW ISLAND, S.C. - No one in Sargent Parker's family ever gave much thought to the 26 acres of marshland he bought in 1869, six years after becoming a free man. But everyone knew it was there, sheltered behind rows of palmetto trees, as a reminder of the family's rich heritage.

The story of how Parker, who died in 1915 at age 85, purchased the land has been passed down through generations. It was four years after Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Orders, No. 15, ordering every freed slave to be given 40 acres. But after the directive was rescinded, blacks were forced to return the land.

Emancipated slaves like Parker then worked hard as sharecroppers to raise the $1.25 an acre needed to buy soggy marshland deemed undesirable by whites. By 1869, former slaves whose descendants are known as Gullah-Geechees owned half of Beaufort County, S.C.

So everyone was shocked last October when Richardean Aiken, the widow of Parker's great-great-grandson, was browsing the newspaper and saw a legal notice advertising that the land was being sold. No one in the family ever had agreed to sell it, and all insisted they never would.

"I said, `Oh hell no, this can't be happening,'" Aiken said before getting on the phone and calling her relatives. "When I saw Sargent Parker's name, I knew something was wrong."

Throughout coastal South Carolina, Gullah-Geechee people have been fighting for decades to hold onto the property left to them by their ancestors. But often there is no will, making it difficult to prove ownership, even when taxes have been paid on the land for generations. Many of the problems are due to infighting among family members. It only takes one heir to agree to sell the property for the dispute to be settled by a judge and land end up being auctioned.

As a result, much of the heirs' property in the coastal South has been divided and sold, often for much less than it is worth, as developers seek to create posh resorts like those on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina and St. Simons Island in Georgia.

Nearly 14 million acres of heirs' property has been lost since the end of the Civil War, according to the Center for Heirs' Property Preservation. Just over 1 million acres of the land purchased by former slaves remain in family hands.

Last month, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford signed a bill aimed at protecting those property owners from being forced to sell their land. Under the bill, families whose land is to be auctioned must be given the opportunity to purchase it at its appraised value before the land can be sold, effectively giving those families a "right of refusal."

Though the title to Parker's land is unclear and there are indications that it might have been sold or lost years ago, thousands of acres of prime land that was predominantly owned and occupied by blacks have become playgrounds for wealthy, mostly white vacationers.

In a typical case, media executive Ted Turner was involved in a legal battle four years ago with a group of heirs over 68 acres on St. Helena Island, S.C. In a lawsuit against the heirs, Turner claimed the disputed land was part of the 298 acres he acquired for recreational use in 1979. The heirs, however, said it was among the 328 acres their ancestors purchased in the 1920s. Within months, the two sides settled out of court, agreeing that the land legally belonged to Turner but that he would donate it back to the families.

Warsaw Island, a few miles from St. Helena Island, home to more than 10,000 Gullah-Geechees, long has been home to Parker's family. His descendants still live in homes and trailers either next door or across the street from each other. People sometimes leave to seek a better life in New York or elsewhere, but they always come back, sometimes for extended visits but most often for good.

Most of the residents spend their days farming tomatoes, squash and green beans that they share with each other or sell in an open market. And the evenings are devoted to family. For Parker's descendants, almost any occasion warrants a party in the park named for Aiken's husband, James, who died last year in a fishing accident. Music blasts through the neighborhood and the aroma of barbecued ribs, fried fish and secret Gullah dishes draw people from miles around.

This is how people live in Gullah country and why land often is not seen as a profitmaker but as a gift to be held onto and cherished.

"This is our heritage. We were born and raised here and we are not going to come and let anyone come and take it from us," said Henry Aiken, 67, James Aiken's brother. "This land is like a million dollars to us. And if one of us hurts, everyone hurts."

For decades, property owners have been increasingly pressured by developers to sell their land, and sometimes the lure of thousands of dollars becomes too strong. Thirty years ago, Gullahs owned much of the land on Hilton Head Island, and now many longtime residents of the nearby islands fear the same development will happen to their lands.

In 1999, residents of St. Helena Island lobbied Beaufort County to designate the island as a cultural protection overlay district, which prohibits developers from building gated residential communities. Still, some residents said, they fear that they will have to go to court to defend their land, an ordeal that is costly and time-consuming.

Many blacks say they are at a disadvantage because the burden of proving ownership falls on them. That means they have to dig up old papers, looking for titles, deeds and wills, many of which they do not have. Because of Jim Crow laws, former slaves often were never given proper documentation for the land, so proving ownership 140 years later becomes a big problem.

In addition, heirs' property is divided among all living descendants, which often results in family disputes that must be decided in court. Willie Heyward, an attorney for the non-profit Center for Heirs' Property Preservation, said developers often conduct a title search to find heirs who live out of state and purchase their interest in the property for a few hundred dollars.

"There's a lot of disagreement among heirs, and like any other family, there is infighting," Heyward said. "But for these African-American families, it is exacerbated because they are separated by mass migration up north. A lot of the heirs have never been to South Carolina and have no interest in the property. And all you need is one heir who wants to sell to bring it to arbitration."

Heyward said he is encouraging families to form limited liability companies giving everyone an equal share and allowing the family to have ultimate control over the land.

Adolph Brown has tried to help his family profit from the 20 acres his great-great-great-great-grandparents Matthew and Tina Jones bought after gaining freedom. But with 180 heirs, the task has been difficult.

More than two years ago, Brown, 45, of Hilton Head, founded the Matthew and Tina Jones Limited Liability Co. Brown said he already has received a commitment from a bank for the family to build a $14 million luxury condominium project on the land just off of U.S. Highway 278, the main thoroughfare through the resort community.

Many of his relatives live in rented trailers on the land. Brown wants to allocate a portion of the land for building homes for them, while the condo project would bring millions of dollars in profits to be shared among the heirs.

Brown said he has acquired the signatures of all the heirs except one: an 80-year-old cousin living in New Jersey who he said wants to sell his share for $400,000.

If the family does not build on the land, Brown said, he fears they could lose a significant portion of it to eminent domain as the city sprawls and needs land to expand its main highway.

"We would become the largest black family to do something like this," said Brown, who admits that some of his Southern relatives don't trust him because he grew up in New York and moved to South Carolina only seven years ago.

"People have to understand that the world has changed, and it is no longer acceptable for them to do nothing," Brown said. "When my generation dies, the number will have grown to 500 heirs rather than 180. And all it takes is one out of that 500 to say `I want my money' and send it to the courthouse steps to be dealt to the highest bidder."



During the slavery era, thousands of slaves were brought to the South Carolina coast to work the rice plantations. The descendants of those slaves who were granted their freedom in 1863 are the Gullah-Geechee people, whose heritage remains entrenched in their African heritage.

An estimated 300,000 Gullah people live on the coastal land, most of it purchased by their ancestors in the 1800s to early 1900s, from South Carolina to northern Florida. Over time, they have struggled to hang on to their culture, which includes their unique language, a blend of 17th- and 18th-century English and African dialects.

Since the 1950s, much of their land - including their farms and the sweet grass fields harvested to make the woven baskets that sustained their community for generations - has been destroyed by development. As a result, many aspects of their culture, from cooking to storytelling, are becoming extinct.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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