Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: Law 'Waves' As Blacks Lose Land by Mike Gisick
A new law intended to stymie legal maneuvers used for decades to pry land primarily from black families in the Lowcountry offers little real protection and comes only after most of the land has been lost, local land advocates said.
But it's a step -- and that's more than 30 years of previous lobbying has accomplished, they said.
"It will help, but it doesn't go nearly far enough," Emory Campbell, the emeritus director of the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, said last week. "This kind of waves at the problem and acknowledges that it exists, but that's about all."
The new law, which received Gov. Mark Sanford's signature on May 25, gives families a 45-day exclusive window to buy out relatives seeking to sell their stake in family property.
Much of the traditionally black-owned land in the region has been passed down as heirs property from the freed slaves who bought it in the wake of emancipation. Under heirs property, all descendants of the original owner hold an equal, undivided stake in the land.
Today, that often leaves land owned by hundreds of heirs, many of whom may live hundreds of miles away and might never have stepped foot on the property. By purchasing the stake of even a single heir, developers and land speculators have in many cases been able to force the sale of entire pieces of property, often for a fraction of their true value, Campbell said.
With property values sky high throughout the Lowcountry and many families already struggling to pay taxes to hold onto their land, the 45-day window offers too little time for families to come up with the capital needed to hold off developers, he said.
"We're talking about big money," he said.
Even the legislator who guided the bill to unanimous passage in the S.C. House of Representatives in May acknowledged that it will likely have little impact.
"It's a very rare set of circumstances that it would have any effect at all," state Rep. Thayer Rivers, D-Ridgeland, said. "That's the only reason I got it through the House. Otherwise there would have been some big opposition."
Rivers said heirs property remained very popular with developers.
"It grows Yankees and golf courses just fine," he said.
Heirs property is one of the legal mechanisms that have transformed land ownership throughout the rural South during the last century. Of the 15 million acres of farmland once owned by Southern blacks, about 1 million acres remain in black hands, according to a 2001 investigation by The Associated Press. That massive land transfer has been accompanied by a variety of dubious legal and extralegal processes, including violence and murder, the AP found.
In the Lowcountry, descendants of freed slaves have lost control of several of the islands that once sheltered the descendants of freed slaves, known as the Gullah-Geechee culture. That includes Hilton Head Island, where advocates say something less than 900 black-owned acres remains of an original stake of about 10,000 acres.
State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Ridgeland, who co-sponsored the new law, said he recognized the law was only a first step and vowed to push for what are bound to be more controversial measures. They will include a "circuit-breaker" that would cap property taxes according to a family's ability to pay, he said. Pinckney said property owners also should be allowed to pay their property taxes in installments.
"We have to recognize that there is a clash of cultures at play here," he said. "We've got one culture that views the land as a birthright and one that views it solely as an investment. I'm not saying one is better than the other, but both deserve to be respected. Right now, the system is inherently unfair."
Pinckney said he believed frustration with rising property taxes was spreading into a growing segment of society in the Lowcountry, which he said could lend support to his reform efforts. But he acknowledged that significant opposition would remain.
"We've got what amounts to a new land baron class that has used the system to their great advantage for many years," he said.
Campbell said he was surprised that Sanford signed the new law and hoped it would be less a token than a signal of changing attitudes in Columbia.
Campbell said black land owners were beginning to take steps to protect their land. Some have formed limited liability companies to centralize control of property. But that can be a difficult and expensive process, and Campbell warned that time is running out to save even a meaningful remnant of the culture whose ways once defined the Lowcountry.
"There's not much time the way things are steamrolling," he said. "People are in the courthouse every day. They're being offered big money. There's not much time at all."
Contact Mike Gisick at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was published by The Beaufort Gazette
Wednesday, September 6, 2006