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The Gullah-Geechee have owned land since the 1800s. One terrible law allows their land to be stolen

1 min read

Several decades ago, my parents took a timeshare tour on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. The island was in the early stages of being transformed into a resort destination. This metamorphosis was the brainchild of real estate developer Charles Fraser, who, in the 1950s, envisioned turning the sparsely populated, rural island into an ultra-extravagant paradise. Luxury resorts and modern retirement communities—almost all with “plantation” in their names—soon overtook the island. Trendy restaurants and upscale boutiques suddenly dotted the landscape, while private yachts constantly cruised the waterways.

Although the barrier island is very small—you could run around the whole thing in a 12-mile loop—developers somehow managed to squeeze 26 18-hole golf courses onto it. Today, Hilton Head Island is one of the top vacation destinations in the United States.

But it wasn’t always this way. Hilton Head is one of several formerly Black-owned islands, whose transformation came at a heavy, painful cost for decades—all thanks to a shady legal practice that one U.S. attorney describes as “the worst problem you’ve never heard of.” This loophole has robbed millions of acres from Black Americans in multiple Southern states over the past century. Worst of all, it’s still happening—and getting worse.

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