By Barney Blakeney
For the past 17 years Roosevelt Simmons has been fighting to keep land on Johns Island that has been in his family more than three generations. Last year it was sold, Simmons says illegally. South Carolina National Action Network President Elder James Johnson said Simmons’ allegations are common. As development leapfrogs into once predominantly Black rural communities, a conspiracy to usurp Black landowners’ properties is becoming more evident, he said.
Simmons, 77, said his grandmother owned a 54-acre parcel on River Road until she died in 1950. She left the land to her three children, Simmons’ father and his two sisters. His father lived on the land and paid the taxes on it until he died and passed it on to Simmons in 1977. Simmons, who had a family of his own and had purchased other land where he raised his family, in 1999 sought to get a clear title on his father’s property. That’s when his troubles began.
Simmons said he hired a local attorney to perform the task. Several years and several thousand dollars later, Simmons said he still had no clear title and somehow found a five-acre parcel of the land was being sold without his consent. Ultimately he would become enmeshed in legal maneuvers that resulted in the sale of the entire tract.
Simmons said he eventually would engage five different attorneys in an epic struggle to keep his grandmother’s land. Heirs, unknown to him, would lay claim to the land and in 2008 the property was sold. Simmons said he was offered just over $50,000 for ‘his share’ of the property that lies alongside major River Road thoroughfare. Since then he’s spent most of his savings fighting the sale.
Johnson says Simmons’ story is all too familiar. The National Action Network has heard the stories from numerous Black property owners legitimate heirs’ ownership is challenged and/or unknown heirs either are located or contrived in a land-grab scheme that’s been played out for decades, he said.
According to one source, four decades after the Civil War organizing around the strategic need of land possession to build a better future for themselves and future generations, Blacks managed to accrue some 15 million acres of land, mostly in the southeastern region of the country.
Land ownership by those Africans living in the United States, according to The Nation, served as farms, the primary occupation for most in the early 20th century. By 1920, 14 percent of all farms, representing approximately 925,000 farms, were owned by Black people.
However, the impressive number of Black farmers and rural landowners would drastically decrease over the 20th century. During that century, some 600,000 Black farmers were forced off their lands. The Nation reported that by 1975, only 45,000 Black-owned farmers remained.
Johnson says the land-grab is devious and methodical. In some cases the land is acquired through delinquent tax sales. In more aggressive instances financially vulnerable landowners are submerged in lengthy and expensive legal battles. He said the infamous 1975 murder of Charleston attorney George Payton whom many believe was killed because he represented Black landowners in one of the area’s most lucrative development deals, is evidence of the extent to which some schemes go.
Johnson said NAN currently is recruiting landowners to petition for a federal investigation of local complaints. The center for Heirs Property Preservation in Charleston says the loss of land is more than the loss of cultural heritage and family legacy. It also is the loss of economic opportunity for people whose primary asset is land. Through knowledge one can unlock those opportunities, the center proposes.
For information call the S.C. National Action Network at (843)708-0081 or the Center for Heirs Property Preservation at (843) 745-7055/toll free at (666) 657-2676.