President Barack Obama gave an important speech this past Tuesday on the “modern day slavery” of human trafficking. On the very next day, The New York Times ran an article on the injustice looming over direct descendants of slaves here in the United States. Those descendants—the Geechee of Sapelo Island, Georgia—stand to lose their once “invaluable” land for the same reason that most traditional black and brown cultures have: someone else has noticed that a profit can be made by taking it.
The Sapelo Island dispossession is the latest example of the way in which our economy creates and thrives off of inequity. It comes during a year in which the systemic separation of people of color from their land, both in the United States and around the world, has reached a fever pitch. These larger issues require massive action by national governments and official international organizations.
However there might be an important opportunity for wealthy individuals and dedicated NGOs to save a distinct black culture in our own backyard that needs our help to survive. People of color and the organizations focused on them should be high on the list to get involved. The creation of a land trust for the people of Sapelo Island, given their history, might be the right thing at exactly the right time.
The Geechee or Gullah (the designation depends on geography, language or usage) are a unique set of African-based cultures scattered along the outer island coast from North Carolina to Florida. Their forebears were brought to the United States from rice producing civilizations along the West African coast. Residents in communities that stretched from present day Sierra Leone to Benin were targeted by slavers for their special economic skills. Colonists in the Americas needed West African agricultural prowess to turn a profit in the new terrain, which was similar to that Africans had made productive more than a thousand years before.
The economic know-how of Geechee ancestors transformed the Sea Islands into one of the wealthiest areas in the United States. Before the Mississippi Valley was taken from Native peoples and transformed into a slave-economy of cotton, sea island plantations were some of the most productive in the country. In the early 19th century, the Sea Islands were the Saudi Arabia of the American South. In due course, the Civil War arrived on the coast and destroyed an economic way of life based on stolen land and bonded labor.
The Geechees, through several turns of history, eventually took possession of the land that they had worked since before the Declaration of Independence. In economic hardship and isolation, the Geechees preserved their unique culture, language, and spiritual beliefs. But since the 1950s that way of life has come under increasing pressure from the broader society that had first used and then abandoned them. Land that was once overlooked became desirable again.
Given its climate and location, Geechee land is prime property for tourist hotels and big vacation homes. The built-up luxury resort of Hilton Head Island in South Carolina was mostly Gullah-inhabited just 50 years ago. Having transformed other parts of the costal archipelago, such as St. Simmons and Amelia Islands into similar tourist destinations, there are less and less Geechee enclaves to seize and flip for profit. That’s why Sapelo Island is in the crosshairs.
As the Times details, most of the private property on Sapelo Island is Geechee owned. Sitting on scarce property, their coastal land has attracted the attention of investors, who have been slowly buying it.
These below-the-radar purchases have suddenly led to a massive tax reassessment by the local government of Geechee property. In just one year taxes have leapt for many cash-strapped residents by a whopping 500 percent. The sky-high tax bills could accomplish what others have been unable to do so far: clear the island of the Geechee through the legal dispossession of their property.
Geechee “history makes it hard for people to believe county officials who say there is no effort to push them from their land,” writes Times reporter Kim Severson. “The whole thing smells,” adds longtime island resident Jasper Watts.
Beyond Sapelo Island
The Sapelo Island dispossession exemplifies the larger problem of modern land-taking from people of color around the world.
Here in the United States foreclosures have separated millions of black and brown Americans from their property. Four out of 10 of the nearly 10 million people who’ve been foreclosed are black and Latino.
Like the residents of Sapelo Island, these men and women lost ownership due to circumstances largely beyond their control. Banks steered credit worthy people of color into dodgy home loans. Once the loans went sour, as they were sure to do, blacks and Latinos were forced into bankruptcy and on the street.
Now those same banks that made the loans and hustled homeowners out are profiting from the mess they created.
Presently, Wall Street is spending billions of dollars to buy these foreclosed homes and rent them back to the very people from whom they took them. The loss of property by blacks and Latinos due to this foreclosure racket has led the net worth in communities of color to plunge to the lowest level on record. Black and brown wealth has been transferred to the balance sheet of America’s largest banks.
The same dynamic is at work in the ongoing process of “gentrification” in urban America. Black and brown neighborhoods that were impoverished, due to intentional neglect by banks and municipalities, have suddenly been labeled as desirable. The same banks that helped create urban distress are profiting from it as they dispense new loans to mostly “hipster and high income sophisto professional” newcomers, as Forbes Magazine contributor Joel Kotkin calls them. In the process, money is made by ushering out traditional residents who couldn’t get banks to make mortgages for 40 years.
According to Forbes, Brooklyn, with the highest concentration of gentrifying ZIP codes in the country, is now the second most expensive place in America to live. That’s no accident. Brooklyn also has the highest foreclosure rate of any neighborhood in New York City.
In Africa and Latin America, investors have bought up an area the size of Western Europe from cash-strapped governments for as little as .75 cents an acre. Similar land in the U.S. sells for as much as $12,000 an acre.
As they gain possession, financial firms push millions of subsistence farmers off their newly owned assets. Over 700,000 people are being forced from property in Ethiopia to make way for one agricultural project alone. These Ethiopians’ forbearers have worked that land for longer than anyone can remember.
In the space created by the forced removal of local people, industrial farms are set up to feed the rest of the wealthy world. What was once dedicated to support communities and families is now solely dedicated to generate profit.
The larger trend of land-grabbing in the United States and around the world will require significant action to reverse it. In this election year, it’s a demand that should be made.
But the problems of the Geechee on Sapelo Island are solvable right now.
An investigation into the timing and legality of the tax reassessments should be considered. According to the Times, such a review by the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department is already possibly underway.
Another longterm option is the creation of a land trust for the Geechee residents. A trust, funded by people and organizations with means could underwrite the tax obligations of the Geechee; create terms for the intergenerational transfer of the property; and restrict the sale of Geechee land supported by the trust.
Whatever might be done, it should happen fast. This has already been a banner year for black and brown land dispossession. Movement on this issue is important.
As I’ve written, our slave history has a geography. That landscape, like Sapelo Island itself, helps to form our collective memory. That memory reminds us of who we are and where we come from. Sadly, the same economic forces that bonded Africans in the first place are helping to erase it.