Josephine Wright can finally enjoy a bit of good news after eight months of fighting in court over her land in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. While the dispute isn’t over, the 93-year-old is getting a newly built, five-bedroom home on her property.
For more than 30 years, Wright has lived on the land, which has been in her late husband’s family since after the Civil War. After refusing to sell the land to Bailey Point Investment LLC earlier this year, the company sued her. They are constructing a 29-acre neighborhood with 147 housing units that engulfs Wright’s property. It claims Wright has three encroachments that bleed onto its property.
Capital B previously reported the intimidation and harassment she says she endured at the hands of the company, which include people trespassing onto her property; snakes in her window; and dirt and debris left on her automobile and house. Since the story was published, the Wright family has received support nationwide, including donations from superstars Snoop Dogg and Kyrie Irving, and now a home from media mogul Tyler Perry, according to her granddaughter Charise Graves.
However, Wright is still in a legal fight over the land. The Beaufort County Court of Common Pleas appointed a mediator, who has 300 days from Sept. 18 to resolve the land dispute. Unlike Wright, many Black landowners struggle to raise money, get media attention, or access resources that could help. In fact, since June, several Black landowners in the rural South have reached out to Capital B about the possibility of losing their land.
Some people, such as Black farmers in rural Tennessee, are dealing with eminent domain — a process that allows the government to take private property to convert to public use. Others say they have heirs’ property issues, “the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss,” according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Heirs’ property is created when land is passed down in the absence of a will.
Without clear ownership, it can result in issues with financing or building on the land, said Luana Graves Sellars, community activist and founder of the Hilton Head-based Lowcountry Gullah Foundation.
“With heirs’ property, let’s say you’ve been living there for 20 years, paying the taxes, maintaining the land, you don’t own that land. There are other people who have a percentage on it,” Graves Sellars said. “And because you don’t own that land, you can’t get a mortgage, you can’t get financing, you can’t use it as collateral. … You can’t do anything, your hands are tied.”
Whether it’s eminent domain, heirs’ property, or economic development, most families don’t know where to look for information. There are few resources available, Graves Sellars said, which can cause frustration and lead to people giving up the land.
This is why she started her organization which provides financial assistance, education, and resources to help preserve the historic Gullah Geechee land on the Sea Islands in South Carolina. Most of the cases she encounters are heirs’ property disputes, which led to a 90% decline in Black-owned farmland between 1910 and 1997.
Capital B spoke with Graves Sellars about her work and resources available to help families. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Capital B: Given the issues with Black land loss, what are the ways in which your foundation helps families hold on to their land?
Luana Graves Sellars: We have actually stepped in and paid for people’s [property] taxes when they can’t afford it. Just to give you a couple of examples, this year we had a veteran who lost his job and then wound up getting an amputation a month before the tax sale. Just a few weeks later, another woman had a stroke. So those are the kind of people that I’m talking to, who are stressed out and frustrated and don’t know where to turn. There aren’t a lot of places where you can go where you can get funding. We try not to be a Band-Aid, or a crutch, but a partner.
Let’s say your taxes are $3,000 and you have $2,000, but you’re short that $1,000. That’s how we’ll help. If you don’t have anything, we’ll help you, too, but we want to make sure that people have skin in the game and are invested in the process, as well as giving them the tools and the resources like financial planning, heirs’ property information on where they are in their situation, or how to get it resolved. So that’s one part of what we do. The other thing is that we hold workshops with all of the different entities. Heirs’ property land issues, for example, have specific needs that need to be checked off before you can even start to deal with it.
Heirs’ property is one of the biggest contributors to land loss in the Black community. How do you navigate those situations?
First of all, most people don’t even know they’re living on heirs’ property until there’s a problem. Maybe somebody dies and the question of what are we going to do with the land or there’s an error comes up. Figuring out the problem can take a year. Sometimes five years or even longer. I’ll also tell you that there are 11 states that have heirs’ property, from Virginia to Texas.
People don’t realize that when it comes to heirs’ property, you might have hundreds or even thousands of heirs that are all entitled to a percentage of that property. That’s where that frustration comes in because you have to identify all of those people, and come up with an agreement between all of those people legally with the property.
Genealogy is really the first step to unraveling the heirs’ property issue. From there, you have to get to an agreement. Most attorneys won’t even take [your case] unless you have that genealogy piece worked out first. If you don’t, if the attorney is going to do it, it’s really going to cost you. There are places to go to get your genealogy done, but that’s just part of the process.
Unfortunately, in South Carolina, one of those heirs can force a partition sale. That should change in the law because it should be the majority of the minority. There are also legal obstacles that exist that need to be changed in order to make it better.
Aside from genealogy, are there specific documents — such as tax assessment records, titles or deeds — that someone should have on file that could help?
The first problem, especially for Black people, is we don’t have wills. That’s the first line of defense that people have. If someone purchased it in 1870, they didn’t have a will. They just passed their family down the line because no one has had a will. The first one, for people in general, whether heirs’ property or not, is getting a will. Then, the other documents you mentioned.
For the will, there are free will clinics out there. We do several a year. Then, have a succession plan and start the conversation. It is painful to see the amount of Gullah land that is evaporating every single day because people don’t know. They’re not paying attention or there’s some unscrupulous developer who’s chomping at the bit trying to get the land.
What other helpful resources, information, or organizations are available?
My foundation, the Low Country Gullah Foundation. My foundation is small, so we’ve only been dealing with Beaufort County in South Carolina, but I do get calls from around the state to help people. We can guide people, as far as what needs to be done. We are in the process of putting together a step-by-step guide, things that you can do on a monthly basis to get through the process.
The Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation. They are extending their work to other states outside of South Carolina. They will help you, but again, if you don’t have your heirs lined up, they’ll kick you back to get that taken care of before they can get into the legal side of what you need to do.
The Black Family Land Trust Inc. is a North-Carolina based organization focused on the preservation and protection of historically underserved landowners assets, including land.
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives fights for land retention through advocacy, outreach, education, and direct technical assistance. The organization has offices in the South: Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas.
Do you have other resources to help Black landowners preserve their land? Email rural issues reporter Aallyah Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org