In Hilton Head, a dispute over a shed and a porch captures the plight of local Black landowners
93-year-old Josephine Wright’s case is part of a larger fight between the Gullah Geechee and beachfront developers
HILTON HEAD, S.C. – Josephine Wright walks out of her house and onto the family land, her gait strong for someone who is 93 years old. She is the embodiment of that famous saying, “Black don’t crack,” and she can’t wait to tell you the story of her people.
The tiny timekeeper will tell you about her family history, how she was named after her great-grandmother, who lived to be 113. She’ll tell you about her people’s roots in New York and South Carolina, and how the secret to her longevity is “keeping her mind active.” The paintings on the wall, the family photos – even the flooring – are all slivers of her lifetime. For those of us who had the good fortune to sit with our grandmothers, covered by their prayers and filled by their home cooking, Wright’s house is a familiar time capsule.
Whether this fragment of history is being buried or unearthed is a matter of perspective. In February, Wright and her former daughter-in-law, Dolores Richardson Wright, were sued by Georgia developer Bailey Point Investment, which plans to build a housing subdivision next door. Bailey Point alleged that the Wrights had “various personal property and improvements which encroach” on their property – including a satellite dish, a shed and the front porch – that “significantly delayed and hindered” development.
Wright filed a counterclaim in April, which alleged, among other things, that Bailey Point had previously offered to acquire her property and was informed that it was not for sale. What followed was “a consistent and constant barrage of tactics of intimidation, harassment, trespass, to include this litigation in an effort to force her to sell her property,” according to the counterclaim. Lawyers for Bailey Point denied those allegations in a response to the counterclaim.
A state-mandated mediation session for both lawsuits is slated for Sept. 14. Development of the Bailey’s Cove subdivision has been delayed until the “property dispute is resolved,” according to a statement from the town government.
Partly because of its location in a famous resort area and partly because of the long history of Black folks in this country having to constantly fight for their right to own land, Wright’s plight has attracted national attention, including donations from filmmaker Tyler Perry, rapper Snoop Dogg, singer Fantasia and Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving.
“They have bullied a lot of Black – not only Blacks, but whites on this island to get their property,” Wright said, speaking generally about developers in an interview with Andscape. “They have gotten it because they didn’t fight to get it, to keep it. They thought they had no way of fighting them, so they gave up.
“My position is that what God gave us, we keep,” she added. “I’ve raised my children, my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren … to value this property.”
Wright’s property is in the historic Gullah neighborhood of Jarvis-Jonesville. The conflict over these lands date back to the Civil War, when Underground Railroad conductor and Union Army spy Harriet Tubman operated in these marshes. Fast-forward 160 years, and the Gullah-Geechee corridor, which spans from Jacksonville, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, is under pressure. Hilton Head Island is a harrowing example of how Gullah lands have been lost to beachfront developers.
One major reason for the loss is the instability of “heirs’ property,” which is property passed down without a will. As a result, multiple family members share ownership and each one can sell their interest. The legal problems associated with heirs’ property has led Black landowners to lose title to millions of acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
This loss of land is an ongoing concern for Luana Graves Sellars, an activist and historian who is the founder of the Lowcountry Gullah Foundation.
“I grew up in New York, on Long Island and I had two aunts who I, when I was a child, would always say that they were Geechee, but they never said what that meant,” said Sellars. “I just didn’t know what it was until I started doing the writing that I’m doing. … I didn’t realize that going back to my aunts, it was also a journey of my own self-discovery and my culture.”
As sure as the marsh turns into the sea, Gullah land ownership is quickly evaporating.
“Just on Hilton Head, in 1956, the Gullah owned 3,500 acres of land. The most recent count was done in 2017 by the Gullah-Geechee Task Force, and it was around a thousand acres,” Sellars said. “I’m currently doing a count and it is far less than 900 acres, and I think it will probably shake out around 700 acres.
“It’s eroding like that everywhere.”
Sellars spoke specifically about Wright’s plight and the challenge that people in the corridor face.
“My heart breaks for her because she is tiny. My grandmother is 98 years old. So when I think of Josephine Wright, I think of my grandmother,” Sellars said. “But there are easily a thousand Josephines. … They may not be pressuring that person to the extent that Josephine is getting pressured. But I have friends who every day they get a text or an email or a call: ‘Don’t you wanna sell your land?’ ”
There may be a “thousand Josephine Wrights,” but the response to the dueling lawsuits has been singular. Donors, including celebrities, have donated more than $300,000 to her GoFundMe campaign.
“In my struggle here on Hilton Head Island … I find that I’m not alone,” Wright said in a thank you video. “I wanna thank each and every one of you, because without your help, I don’t know what I would do.”
The nearby town of Mitchelville was the first self-governed town of the formerly enslaved in the U.S.
“When it comes to heirs’ property or Gullah land ownership, there’s blood in the soil,” Sellars said. “You can’t put a price on that because it is the heritage and the legacy that someone took the time to go out and purchase for their family so their family had a place to live for generations. That’s why the land is so important, because it is directly tied to the generational wealth of the culture.”
Wayne O’Bryant, a Charleston native and historian, is a child of Gullah-Geechee culture and Black resistance. He described how Beaufort County, which includes Hilton Head Island, was central to the story of Black freedom.
“Down on the coast of South Carolina was where the Civil War started because the first shots were fired down there in Charleston,” O’Bryant said. “The Union wanted to attack Charleston as their first area in trying to take back the South, but Charleston was very well-guarded … so it was difficult to attack by sea.
“What they did was sail past Charleston, about 20 miles down to Beaufort County, because they weren’t as well protected,” he added. “When the Union ship showed up in Beaufort County, when those slave masters weren’t expecting to see [the Union Army], they all panicked and fled inland, which left 10,000 formerly enslaved people out there free all of a sudden.”
O’Bryant described the Battle of Port Royal in November 1861 as the “beginning of freedom,” and the courage of those first Black military units yielded the promise of Mitchelville and Fort Howell, which protected the town. The people had fought for their freedom. And what of the land?
“White plantation owners didn’t even want to live here because of malaria and yellow fever. It’s buggy, it’s hot, it’s humid. So that’s why the majority of Gullah owned this land, because nobody really wanted it,” Sellars said. “Fast-forward to now, obviously it is the most highly demanded land in the United States because it’s on the coast.”
Much like fighting for one’s freedom is part of the American story, so, too, are the stories of Indigenous cultures under siege.
“When you think of it that way, and you realize that the [Native Americans] had land, and the Hawaiians had land, and we know what happened to their cultures,” Sellars said. “They still exist, but when it’s not tied to the land and it’s not tied to community, the culture then diminishes, the traditions then diminish. So that’s why it’s vitally important that Gullah land has staying power for those future generations and the preservation of the culture.”
There is a painting in Wright’s living room of her and her late husband, Samuel Wright Sr., who died in 1998 from pancreatic cancer. This home, this land, was supposed to be their post-retirement refuge.
Samuel Wright, a descendant of Gullah-Geechee people, looks stately in the painting. He has a faint widow’s peak and wears a black suit and bright white tie, the shirt underneath looking like potter’s clay. Some say Josephine Wright looks like either singer Janelle Monae or actress Diahann Carroll.
There’s something implied in the painting, even though Samuel Wright has been gone for 25 years: the presence of family. In heirs’ property conflicts, any one of the owners of a property can “partition” off their portion. Wright’s family is made of stronger stuff.
Charise and Tracey Graves not only share hints of their grandmother’s appearance, but her resolve. Charise Graves has her matriarch’s smile, and Tracey has her brown skin tone. They have have taken their family’s fight to international prominence.
“By my grandmother being 93, I thought it would be best that she had somebody to lean on through this ordeal,” Charise Graves said. “I didn’t want her to feel bombarded with all the things that came with it after it got publicized. So, you know, you just do your part.”
They want to use the money from the GoFundMe campaign to create a nonprofit that would make Wright’s property a historic site and provide aid and stability to families with heirs’ property.
“I get several emails with people asking me, well, how did you do it. How did you get them to stop?” Charise Graves said. “I would love to help other people, just show them there is a platform.
“[My grandmother], this beautiful woman just stood up and said, ‘No, you’re not just gonna do what you want to do and take what I had in my family my whole life.’ I love it. She is an inspiration.”
There is a large weeping willow in Wright’s front yard. And yet, Josephine Wright and her family are not weeping. Their roots are strong. She mentioned the history of Black freedom fighters who demanded justice, and said she felt compelled to do the same.
“As a community of Black people, we are always moving forward,” Wright said. “What did you do with Harriet Tubman? What did you do with Thurgood Marshall? These are people that reached out to dare to walk into the waters of America. And this is what I’m doing.”