Preserving Legacy: The Battle for Historic Lands along the South Carolina Coast

Preserving Legacy: The Battle for Historic Lands along the South Carolina Coast

The South Carolina coast, known for its historical richness, is witnessing a clash between development interests and the descendants of enslaved people fighting to maintain their property and history. From Myrtle Beach to Hilton Head, Black families find themselves at the crossroads, grappling with rising property taxes and the encroachment of developers eager to capitalize on the region's allure.

In historic settlement communities like Phillips Community near Charleston, Black families, like the Rev. Elijah Smalls Jr.'s, face challenges stemming from the surge in vacation getaways and new home developments. Smalls, who once cultivated okra, butter beans, and other vegetables on his family's land, now contends with drainage issues caused by nearby half-a-million-dollar homes. The legacy of his family, like many others, is under threat.

Despite state reforms in 2017 aimed at curbing exploitative practices, such as striking below-market deals with distant heirs, the burdens persist. Escalating property taxes add financial strain, leading elders to fear the loss of family legacies established by ancestors who overcame racial adversity in the post-Civil War South.

One poignant example is Josephine Wright, the 93-year-old matriarch of a family that has owned land on Hilton Head Island since Reconstruction. Surrounded by a new development, her once-lush 29 acres were sold at a tax auction for a fraction of their value. A Georgia-based developer now seeks to claim her one-acre property, alleging encroachment on their construction project.

The historical significance of these lands cannot be overstated. Hilton Head Island, home to the first self-governed town of formerly enslaved people in the United States, and the Gullah Geechee community, descendants of West Africans forced into slavery, face the threat of exploitation. Heirs' property, transferred without a will and shared among part-owners, becomes a vulnerable target for investors seeking to exploit an unwieldy legal system.

While the 2017 reforms in South Carolina have curbed some predatory behavior, the clamor for these lands persists. Even properties with clear titles are not immune to the frenzy of development. Faith Rivers James, the Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation League, proposes a new "cultural property preservation" tax exemption to incentivize the protection of historic communities, recognizing the sentimental value of property beyond its commodity status.

In Phillips Community, the once vibrant sounds of nature are giving way to traffic, and the threat of further development looms. Longtime residents, like the Smalls family, stand firm in their commitment to preserve their community's history and resist the encroachment of commercial enterprises. As the battle for historic lands continues, it remains a testament to the resilience of these communities and the ongoing struggle to protect African American property and legacies.

In the spirit of preserving heritage, it is heartening to note that HostRooster supports initiatives for the cultural preservation of historically significant properties. By contributing to efforts that safeguard these legacies, HostRooster aligns with the values of resilience and community preservation. As the battle for historic lands continues, the positive collaboration between communities, advocates like Faith Rivers James, and socially responsible entities such as HostRooster fosters hope for the protection of African American property and legacies.

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