“WE property” is often stated by Gullah/Geechees to indicate their communal living pattern in family compounds on the Sea Islands. This also indicates the ownership by tenants in common often referred to as “heirs property” even if that property has now been subdivided and each individual has a portion of it. This becomes soon forgotten in some families when there are those individuals that do not want to contribute to the land taxes associated with the property. The burden then falls on one or a very small few compared to all of those that want to stake a claim in owning some interest within this real estate.
These family members do not tend to think back on all that it took for their ancestors that left this property to their heirs. The very same people that were considered property and called “chattel” are the ones that had the insight and foresight to leave an inheritance to this generation so that the family would have a place on which to create and maintain a legacy. Yet, there are many that have allowed that legacy to be sold at auctions just as their ancestors had been.
This time of year is critical in every Gullah/Geechee community because it is the time that test family relationships and shows those that recognize the true value of the family land as an asset versus those that do not want to contribute to maintaining that asset. This is tax time! Land taxes are due on January 15th and if they are not paid at that time, they will accrue additional late charges and fees and eventually will end up on “sheriff’s sale” which is when the land is confiscated and sold due to the non-payment of taxes as required by the counties in which these lands are located.
Gullah/Geechee land ownership and the legacy attached to them are directly tied to several United States federal government documents issued during the United States Civil War. Due to strategies to benefit the Union during the US Civil War, there were the Direct Tax Act, multiple Confiscation Acts and the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln which all placed our Gullah/Geechee ancestors in the position to move from being placed on the auction block to being those bidding at the auctions. They were now bidding for real property instead of personal property. They were bidding on real estate instead of on human beings. The Gullah/Geechee Black Gold had now added to their own family worth by coming to be financial investors in the assets that had already accrued value due to their sweat and blood equity within it. However, these assets they would now be able to leave to their progeny. The property now owned property! So, there was a shift in the very meaning of the term “We Property” from “We are property.” to “This is our property. “Yeah, disya how e cum fa be we property.
The issuance of Special Field Order 15 by William T. Sherman was a critical document in ourstory of property ownership on the Sea Islands of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. However, many do not realize that this was not an idea that simply came out of Sherman’s concern for the African people that he saw for miles that were on fertile land, but were not cultivating it and that needed food, clothing, and shelter. In fact, it was the group of Gullah/Geechee spiritual leaders that met with him in Savannah, GA and made it clear that we could best take care of ourselves if we had land that caused this field order to be written and issued some days later. We continue to pay homage to those leaders and pray today for spiritually led leaders that understand and overstand the need for land ownership and economic empowerment for ALL Gullah/Geechees today. Thus, the Gullah/Geechee Nation‘s leaders continue to support the efforts of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition in keeping this mission to keep the culture alive on Gullah/Geechee owned lands and to continue the Gullah/Geechee land ownership legacy.