In the long catalog of crimes against black people in this country, the stealingof their land is rarely mentioned.
In the last half century, sleazy lawyers and developers have colluded to steal hundreds of thousands of acres of southeastern coastal land — now worth billions of dollars — from poor and uneducated black landowners. Now lawyers are using their skills to put an end to this legal travesty. Will we ever hear of developers colluding with them on this venture?
The land in question is called heirs' property. It is land that is owned collectively by black families and passed from generation to generation, without benefit of a written deed. This is a tradition of land ownership that runs counter to English common law and it makes these black property owners vulnerable to ruthless developers and their lawyers.
When I was researching Banana Republic, my book about Myrtle Beach, I discovered the callousness with which poor blacks were bilked out of their land to make way for condos, strip malls, hotels, and the other forms of modern coastal development. Displaced from the land that many of them had lived on for generations, some were forced to take jobs housekeeping, washing dishes, or mowing lawns for others where they had once lived.
As if to rub salt into ancient wounds, developers then called their new golf courses, condominiums, and retirement communities "plantations." The allure of that word and its connotations seems irresistible to developers and their customers. Today, thousands of these pretentiously titled "plantations" dot the Carolina and Georgia coasts. A cursory glace at the Charleston phone book reveals Wedgewood Plantation Country Club, Legend Oaks Plantation Golf Course, Wescott Plantation Golf Club, Shadowmoss Plantation Golf Club, Plantation Oaks Apartments, Plantation Acres Mobile Home Park, Plantation Self Storage, Plantation Pharmacy, Plantation Wood Products ... and dozens of others.
This is how the scam works: A developer sends his lawyers to meet with members of a family that owns a desirable tract. An offer is made to one of them for his portion of the land. When that family member takes the money and signs over his portion of the property, the developers move in for the kill.
With title to a portion of the property, the developer then goes before a judge and argues that the property cannot be divided "without prejudice to the tenants in common." The judge's "remedy" is to order a sale of the entire tract at a courthouse partition sale. The family that had owned the property for generations has no recourse and likely no legal counsel and no money to bid on their own land.
"Heirs' property is a huge problem," Thomas Goldstein, a local attorney who has fought for black property owners, told the Myrtle Beach Sun News. "Much of the development at Pawleys Island is legally stolen property."
In the 1980s, partition sales were so lucrative in the Waccamaw Neck of Georgetown County, Goldstein said, "Many companies would specifically request their attorneys to check county records to locate and obtain small interests of heir property for purposes of bringing partition sales."
That's the way developers and lawyers have been doing business for generations. But the problem has been acknowledged and people of conscience and good faith are taking action. Hell, even the state legislature is taking action! A bill to help descendents of slaves protect their property is making its way through the Senate. It would give owners of heirs' property the right of first refusal to buy their land at fair market value before it is divided up. Of course, critics of the bill point out that this is exactly the problem — poor blacks don't have the money to buy their own land, which has skyrocketed in value in recent years.
A more useful source of aid comes in the form of the Center for Heirs' Property Preservation, a nonprofit organization located in North Charleston, that provides legal and educational assistance to the owners of heirs' property. Now three years old, CHPP is funded by the Ford Foundation and managed by the S.C. Bar Foundation and Coastal Community Foundation.
What heirs' property owners need is legal assistance in locating absent heirs, establishing title, and creating a deed for a piece of property. This is expensive and time-consuming work. Fortunately, that's what CHPP is here for. Chock full of lawyers, the Center for Heirs Property Preservation just found some more. According to a story in last week's Post and Courier, students at the new Charleston School of Law are volunteering their services to CHPP as part of their public service requirement toward a degree.
It strikes me as a wonderful opportunity for attorneys to do good and burnish their reputations at the same time. Maybe developers could learn from them.