Several decades ago, my parents took a timeshare tour on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. The island was in the early stages of being transformed into a resort destination. This metamorphosis was the brainchild of real estate developer Charles Fraser, who, in the 1950s, envisioned turning the sparsely populated, rural island into an ultra-extravagant paradise. Luxury resorts and modern retirement communities—almost all with “plantation” in their names—soon overtook the island. Trendy restaurants and upscale boutiques suddenly dotted the landscape, while private yachts constantly cruised the waterways.
Although the barrier island is very small—you could run around the whole thing in a 12-mile loop—developers somehow managed to squeeze 26 18-hole golf courses onto it. Today, Hilton Head Island is one of the top vacation destinations in the United States.
But it wasn’t always this way. Hilton Head is one of several formerly Black-owned islands, whose transformation came at a heavy, painful cost for decades—all thanks to a shady legal practice that one U.S. attorney describes as “the worst problem you’ve never heard of.” This loophole has robbed millions of acres from Black Americans in multiple Southern states over the past century. Worst of all, it’s still happening—and getting worse.
To understand what is happening, one need to look no further than the Gullah-Geechee nation, a rich, uniquely American culture, developed from the descendants of enslaved people on the islands of the Southeast coast.
Hilton Head is part of this chain of barrier islands, located at the end of the South Carolina coastline. In the 1800s, hundreds of plantations were worked by thousands of enslaved people along the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina. The island plantations were distinct in that the plantation owners did not want to live there; the islands were hard to access, extraordinarily hot, muggy, alligator-infested, and susceptible to diseases because of the mosquitoes. Unlike their counterparts in the mainland, island plantations were populated solely by enslaved people and their overseers.
When America’s Civil War broke out, most of the plantation owners decided their land wasn’t worth the trouble and simply abandoned them. The formerly-enslaved people were left behind. Fortunately, they not only managed to survive their circumstances, but thrive.
These newly freed people established their own independent society, one which preserved their African linguistic and cultural heritage. They developed an English-based Creole language called Gullah, which later became the accepted name for their people and culture. Geechee became the name associated with islanders from Georgia, while South Carolina islanders are still associated with the term Gullah. Both names are derived from West African tribal names.
The communities were very successful at farming and fishing, selling their products on the open market. Many of the islanders already knew how to grow rice from living in West Africa, and the islands were soon covered with thousands of acres of rice fields.
The Gullah-Geechee people were also able to do something truly remarkable for Black Americans during that time period: They purchased their own land. Using what might be called “crowdfunding” today, the community at large contributed what they had, all so that its members could own the land beneath their feet. As a result, the Gullah-Geechee were the first African Americans in North America to own a large amount of land en masse.
Gullah-Geechee land was passed down to their descendants over generations. Unfortunately, this was done largely without legal documentation. There were several reasons for this, with one large factor being that Black Americans were not afforded access to legal resources. The few who did were not treated fairly by the all-white Southern court system.
Land handed down to a property owner’s children without legal documentation is referred to as “heirs property.” Without a clear title or will, heirs don’t technically hold the land, but do inherit an interest—like owning stock in a company. This ownership system is common in the Gullah-Geechee corridor, but can also be found in other impoverished regions throughout the South, such as on certain Native American tribal lands and in Appalachia.
U.S. law has few protections for heirs property, and the problems are enormous. Willie Heyward, an attorney for heirs property owners, tells me that communal ownership of land is common in Africa, but is “diametrically opposed” to the English common law system from which state laws are derived.
Since heirs property is owned “in common” by all living heirs, that means everyone has the same claim to the land, regardless of whether or not they live on it, pay taxes on it, or even if they’ve ever set foot on it. Sometimes, there also can be hundreds of heirs for one small piece of property.
People who live on heirs property have no clear title to the land, which makes it impossible to access any kind of governmental assistance to help them keep it. Unless they can track down every person that could possibly have a claim to the property, and everyone agrees, then they cannot get a mortgage, participate in any federal program, or use the property as collateral to get a loan—even an agricultural one. A lot of heirs properties are also in disaster-prone areas, but owners can’t access FEMA resources. Over $165 million in recovery funds from Hurricane Katrina went unclaimed due to title issues with this type of property ownership, according to a Louisiana real estate attorney.
Worst of all, heirs property is very susceptible to being stolen, and often is.
It isn’t uncommon for a descendant to build a home on their heirs property, live there for their entire lives, and then be completely uprooted by just one out-of-state relative who has no connection to the community. A developer can approach any descendant, no matter how far removed, and compel them to allege a claim on the property, even if that descendant’s share is just 1/100th of a percent. All heirs property is divided into shares; if one individual wants to sell their share, they can legally force the entire property to be sold—and legally displace those heirs living on that property—by asking the judge for their share’s dollar value.
In South Carolina, at least, there is a law that allows heirs property owners to buy out the share of the individual who wants to sell, but that rarely happens because of the high cost. To give you an idea, in Hilton Head, the going rate for an acre of land was $60 in the 1950s. Today, it’s over $800,000 an acre, and that’s before the newly sky-high property taxes. It’s not even just the cost of the land: Heirs fighting to keep their homes must also pay for the attorney fees, court costs, survey fees, appraisal costs, and more, which can run into tens of thousands of dollars. Further, it’s often simply unfeasible to subdivide the land if there are too many heirs. The heirs’ options are very limited: sell the land at a court auction, usually for pennies on the dollar, or go along with the development.
Recently, another project took 20 acres of Hilton Head heirs property. The judge at least asked that consideration be given to the Gullah people already living there, and the developer did set aside two acres for eight mobile homes. The Island paper reported it as a victory for the Gullahs, but although they have a place to stay, they no longer have any claim to the land.
The heirs property system is the leading cause of involuntary land loss among African Americans. It’s not the only cause, but since 1910, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, this system has been responsible for African American landowners losing 80% of the farming land owned by previous generations. The loss of land is a major contributor to America’s racial wealth gap, as Black families are being robbed of the chance to build generational wealth with real-estate. Ask any investor, and they will tell you that real estate is the safest and steadiest way to build wealth in this nation. It’s no coincidence that Black Americans are the ones primarily being targeted.
In North Carolina’s Carteret County, Black families only make up 6% of the population, but account for 42% of all heirs property cases. Two brothers with homes and a shrimping business in Carteret had their land taken without their knowledge or consent. They were ordered to stay off the land where they were baptized, and where they had grown up. They refused to leave. A hearing was scheduled in 2011, and the men, Melvin and Licurtis Reels, showed up to argue their case. Instead, the judge ordered that they go to jail for not leaving the land. The Reels brothers served nearly eight years without a conviction before they were released, making them two of the longest-serving inmates for civil contempt in U.S. history.
The Reels brothers aren’t alone. Heirs property stories are heartbreaking, and often involve shady tactics by the developers.
When Jessica Wiggins’ uncle called her to say that a man was trying to buy his interest in their family’s land, she didn’t believe him; he had dementia. Then, in 2015, she learned that a company called Aldonia Farms had purchased the interests of four heirs, including her uncle, and had filed a partition action. “What got me was we had no knowledge of this person,” Wiggins told me, of the man who ran Aldonia....
Last fall, Wiggins and her relatives gathered for the auction of the property on the courthouse steps in the town of Windsor. A bronze statue of a Confederate soldier stood behind them. Wiggins’ cousin Danita Pugh walked up to Aldonia Farms’ lawyer and pulled her deed out of an envelope. “You’re telling me that they’re going to auction it off after showing you a deed?” she said. “I’m going to come out and say it. The white man takes the land from the black.”
But there are ways to fight back.
I was fortunate enough to speak with Jeffrey Winget, director of communications at the Center for Heirs Property in Charleston, South Carolina. His nonprofit organization has a dedicated mission: preserving heirs property and providing educational and legal services to heirs property owners. Their legal team works with the Gullah-Geechee people to remove any type of lien from other parties that would pose a question to legal ownership, known as clearing title. Once they clear title, the Center then helps landowners gain access to forestry grants and agricultural programs. The Center’s goal is to get the original inhabitants to hold onto their land, so they can create generational wealth.
Winget told me that the organization’s mission is to get rid of heirs property entirely, but not in the same way the developers are doing it. If people can hold clear legal documentation to their property, and living owners can have wills drawn up, the land will be protected from greedy lawyers and corrupt speculators. If their mission is successful, Winget’s organization will eventually be put out of business. Unfortunately, the Center may go out of business for the worst reason: There are only roughly 100,000 acres left of heirs property in the South, after millions of acres were taken in the past century.
On Hilton Head Island, development is almost at full capacity. The Gullahs had lived and farmed 25,000 acres until it was taken by developers. Today, the Gullah are crammed in small areas of under 1000 acres. There are only a few remaining who actually live on the island, and what’s left is in danger of being taken as well. A Gullah employee on the island told me that he had to move his entire extended family off the island, after a distant relative forced them to sell their property.
For all my years visiting my parents’ timeshare, I didn’t know much about the original inhabitants. I would marvel at all the mansions on the marshy waterways, never once considering how they got there. I know I’m not the only one. At the very least, however, that is changing. When the Democrats took back Congress in 2006, they established the "Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act," which provided $10 million for the preservation and interpretation of historic sites relating to Gullah culture. Other preservation efforts followed, and recently the Gullahs have enjoyed a renewed interest in their culture.
Historians and anthropologists are now studying their roots, and linguists are researching their language. Harvard offers a Gullah course, and there is now a translation of the Bible in the Gullah language. First Lady Michelle Obama proudly incorporated her Gullah heritage into her husband’s 2008 inauguration. Throughout the South, including Hilton Head, there are now bus tours, restaurants, festivals, events, and museums dedicated to this fascinating and unique American culture.
Although it’s wonderful that the Gullah-Geechee people are finally being acknowledged and celebrated for their contributions, it’s tragic that it comes when their communities are being destroyed and their people are being scattered away from their homeland on the islands. Attorney Willie Heyward is clear that time is running out. “As each generation dies, more and more heirs have an interest in the family property. Realistically there is approximately one more decade for the heirs to have the ability to clear title and to maintain that property in the family, without some dramatic changes in the law.”
It’s sadly ironic. Americans across the country have finally gained a true appreciation for this unique culture and people, but at the same time, it only comes as efforts succeed to bring their very way of life to an end.