Sold to the highest bidder: Woman fights to save Gullah Geechee land through tax payments

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Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

​​​​Theresa White’s grandfather walked into a bank more than 100 years ago, hoping to expand his farm holdings. He signed an “X,” his signature, on what he thought was a loan.

But White's grandfather was illiterate. He didn't know he'd signed his land away to the banker. The freedom he'd earned after the Civil War was yanked away, forcing him into  sharecropping, another kind of slavery that swept the southeast during Reconstruction.

"But that's not how his story ended," White said. Eventually, the Whites moved to Savannah's east side, near the Beach Institute. The family worked for decades. When he died, White's grandfather was a middle-class landowner.

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Credit: Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News

A son, Spencer E. White, Sr., came to Savannah with 50 cents in his pocket. He was a man of firsts in Savannah: the first Black man to own a truck, the first Black man to own stock in the Savannah Electric & Power Company. While he made his fortune in construction, his wife opened a dress shop. The family actively supported the NAACP and the civil rights movement. They established local professional chapters and served as deacons in their church. White still has cousins all over Savannah.

But the family never forgot that day at the bank. Since she was young, White has understood the value of owning property. If you have land, you hold onto it.

'We don't wanna lose any more land'

In 2013, White turned her belief into mission. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the St. Helena, South Carolina, resident launched the Pan-African Family Empowerment & Land Preservation Network (PAFEN). The goal is simple: empower people of African descent by saving their land, strengthening their families and promoting unity.

In 2015, she launched a ten-year project to keep Gullah Geechee families in their homes, on their land.

"And the major challenges to that have been soaring property taxes, land disputes, and losing property because it's heirs' property, owned by people who have no interest or money to maintain the property or pay property taxes," she said.

White has paid more than 300 households' property taxes over the years, and stopped homes from being sold off in delinquent tax sales. A tax sale happens when a property is labelled 'delinquent' by the tax commissioner and sent to be sold off at monthly tax sales, held in Chatham County on the courthouse steps on the first Tuesday of the month.

On Feb. 22, White paid property taxes for 11 Chatham County families. The payments ranged from  $370.90 to $1,342.66, White said. She pays the county tax assessor, then presents the receipts to property owners. This month's payments saved houses in Cuyler-Brownsville, the Eastside, Benjamin Van Clark, and Cloverdale from going to the tax sale next month.

"Every time I save a piece of property," White said, "I think of my grandfather."

She goes through the delinquent tax roles and finds families to help. She's tracked down property owners across the country. Many need her help, others want to let the property go.

Since launching nine years ago, PAFEN has saved more than $17 million in property from being sold off at tax sales, most of which was in South Carolina. White said she's just getting started in Savannah.

She's seen what it means to lose what once belonged to her community. On Hilton Head, White can point out where Gullah Geechee families used to own land. Where family compounds once stood, gated communities and city-owned parks dot the island, which has seen a generational shift from primarily Gullah Geechee residents to wealthy, white retirees and seasonal residents.

To White, it's a loss of history. Mitchelville was the site of the country's first Freedman's community, founded before the Civil War's end. Today, the tarp-covered site is surrounded by condos and pastel "golf cottages."

By saving the land, the people can stay. And for White, that means Gullah Geechee history won't be forgotten.

"We don't wanna lose any more land," White said. "And we don't wanna lose anymore houses."

'People can't keep up' with rising taxes

For seven months, Hakeem Shabazz went without rental income on the Cuyler-Brownsville home he leases out. The tenants lost their jobs in the pandemic, and Shabazz wasn't going to kick them out.

"I know it was tough times," he said. "So, I kind of just footed the bill."

Without the income, the property taxes didn't get paid on time, and in October, Shabazz got a letter: the property was going to the Chatham County Tax Sale.

In February, PAFEN paid the delinquent taxes on the house, saving the property from going to the highest bidder in March, but taxes are an annual thing. Shabazz, who also fixes up houses, said he's seen rising property taxes leave many homeowners fighting to keep their properties.

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Credit: Zoe Nicholson

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Credit: Zoe Nicholson

"Most people can't keep up with the rising taxes," he said. "And that causes them to basically lose their houses if they don't pay."

In Georgia, a property owner can lose their property to the highest bidder at a tax sale. If they're outbid, the owner has one year to pay the delinquent taxes in full, plus the interest imposed by the state, which is about 20%. Even if a bidder has to give the property back, they'll still make money on interest.

In the second half of the 20th century, Black farmers lost 90% of their land through tax sales and foreclosures, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit founded by human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson that challenges racial and economic injustice.

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Credit: MATT BURKHARTT/Staff

White isn't sure how many plots of Black- or Gullah-Geechee-owned land have been lost to tax sales in Chatham County, but in one month she saved a dozen from going to sale.

Tax sales are ways for investors and homebuyers looking for a discount to acquire property. White said that since the lists of delinquent houses are listed publicly, it puts the homeowners in uncomfortable positions when bidders come looking.

"People have called me crying because somebody just left their property, they were walking through the door, banging on the door trying to get into their house to see what the inside of the house looks like," White said. "Because they wanted to buy the tax sale... it's very unnerving."

'They need to have the knowledge'

Paying property taxes isn't a cure-all, though, White explained. It's an annual payment; one that typically keeps going up. She added that the shame of not being able to pay can keep people from seeking help, or answers.

"Some people are ashamed, but they might need assistance and people don't know," she said. "And they wait till too late to try to get the assistance."

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Credit: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File

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Credit: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File

To combat this, White helps educate landowners on the best practices to lower property taxes. In Chatham County, the Stephen's Day tax exemption is a vital tool for mitigating rising tax rates.

In Beaufort County, South Carolina, White helped a landowner pay off delinquent taxes, but knew they needed a long-term solution for the waterfront property, which afforded deep water access. A friend suggested the family reduce property tax rates by turning their St. Helena Island property into a farm.

"The taxes was just so high and every year it was so, so hard to come up with some money to pay," said James Irby, Sr., one of the property's owners. When PAFEN paid Irby's taxes for the year, Beaufort County was levying $13,000 for the land.

"Every time the tax sale happened, people were just waiting to see if we could pay the taxes so they could try to get it from us," Irby said.

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Credit: MATT BURKHARTT/Staff

So, Irby erected a fence and put some farm animals inside it. The taxes plummeted, since the land was now being used for agricultural purposes. Irby's stepson, who will inherit the land, now pays the taxes "without a sweat," Irby said.

Landowners also need to establish wills and succession plans for their holdings, White said. Without clear title, a home can become heirs' property, which means all descendants are listed as an owner. This creates messy legal battles, and leaves the people living in the home vulnerable to decisions by the other title-holders.

White's next step is to establish partnerships in Savannah to educate people on their rights as property holders, and property-tax exemptions that may be available to them.

"There's a lack of communication about the exemptions or programs out there," White said. "We're gonna start changing that and create some new partnerships."

Zoe covers growth and how it impacts communities in the Savannah area. Find her at znicholson@gannett.com, @zoenicholson_ on Twitter, and @zoenicholsonreporter on Instagram.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Sold to the highest bidder: Woman fights to save Gullah Geechee land through tax payments