Josephine Wright, 93, lives on a piece of land on Hilton Head Island, S.C., that has been in her husband’s family since the Civil War — and she wants to keep it that way.
A threat stands on the other side of her property line, where noisy construction work sometimes shakes her one-story home. Despite this, Bailey Point Investment, the company that owns the development, sued Ms. Wright for encroachment in February.
About five years ago, the company offered Ms. Wright $39,000 for the land, she said, but she refused.
“They have been dealing with people who probably think $39,000 is a lot of money for your property, but it’s more than monetary value,” Ms. Wright said. “It’s a family thing, and we want to keep it that way forever.”
Celebrities, including Snoop Dogg and Kyrie Irving, are supporting Ms. Wright’s legal battle. It follows decades of land acquisitions that have displaced Black families with deep ties to Hilton Head to make room for golf courses and waterfront vacation homes.
Ms. Wright said her husband inherited the 1.8-acre property from his parents, and it was put in her name after he died in 1998. Two homes sit on the land, which is a gathering spot on holidays for her extensive family: Ms. Wright has seven children, 40 grandchildren, 50 great-grandchildren and 16 great-great-grandchildren.
Many of the majestic, sweeping trees that they used to see from the windows have been replaced by empty dirt lots to make way for the development. Bailey Point Investment, which is based in Georgia, plans to build a 29-acre neighborhood with 147 housing units, The Island Packet, a local newspaper, reported.
Bailey Point Investment filed a lawsuit in February accusing Ms. Wright of encroaching on its property. The company said that a satellite, shed and screened porch trespassed on its land and “significantly delayed and hindered” development.
A lawyer for Bailey Point Investment, Helen Bacon Hester, did not respond to requests for comment. The company could not be reached for comment.
Ms. Wright’s granddaughter Charise Graves, who lives on the property, said that loud construction has sometimes begun around 6:30 a.m. and that she and other family members have often dealt with noise and construction workers. An aunt who had also been living there, and is a defendant in the lawsuit, moved to Florida in February because she couldn’t handle the noise and stress of the situation, Ms. Graves said.
Ms. Graves estimated that she has spent $6,000 to cover the costs of responding to the developer’s complaints and to hire a lawyer. The family created a GoFundMe to help pay for the legal battle and property taxes. Snoop Dogg donated $10,000 to the fund-raiser and Kyrie Irving donated $40,000.
Ms. Graves said she planned to use some of the more than $300,000 raised so far to create a foundation in her grandmother’s name that aims to support other families who are trying to keep their property.
Family land ownership is a decades-old issue on Hilton Head, which was owned by many Black families before developers came to the island in the 1950s and turned it into a vacation destination. Many of the Black families who first settled there had been West and Central Africans who were enslaved and worked on rice, Indigo and cotton plantations.
Their descendants, the Gullah Geechee, established communities along the coast in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Georgia.
Mel Campbell, 75, a Gullah Geechee elder on Hilton Head who works for his family’s business, Gullah Heritage Tours, said real estate laws and a lack of economic and legal resources had diminished the ability of families to retain their property.
“You can find a different Josephine Wright story on every corner on Hilton Head and up and down this coast, I’m sure,” Mr. Campbell said.
On Hilton Head, the total acreage of Gullah Geechee-owned land has decreased by an estimated 70 percent since 1995, The Greenville News reported.
One common issue in Gullah Geechee communities is heirs’ property, which is when land is passed down without a will or deed. When this happens, every descendant, which could be hundreds of people, gets an interest in the property. Financial institutions and governments are often reluctant to back loans or grants for these types of properties, and they are vulnerable to loss through tax and real estate sales mechanisms, according to a 2019 U.S. Department of Agriculture report.
Ms. Wright said she hoped that her story would inspire other families to fight for their land.
In recent weeks, Ms. Wright has been able to find a little more peace and quiet.
The Town of Hilton Head Island told Bailey Point Investment in mid-July that it could continue to develop the land, but that the approvals needed to erect buildings would not be available until it reached a legal agreement with Ms. Wright.
Ms. Wright said she had only one request of the developer: “To leave me alone and let me live in peace on my property.”
Kirsten Noyes contributed research.