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. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

SC - Developers have Black families fighting to maintain property and history

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.

Rev. 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 Ms. 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 encroach on the construction project. A lawyer for the company did not return a call from The Associated Press.

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