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FEMA: Don't drive the Gullah-Geechee from their land

For more than a century, Gullah-Geechee people have held fast to their land at the water’s edge on the Sea Islands of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Descendants of chattel slaves from West Africa, generations of Gullah-Geechee have not only survived, but thrived here — nurturing a distinctive culture with deep ties to the African homeland.

Today, the Gullah-Geechee’s hold on the land is loosening. Some threats have been brewing for decades, including the juggernaut of development and a system of property law that is cruelly stacked against them. Now, the rising seas and powerful storms of a warming planet pose an unprecedented threat. Unless the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) changes its policies for providing disaster assistance, climate change may be what finally drives the Gullah-Geechee from their home.

That would be a disastrous outcome — for the land and people of the Lowcountry and for the nation as a whole. The Gullah-Geechee are bound up with the history of this land and they must help build its future.

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The ancestors of today’s Gullah-Geechee were brought to this country from the Windward Coast of Africa, from Senegal to modern-day Liberia, for their expertise in growing rice. Rice is a notoriously difficult crop, requiring skill in managing the interplay of water and land. Those skills enriched the antebellum plantation owners, who largely fled the swampy, mosquito-infested Sea Islands after the Civil War. Then, in 1865, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order 15, ceding most of the islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina to the freed slaves.

Separated from the mainland by marshes and waterways, the Gullah-Geechee lived in peaceful isolation for many decades — farming, hunting and fishing the islands’ bountiful waters. Living in tight-knit communities, they helped one another and managed resources in common. But the mid-20th century brought bridges and electricity, making the islands’ pristine beaches and moss-draped forests a prime vacation spot. Hilton Head Island alone now draws 2.5 million visitors in a (non-pandemic) year. And much of the Gullah-Geechee’s land has gradually been overtaken by gated communities, luxury hotels and golf courses. 

This land grab was made possible by arcane property laws that gravely disadvantage the Gullah-Geechee (and other disenfranchised communities throughout the U.S.). Most Gullah-Geechee land was passed down over the generations without lawyers and legal documentation. Such land is called “heirs’ property,” because it is held in common by all living heirs of the original owners. 

People living on heirs’ property lack clear title to the land, and they must secure the approval of every single person who could lay claim to the property — sometimes hundreds of far-flung family members — in order to obtain a mortgage, loan or government assistance. Yet, in some states, any one of those heirs may force the partition and sale of the land. Developers have eagerly exploited this, offering cash to some heirs in order to evict others. In one especially heartbreaking case, two brothers went to prison for eight years because they refused to leave the land they had lived on all their lives. 

For the Gullah-Geechee who have managed to hold onto their land, another problem looms. Heirs’ property holders are often denied FEMA disaster assistance. And disasters — hurricanes, storm surges — are now more frequent and severe. When Hurricane Matthew hit in 2016, more than 18,000 disaster assistance claims were denied in South Carolina counties with a high concentration of heirs’ property. According to data analysis by Janiece Glover of South Carolina Policy, Engagement, Advocacy and Research, the counties with the highest prevalence of heirs’ property saw half of FEMA aid applications denied.

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Disaster assistance will not solve all of the Gullah-Geechee’s problems, but in the wake of a hurricane or storm surge it is an essential lifeline that can keep people in their homes and on their land. 

Fortunately, there are remedies at hand. For example, FEMA could create a presumption that Gullah-Geechee and similarly-situated individuals who can prove occupancy of heirs’ property are eligible for FEMA assistance. And FEMA could allow those who were living on the land before a disaster to serve as the legal agent for all owners, so that heirs’ property holders don’t need the permission of hundreds of family members to accept aid. 

It’s time for FEMA to change its rules so that heirs’ property holders can receive needed disaster assistance. Changing FEMA’s eligibility requirements could prevent Gullah-Geechee people from losing their homes after the next disaster. The changes would also help other groups with similar property challenges—including Native Americans and many in Appalachia and other parts of the rural south. 

Indeed, by acknowledging eligibility for heirs’ property holders and other non-formal title relationships, FEMA would help preserve long-established vulnerable communities and comply with the agency’s statutory obligation to “accomplish[ its mission] in an equitable and impartial manner, without discrimination on the grounds of race, color, religion, nationality, sex, age, disability, English proficiency, or economic status.” 

More broadly, the Gullah-Geechee need legal assistance to untangle the legal thicket of heirs’ property ownership. The Center for Heirs Property Preservation does excellent work in this area, offering education and direct legal services to help people keep their family land; the organization deserves more support. Federally supported legal services offices also need more resources for this time-consuming but important work.

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Time is short. The Gullah-Geechee have already lost much of their ancestral land; rising seas threaten to overtake still more. And hurricane season is coming.

This is where we stand, in South Carolina and as a nation. We face an uncertain future on a warming planet, while carrying the legacy of a brutal past. Meeting the challenge of this moment requires many kinds of knowledge. It requires the expertise of geographers and hydrologists armed with tide gauges and geographic information system mapping software. And it also requires the deep, irreplaceable knowledge of people who have lived on this land for generations. People whose ancestors were brought here in chains to coax a difficult crop from the water’s edge, who are now navigating a shifting boundary of land and sea. 

The Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum once said, “In the end, we will only conserve what we love. We will love only what we understand.” The Gullah-Geechee, descendants of rice farmers from Senegal and neighboring countries, know and love this land. FEMA must change its rules so they can continue to conserve it.

Albert George is the founder of the Resilience Initiative for Coastal Education (RICE), an initiative focused on moving beyond the elite scientific and policy discussions to make the topic of resilience accessible to everyone. In this manner, RICE provides individuals and stakeholders alike with the information they need for strategic resilience planning.