by James Pollard
Associated Press/Report for America
PHILLIPS COMMUNITY, S.C.—The Rev. Elijah Smalls Jr. once grew okra, butter beans and other vegetables in the neighborhood where his family has lived near the South Carolina coast since not long after the Civil War. That was before new half-a-million-dollar homes in a nearby subdivision overwhelmed the drainage system.
Runoff meant for sewers now pools in the 80-year-old veteran’s backyard, making gardening impossible. Smalls and his relatives are among the many original families still living in historic settlement communities around Charleston. People who had been enslaved at Phillips Plantation bought patches of it to make their futures. Their descendants question whether the next generation can afford to stay.
“This is the only place I wanted to live and raise my family,” said Fred Smalls, standing outside the home where his two sons grew up.
All along the South Carolina coast, land owned by the descendants of enslaved people is being targeted by developers looking to make money on vacation getaways and new homes. From Myrtle Beach south to Hilton Head, Black landowners who inherited property have been embroiled in disputes with investors looking to capitalize on rising real estate values.
State reforms approved in 2017 provided what supporters described as “shark repellant”—a law that made it harder for developers to strike deals below market prices with distant heirs who had long since moved away.
But skyrocketing property taxes are creating a growing burden as assessments rise. Younger family members may not qualify for homestead exemptions and other tax breaks. Elders worry that their family legacies—established by formerly enslaved ancestors who acquired land despite entrenched racism across the defeated South—are slipping away.
Most of the hundreds who still live on the remaining 450 acres or so of Phillips Community trace their lineage to the founders. Residents enjoy the pace of the South Carolina Lowcountry in the settlement communities, where neighbors have long taken care of each other.
“If we don’t take steps to protect them, we’re going to lose them parcel by parcel,” said Coastal Conservation League Executive Director Faith Rivers James.
Orange mesh fencing lines the dirt expanse of a new development site that encircles the ranch-style house where Josephine Wright has taken her stand. The 93-year-old woman is the matriarch of a family that has owned land on Hilton Head Island since Reconstruction.
“I’m being surrounded, really,” Ms. Wright said recently in the Brooklyn accent she picked up before returning to her late husband’s home 30 years ago in Jonesville Historic Gullah Neighborhood. They wanted tranquility as his Parkinson’s disease progressed. But gone is the lush greenery that once grew on 29 acres previously owned by other relatives bordering Wright’s home. A Georgia-based developer, Bailey Point Investment, LLC, broke ground last summer on a 147-unit vacation rental complex there.
Managers of her family’s trust failed to pay escalating tax bills. The land sold at a 2014 tax auction for just $35,000—a fraction of its current worth.
Then the investment company sued Ms. Wright, who owns her one acre separately. The company alleged that a corner of her screened-in porch, a shed, and a satellite dish encroached on the construction project. A lawyer for the company did not return a call from The Associated Press.
She suspects they want to run her off, but she’s not intimidated. NBA superstar Kyrie Irving and filmmaker Tyler Perry have lent their support. Town officials don’t intend to issue building permits until the case is closed. She says other residents have thanked her for holding out.
She expected to spend these days in peace. Her small home remains the gathering spot for an extended family that includes 40 grandchildren, generations whom she hopes will also enjoy the land.
“I just want to be able to live here in this sanctuary with a free mind,” Ms. Wright said.
The first self-governed town of formerly enslaved people in the United States was located on Hilton Head Island. Ms. Wright’s neighborhood gets its name from a Black Civil War veteran named Caesar Jones who had escaped enslavement and purchased more than 100 acres himself, finding refuge in marshland that had been dismissed by colonists as unsuitable for farming.
It’s hardly undesirable today. The advent of air conditioning helped make coastal land more appealing. New highways improved access to the coast, where population increases have made South Carolina the 10th fastest-growing state during the past decade.
Those searching for land found easy targets in the Gullah Geechee community, owned by descendants of West Africans who were forced into slavery on rice, indigo and cotton plantations along the Atlantic coast. They developed their unique culture on isolated islands, but their separation from the U.S. legal system left them vulnerable to exploitation.
Developers took advantage in many cases of what’s known as heirs’ property—land transferred from generation to generation without a will and shared equally by part-owners whose numbers balloon with each branch in the family tree. South Carolina developers could buy a single heir’s interest and wind up taking everything from outmatched families suddenly navigating an unwieldy system.
Heirs’ property is under threat throughout the Black Belt. Roughly five million acres over 11 states worth almost $42 billion collectively remain trapped in cloudy titles, according to the most conservative estimates from a 2023 study led by rural sociologist Ryan Thomson at Auburn University. It’s a strain acutely felt by Black landowners given the Deep South’s legacy of enslavement.
Some remaining owners are more determined than ever to stay.
Julia Campbell, 60, has spent two decades establishing a family tree to identify every heir with even the slimmest stake in the 25-acre John`s Island land her family has held since the 19th century. The former member of a Charleston group established to protect Black cemeteries emphasized that the ground itself bears witness to history.
It`s important for her to document, especially at a time when she said “some people want to close the book on us.”
“These people who could barely read or write were able to hold onto the property, “ she said. “We should be able to hold onto it.”
South Carolina’s 2017 reforms stymied some predatory behavior, according to Josh Walden of the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation. The Charleston-based non-profit has helped clear titles for over 3,000 tracts worth some $17.5 million since 2009, but his most modest estimates suggest about 40,000 tracts remain held in heirs’ property across six coastal counties alone.
Risk persists for those facing heightened assessments that come with exurban gentrification.
“Obviously, people are still looking for land,” Mr. Walden said. “They’re still approaching heirs’ property owners asking if they’ll sell their interests.”
The clamor for these lands is so feverish that even people with clear titles remain vulnerable. Ms. James calls it “the next frontier in preserving African American property.”
South Carolina tax law evaluates residential land at its highest usage a boon to sellers but a burden for those who want to stay.
“They’re not planning to take the money and run,” Phillips Community Association President Richard Habersham said of his neighbors. “They’re planning to pass it down.”
Ms. James has proposed that state lawmakers ease growing pains by passing a new “cultural property preservation” tax exemption to provide incentives to support historic communities, just like existing credits help preserve historic buildings.
A statewide measure could resemble local efforts. One ordinance blocked a golf course on Gullah Geechee land on St. Helena Island. Last month, the Beaufort County Council rejected a developer’s request to remove a 502-acre plot from a zoning district that bans gated communities and resorts in locations considered culturally significant. Other officials are soliciting feedback from Gullah Geechee and African American communities to identify historical sites in the Charleston area for preservation.
“Property is not just a commodity,” Ms. James said. “Property has a sentimental value that the law should recognize.”
That value became more elusive for Queen Mary Davis when a housing development next door restricted her access to a family cemetery by requiring her to gain admission from security guards.
A formerly enslaved ancestor named Dennis Allen purchased the first patches of what is now the family`s 31-acre property back in 1897. It`s nestled in a Hilton Head neighborhood that is home to some of the largest Gullah extended families.
But Ms. Davis, 70, could soon lose nearly a third of it. The land is stuck in a cumbersome legal dispute with other heirs dating back to 2009. A judge has ordered that 11 acres be placed on the market for $7 million. A previous deal fell apart after a North Carolina firm rescinded its $7.5 million offer.
The situation is an egregious example of sagas that attorney Willie Heyward has seen all too often during a 37-year career largely focused on heirs` property. He`s represented members on both sides of Davis’ contentious case at various points, and says many families get mired in costly, yearslong court battles that ultimately diminish the returns for everyone.
This generation of heirs’ property owners will be the last with numbers Mr. Heyward considers manageable about 250 relatives is the most he`s seen.
As family trees number thousands of people, any outcome other than land loss can become impractical a “crushing” prospect for his elderly clients clinging to the last vestiges of their ancestry.
Relatives interested in selling have a legal right to pursue that option, and defending land becomes especially difficult when families aren`t united. Heyward and James both want legislators to expand opportunities for mediation so resource-limited families don’t rack up legal fees trying to protect their interests.
What was once a vehicle for maintaining ownership has become an engine of its demise.
“I see a very dark future on the horizon if something is not done,” Mr. Heyward said.
Longtime residents report that Phillips Community sounds different nowadays. Traffic thrums along a busy road. The scuttle of fiddler crabs no longer accompanies walks to a nearby creek. Woods once filled with the calls of raccoon hunts have been replaced by a quiet subdivision.
And still more development looms. A private Charleston-based company has plans for several dozen houses in the center of the neighborhood, spreading closer to the 35 acres bought by the Smalls’ great-grandfather and largely kept within the bloodline since 1875. The Rev. Elijah Smalls Jr. said he’s heard rumblings about new commercial enterprises entering the frenzy.
“If that comes in, that would definitely be the death of the community,” he said.
Some of Smalls’ neighbors may have left, but the pastor says he`s not going anywhere. He built the brick house that sits right off Elijah Smalls Road. He can’t start over at his age, and nearby homes cost too much anyway.
Fred Smalls isn`t moving either. Wearing a black baseball cap with “ARMY” emblazoned in gold, he notes that many original members fought for their own freedom in the 128th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry. Paintings of 19th-century African American soldiers hang on his walls.
His Army service took him to Germany, Turkey, Alaska and Oklahoma. But he always knew he’d return.
James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.