No Hilton Head property identified as Gullah land on list went to 2021 tax sale, advocate says

BY SAM OGOZALEK, Island Packet Newspaper October 11, 2021

No properties on Hilton Head Island or in Bluffton identified on a Beaufort County list as Gullah land went up for auction at the county’s annual tax sale this year, according to local advocate Luana Graves Sellars. Graves Sellars, who founded Lowcountry Gullah, a nonprofit that raises money to help Gullah people pay off any delinquent property taxes, said it’s the first time in “recent history” that no properties in the two towns that were identified as Gullah land on the list went to the county’s auction.

Beaufort County Treasurer Maria Walls has been helping Gullah leaders in recent years to identify those behind on their taxes. Walls creates an annual list of delinquent Gullah properties and shares it with others, who then spend hours on the phone reminding heirs’ property owners that back taxes are owed.

The tax sale, which occurs every October, allows the public to bid on properties whose owners have not paid taxes. The auction is the biggest modern threat to native-owned land. Alex Brown, a native islander and the Ward 1 representative on Hilton Head’s Town Council, said he believes there’s now greater awareness about Gullah land loss and the importance of helping native property owners avoid the tax sale. “For us to all come together and tackle it, that’s great,” Brown said. Brown credited Graves Sellars’ organization, Lowcountry Gullah, and Theresa White’s Pan-African Family Empowerment & Land Preservation Network, or PAFEN, for the success in 2021. “It’s really pulled the community together to have a conversation that in the past has been more secretive, so to speak,” Brown said. “This whole sense of having a dialogue … I think is what’s so beautiful about this.”

In the 150 years since the end of the Civil War, freed slaves and their descendants obtained land on Hilton Head, created homes and established a shellfishing-based economy. When they died, they passed their land down through unwritten wills. In July, there were 63 native properties on the island that owed a total of roughly $126,000 in back taxes, Graves Sellars said. Twenty of those properties each owed less than $1,000.

By late September, though, only a few native properties on Hilton Head and in Bluffton needed emergency financial assistance to avoid this year’s tax sale, Graves Sellars said. Many families were able to pay off their back taxes this past summer. And Lowcountry Gullah raised more than $7,000 to assist in the land preservation efforts, Graves Sellars said. The nonprofit, which started fundraising in 2020, allows community members who are not native islanders to donate to the cause, Graves Sellars said. A group of native island leaders, she said, had previously been pulling money out of their own pockets to help Gullah people pay off delinquent taxes. The nonprofit has provided more structure to that process, she said.

“Because it’s such a personal thing, a lot of people didn’t know how to approach someone who was having problems or didn’t want to just pay (back taxes) anonymously and create an issue,” Graves Sellars said of non-native community members.

‘IT’S UNBELIEVABLE’ Meanwhile, the tax sale, which was held on Oct. 4, had more registered bidders than properties to auction, Walls said in an interview. The county auctioned 248 properties, the lowest number on record, Walls said. (There were 260 registered bidders.)

“It’s unbelievable,” she said, especially given COVID-19’s economic impacts. What happened? Walls said she believes taxes are not a bellwether for financial health because when residents prioritize their finances, taxes likely will be high on their list. Still, the county’s tax collection rate has shown that people were able to adjust to the pandemic, Walls said. Additionally, “I think it’s indicative of the financial stability of the homeowners that we’re gaining in Beaufort County,” Walls said. (A surge of people have relocated to the Lowcountry since the pandemic began.)

“There’s a lot of different factors.” This story was originally published October 11, 2021 2:36 PM.

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