With around $1,400 standing between Laura Lawyer Jones and the piece of land on Hilton Head that had been in her family for three generations, the 54-year-old native islander knew time was ticking.
Last year, Jones fell behind on her property taxes. In September, the county notified her that her property would go to the Beaufort County Delinquent Tax Sale and be auctioned off within a month.
Jones had to leave her job as a baker in 2016 due to rheumatoid arthritis that she said made it impossible to work with her hands or get out of bed some mornings. She said she was paying her bills with her retirement savings, which were running out.
“I was paying the mortgage, the water, the light... everything came at one time,” Jones said. “It didn’t add up for me.”
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Jones lost sleep for weeks and saw a spike in her blood pressure in the month leading up to her property’s auction, making her health problems even more difficult to manage.
On Oct. 1, her worst fears were realized when the family’s property inherited by her 72-year-old father, Nathaniel Lawyer, was auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Per South Carolina law, Jones had a window of one year and one day after the auction to stay in her home and come up with the money needed to redeem her property.
“I was devastated and I knew I had to do something to get it back. It was in the family for so long,” she said of her family’s land. “I was on the verge of selling everything in the house to get it back.”
The land that runs in the family
Jones lives on heirs’ property which was inherited by her father 30 years ago when her grandmother passed away.
The land is still technically in her father’s name, even though Jones owns the home on the property.
According to the Beaufort County Treasurer website, anyone can pay sales taxes on a property — but that does not mean they own it.
Heirs’ property is often land that was purchased by freed slaves. As families grew, the land was passed down without a written will, according to the Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation in Charleston.
Jones said she isn’t sure if her grandmother was a descendant of a freed slave, but her family’s land is passed down to the oldest child. That means that someday, the land would have belonged to her.
But native islanders’ land is swiftly disappearing on Hilton Head.
A study of census data by Lisa Sturtevant and Associates, the town’s workforce housing consultant team, found that the Black/ African-American population on Hilton Head decreased by 14.7 percent between 2011 and 2016.
The study also found that although 30 percent of land on Hilton Head was Gullah-owned prior to 1950, Gullah families only owned 10 percent of island property in 2000.
This information caught the eye of Samantha Claar, a Georgia-based artist who creates Gullah-themed artwork and owns an art gallery in Norcross, Georgia. She said she paints Gullah culture “from the outside,” since she is not Gullah herself.
As she researched Gullah history, Claar said she became upset at how “history had transpired” and pushed Gullah people off their land. When she began to profit from her artwork, she said she tried to find a way to give back.
“I’m sitting in the middle of Hilton Head surrounded by affluent whiteness, and I’m thinking about the people who used to own the island who aren’t here as much anymore,” Claar said of native islanders losing their land.
Claar said she was determined to help.
In July, her painting of Gullah people on fence posts from Hurricane Matthew sold at silent auction at the Art League of Hilton Head Gallery for $870.
Claar added $130 of her own money to that donation and reached out to The Pan-African Family Empowerment and Land Preservation Network (PAFEN) for help locating a Gullah family in need.
How they got connected
In early December, Jones was at Mount Calvary Baptist Church on Hilton Head when another member of her congregation told her he could help her save her house. She was surprised by the offer, because she didn’t tell many people about her home’s situation.
Her fellow church member said he saw her name listed in The Island Packet’s announcement of the county’s delinquent tax sale.
She was skeptical, but allowed him to give her phone number to PAFEN.
“Everybody says they’re going to call me back and nobody ever does,” Jones said of trying to find help getting her land back.
Two weeks later, Jones was standing in the Beaufort County Treasurer’s Office, accepting a check that would save her property.
PAFEN paired Jones with Claar, and topped off her donation to come up with exactly the funds Jones needed to keep her home on Hilton Head’s north end: $1,415.66.
“I feel like I just won a million dollars,” Jones said of accepting the check. “I was speechless. I came home and the tears couldn’t stop falling.”
In a way, Jones said she won more than one million dollars. Staying on her family’s land with her two adult sons, their children and the usual host of playful neighborhood kids means continuing their family story.
“It means a lot, because if we didn’t have this where would I be?” Jones asked of her family’s land. “If I didn’t have this I’d be homeless.”
“A debt to pay”
Now that Jones’ home is safe, she said she wants to work with Claar and help other families.
Claar said she hopes to organize more silent auctions and donate the funds to PAFEN, the regional organization that has helped keep $3 million of land in Gullah- Geechee families in 2018, according to a news release.
Jones said that Claar’s art means more to her now that she has experienced the benefit of its work.
“It was a blessing,” Jones said. “I want to volunteer at her art shows so I can show her I really appreciate what she did for me.”
Claar said her act of kindness was simply helping someone out when they needed it — and native islanders deserve it.
“The Lowcountry exists in its present form because (native islanders) were brought here and they made it rich,” Claar said. “That’s a debt to pay.”