Black ExperienceBlack HistoryStacy M. Brown

Slave Descendants Fight to Save Land Inherited from Ancestors

Just about five miles east of Beaufort, S.C., a city still known for its antebellum mansions and relics of the transatlantic slave trade, sits St. Helena Island, where a community of slaves’ ancestors has called home since before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation 157 years ago.

It’s also home to Penn Center, where the children of freed slaves received schooling for the first time and where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put the finishing touches on his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

Today, the Gullah Geechee people of St. Helena Island are fighting to protect their lands and the legacy left by their ancestors, who toiled for lifetimes under the brutal oppression of slavery.

On Oct. 5, local tax officials held an auction of some of the property that sits on the island belonging to Gullah Geechee families.

Officials cited delinquent tax payments that have accumulated over the years.

But, while the reasoning might seem simple enough, a deeper dive reveals another aspect of systemic racism and the ongoing refusal of much of America to acknowledge the harm done by the slave trade.

The descendants who have lived in the Gullah Geechee community, which extends the coastal areas of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, possessed deeds but lacked titles to their properties.

Many in the community have discovered that their ancestors left no wills and never possessed a title.

That was mostly because of oppressive laws.

The freed slaves were deprived of an education and at the mercy of white men who sold the land for as little as $1.25 per acre and never provided appropriate sale documentation.

“The heirs don’t have a title in their names,” said Sará Reynolds Green, an activist and farmer who raises produce on the St. Helena plot of land passed down throughout her family’s generations.

Green has used her resources, including Facebook and a Go Fund Me campaign, to help raise money to buy back the land sold at auction for all community members.

She’s worked to raise funds for the Pan-African Family Empowerment and Land Preservation Network, which seeks to reduce land loss by paying the owners’ property taxes.

The organization also helps to educate property owners on how to lower their tax obligation.

“Those are our ancestors, and those are the ones who tilled the soil, who built this country to what it is,” Green declared.

“So they have paid their dues, and the only thing they could do was leave land for us. And we want to keep the land.”

Reportedly, as many as 173 St. Helena Island properties currently are delinquent on property taxes, owing about $215,000.

Although the auction has occurred, property owners still have one year to redeem their land, but Green said penalties would add up for as long as it takes to pay the outstanding balance.

“The land means our legacy,” Green told the Washington Informer.

“Most of that land has been passed down. My great grandfather purchased the land that I have in 1863 before he was officially emancipated. We’re still holding onto that land, and I plan to pass it on to my children because that’s the legacy of the Gullah Geechee people.”

According to a 2006 report, Gullah families lost 14 million acres of Gullah family property since the end of the Civil War, and slightly more than 1 million acres purchased by former slaves had remained in family hands.

Even media mogul Ted Turner purchased 68 acres of land on St. Helena Island in 2002. After a lengthy legal dispute, Turner said he’d donate the land back to the Gullah families.

Green said contractors have continued to develop around the area, and she knows they are gunning for the prime real estate where the Gullah families reside or run businesses.

“They have been developing and developing,” Green said.

“So, they want to snatch the land because the development means taxes in the area are extremely high, and land becomes more critical. Then consider that things are more critical now because of the systemic problem we face starts with many not earning a living wage. You compound that with COVID-19 and understand that many of the families are caregivers. It’s going to take legislation to help solve this problem we are facing because our people had little to begin with and even less now.”

The Gullah Geechee community counts as a proud people.

The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission on Johns Island, S.C., noted that its language began as a simplified form of communication among people who spoke many different tongues.

That includes European slave traders, slave owners, and diverse African ethnic groups.

“The vocabulary and grammatical roots come from African and European languages,” commission officials noted on their official website.

According to the commission, it’s the only distinctly African creole language in the United States, and it has influenced traditional Southern vocabulary and speech patterns.

The commission added that the ancestors brought the United States a rich heritage of African cultural traditions in art, foodways, and music.

“If we lose the land, we lose ourselves, we lose the people,” Green stated. “If we lose all of that, then we lose the entire culture.”

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Stacy M. Brown

I’ve worked for the Daily News of Los Angeles, the L.A. Times, Gannet and the Times-Tribune and have contributed to the Pocono Record, the New York Post and the New York Times. Television news opportunities have included: NBC, MSNBC, Scarborough Country, the Abrams Report, Today, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, Imus in the Morning and Anderson Cooper 360. Radio programs like the Wendy Williams Experience, Tom Joyner Morning Show and the Howard Stern Show have also provided me the chance to share my views.

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