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This land has been in her family since the Civil War. Now, she's fighting to keep it.
“I wanted to leave a legacy for our family,” 93-year-old Josephine Wright said.
A 93-year-old South Carolina woman is fighting to keep her property after a developer filed a lawsuit in what she believes is an attempt to force her to sell the land that’s been in her family since the end of the Civil War.
Josephine Wright was approached by the developer, Bailey Point Investment Group, in May, asking her to sell the property to make way for a 27-acre, 147-unit development on Hilton Head Island called Bailey’s Cove. Wright refused. “I wanted to leave a legacy for our family,” she told me.
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The construction had begun last year with no warning, according to Wright’s granddaughter, Charise Graves. “Unbeknownst to us, they just started tearing trees down, you know. Our house was shaking like it was an earthquake. They didn’t even have the decency to let us know that this was happening,” Graves said in a press conference.
The developer sued after Wright refused them, alleging a shed, satellite dish, and Wright’s back porch encroaches on the land where they plan on developing Bailey’s Cove. They claim those items “significantly delayed and hindered” development, according to court documents. Graves said they paid over $2,000 to move the shed. The back porch is still standing.
In a countersuit, Wright alleges Bailey Point Investment Group “began a consistent and constant barrage of tactics of intimidation, harassment, trespass[ing]” to bully the 93-year-old into making the sale. She claims trash has been left on her property, her tires have been slashed, and that a snake was placed on her bedroom window. The developers have questioned if Wright owns the property at all, according to The Island Packet, and attempted to go through other family members to force a sale.
“This has been very stressful, but in a way redeeming, due to the fact there was such a positive response to this injustice from people all over the world,” Wright said.
But she’s seen far too much in her life to back down. “I’ve pretty much been a fighter all my life,” Wright told WSAV-TV. “I guess they figured I would become so unnerved with the harassment that I would say take it. But they don’t know me. I am here to fight for what I have.”
This fight is not a new one to those living in the South Carolina lowcountry. The Gullah Geechee, direct descendants of Central and West African slaves who were experts in cultivating rice and indigo crops and stayed on the coastline, have been fighting eager developers looking to capitalize on their ancestral lands for tourism for decades now. These developments led residents to form the Jonesville Preservation Society, a group that works to slow the overdevelopment in the Hilton Head community and protect the environmentally sensitive marshes and wetlands.
“Once we did some investigation, we found out this 147-unit development was going in and it had already been approved before anyone even knew about it,” Kelly LeBlanc, a member of the Jonesville Preservation Society, explained to WSAV-TV. “We don’t have the right to change what has already been approved; that ship has sailed. We can’t change the zoning.”
The family has reached out to the developer, to no avail. "More disrespectful than a no is a non-response. So we're asking this community to join us in action: write letters to the developer, call the developer,” civil rights attorney Bakari Sellers said during a press conference. “We're asking them to pray for this family. We're asking the community to not let this die.” The developer has not responded to multiple requests for comment from several outlets.
Wright has lived on the property for over 30 years. The land was given to Wright after the death of her husband, Gullah Geechee islander Samuel Wright, in the late 1990s. His ancestors were freed by Union soldiers. The property has been passed down from generation to generation for over 100 years, becoming a “sanctuary” for Wright, her seven children, 40 grandchildren, 50 great grandchildren, and 16 great-great grandchildren.
“This property is like a sanctuary. We come to grandma’s house for holidays, fellowship, funerals, BBQs … to try and take that away is taking it away from our entire family,” Graves said.
“Generational wealth is extremely important,” Wright told me. “Both my husband and I wanted to leave a legacy for our family so that our future descendants can enjoy living on the same property as their ancestors did 150 years ago.”
The family has launched a fundraiser to help with legal fees, property taxes, and the construction of a fence between the new development and Wright’s property. Any other funds will go toward a college fund for her grandchildren and great grandchildren, who hope to continue visiting their loved one’s home. NBA star Kyrie Irving has reportedly donated $40,000 to their cause.
“All of them want to be able to live and visit this property as it is convenient for them in a family and private way. Our effort is to make sure that we keep this property,” Wright said. “We need to make sure that it is known that it is historical and we want to keep our property within the family, and not try to be harassed to sell it. So this is our fight.”
The 93-year-old only has but one request for the developer.
“All I've ever wanted to live in peace on my own property and to be left alone.”