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How Wall Street Profits from Kicking Black People Off Their Land

From Georgia to Brooklyn to sub-Sahran Africa, inequity and exploitive land deals are making a handful of people rich—again.


President Barack Obama gave an important speech this past Tuesday on the  “modern day slavery”of human trafficking. On the very next day,  The New York Times ran an article on the injustice looming over direct descendants of slaves here in the United States. Those descendants—the Geechee of Sapelo Island, Georgia—stand to lose their once “invaluable” land for the same reason that most traditional black and brown cultures have: someone else has noticed that a profit can be made by taking it.

The Sapelo Island dispossession is the latest example of the way in which our economy creates and thrives off of inequity. It comes during a year in which the systemic separation of people of color from their land, both in the United States and around the world, has reached a fever pitch. These larger issues require massive action by national governments and official international organizations.

However there might be an important opportunity for wealthy individuals and dedicated NGOs to save a distinct black culture in our own backyard that needs our help to survive. People of color and the organizations focused on them should be high on the list to get involved. The creation of a land trust for the people of Sapelo Island, given their history, might be the right thing at exactly the right time.

The Geechee or Gullah (the designation depends on geography, language or usage) are a unique set of African-based cultures scattered along the outer island coast from North Carolina to Florida. Their forebears were brought to the United States from rice producing civilizations along the West African coast. Residents in communities that stretched from present day Sierra Leone to Benin were targeted by slavers for their special economic skills. Colonists in the Americas needed West African agricultural prowess to turn a profit in the new terrain, which was similar to that Africans had made productive more than a thousand years before.

The economic know-how of Geechee ancestors transformed the Sea Islands into one of the wealthiest areas in the United States. Before the Mississippi Valley was taken from Native peoples and transformed into a slave-economy of cotton, sea island plantations were some of the most productive in the country. In the early 19th century, the Sea Islands were the Saudi Arabia of the American South. In due course, the Civil War arrived on the coast and destroyed an economic way of life based on stolen land and bonded labor.

The Geechees, through several turns of history, eventually took possession of the land that they had worked since before the Declaration of Independence. In economic hardship and isolation, the Geechees preserved their unique culture, language, and spiritual beliefs. But since the 1950s that way of life has come under increasing pressure from the broader society that had first used and then abandoned them. Land that was once overlooked became desirable again.

Given its climate and location, Geechee land is prime property for tourist hotels and big vacation homes. The built-up luxury resort of  Hilton Head Island in South Carolina was mostly Gullah-inhabited just 50 years ago. Having transformed other parts of the costal archipelago, such as St. Simmons and Amelia Islands into similar tourist destinations, there are less and less Geechee enclaves to seize and flip for profit. That’s why Sapelo Island is in the crosshairs.

As the Times details, most of the private property on Sapelo Island is Geechee owned. Sitting on scarce property, their coastal land has attracted the attention of investors, who have been slowly buying it.

These below-the-radar purchases have suddenly led to a massive tax reassessment by the local government of Geechee property. In just one year taxes have leapt for many cash-strapped residents by a whopping 500 percent. The sky-high tax bills could accomplish what others have been unable to do so far: clear the island of the Geechee through the legal dispossession of their property.

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