As Tropical Depression Florence continues to bear down on the Carolinas, the residents of the coastal Gullah/Geechee Nation are doubly vulnerable—both to the natural disaster and land speculators who want to take over the historically Black region.
In “The Gullah-Geechee People Called Carolina’s Coast Home for Centuries. Then Florence Came,” published by Mother Jones today (September 18), journalist Laura Bliss investigates how heir’s property, the predominant type of land ownership in this region, puts residents in jeopardy of losing their homes and being denied post-storm assistance from the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Writes Bliss:
This form of land ownership, called heir’s property, became prevalent through the South after the end of the Civil War, when African Americans freed from slavery bought or were deeded property. Though a comprehensive survey has never been done, one academic study from 2001 estimated that 41 percent of African American-owned land across the Southeast could be classified this way. According to a survey by the Center for Heir’s Property Preservation, a legal aid nonprofit, more than 108,000 acres between 15 counties in the South Carolina Lowcountry—home to many low-income Black communities now threatened by Hurricane Florence—are likely heir’s property. “And we know that is an underreported number,” said Jennie L. Stephens, the organization’s executive director.
The Gullah/Geechee Nation consists of approximately 200,000 people who live on islands off the Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts. It became officially recognized in 2002. “They carry on a distinct culture rooted in West Africa, where many of their ancestors were enslaved by British traders in the colonial era,” reports Mother Jones. Because of their low-lying location, the region is often in the path of hurricanes and tropical storms.
The article follows one homeowner who lives on Pawleys Island in South Carolina. Her son, Sheldon Scott, relocated her to Washington, D.C to wait out the storm:
Like many Gullah/Geechee people, Scott’s mother does not have a clear-cut deed for the land where she lives. Though she owns the trailer on it, pays property taxes and utility fees, and has demonstrably deep connections to the land, the property has never been probated in a will that specifies the exact owner. So her interest in the land is subdivided between a large number of family members who descended from the original holder, centuries ago.
Under heir’s law, all of these family members have a legal say in any business related to the property, from repairs to refinancing:
In the midst of a natural disaster, these dynamics can leave heir’s properties uniquely threatened. When an owner goes to apply for disaster relief for her damaged home, but discovers her name isn’t on the deed, she will likely struggle to meet deadlines for state and federal assistance. Approximately 20,000 heir’s property owners were denied FEMA or HUD assistance following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, because they weren’t able to show clear titles to their property, according to a 2017 study by the USDA.
It is possible for heir’s property owners to gain control over their land, but it requires legal action—and that demands financial resources that many heir’s property owners do not have. Stephens’ organization, the Center for Heir’s Property Preservation, extends pro-bono legal assistance to families who must go to court to prove ownership. It generally takes a minimum of six months, and sometimes several years, to get everything in order—perform title searches, find heirs, pay for a land survey. “Usually FEMA has a window in which you can apply for relief funds,” Stephens said. “You can’t resolve heir’s property in a matter of weeks. So what does that do for a family who can’t access those funds?”
This reality made it difficult for many in New Orleans to get FEMA assistance after Hurricane Katrina, which hit the city in 2005. Nearly 25,000 New Orleans residents lacked clear titles to their homes, reports Mother Jones:
Hurricane Katrina awakened legal reformers to the extent of heir’s property issues through the Gulf Coast and up through the Southeast. As a result, FEMA is no longer quite as strict about the type of documentation owner-occupants must show to prove their right to the land. Several states have relaxed their disaster relief qualifications, too. Once state and federal relief funding packages are released for Florence, Pollock said, heir’s property owners will have a better sense of where they stand.
While it is now somewhat easier to get FEMA aid after a hurricane, the residents of the Gullah-Geechee islands must still contend with land speculators who want to take over their property and turn it into golf and vacation resorts. John Pollock, founder and coordinator of the Heirs’ Property Retention Coalition, said "he would not be surprised to see speculators grabbing up storm-wracked heir’s properties along the prime Carolina coast in the wake of Florence, if they manage to acquire interests in it,” writes Mother Jones, adding:
Scott described the potential loss of his family’s land on Pawleys Island as a distinction between a house and a home. “Most people evacuate with some assurance that, even if the house is gone, the home would still be accessible,” he said. For his family, Florence’s damage could be worse than that. Their ancestral land—their home for generations—could be gone, too.
Read the entire article here.