Near tears, Mayor Bennett asks what Native Islanders have been saying for years
Tears, anger and “amens” overflowed Tuesday night as native islander supporters confronted the Hilton Head Island Town Council over what they described as decades of inequality brought upon them by regulations imposed by the town.
The impromptu discussion at the Town Council meeting provided a glimpse into the heartbeat of the island’s community — one made up of those who lived on the island before the bridge was built, and those who came afterward.
It started as representatives with the Hilton Head Island chapter of the National Action Network warned it would carry out its planned demonstration next month against the town during the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing golf tournament if town law affecting heirs’ property wasn’t changed.
The plea was met with a discussion about whether protesting was the right solution. Council members jumped in with a tear-struck response from Mayor David Bennett and a request by Marc Grant that the town act quickly.
Taiwan Scott, NAN chapter president, said native islanders can’t wait any longer, contending the town’s Land Management Ordinance impeded heirs’ property owners from deeding land to descendants, creating confusion over titles.
“There are a lot of families right now who this would help,” Scott said. “There are a lot of brothers and sisters right now who would just like to get a clear title to their land.”
Heirs’ property typically refers to land purchased by freed slaves during the Reconstruction Era and passed down to descendants over time.
Scott said town laws require that any division of property be treated as a neighborhood development and forces native islanders to invest in infrastructure on land, such as roads.
“It doesn’t matter if you are a local or a developer,” Scott said. “These are financial burdens brought on to everyone. These people are just trying to get their deed.”
While several native islanders repeated Scott’s sentiments, others disagreed with the planned protest.
“We don’t believe a protest during the Heritage is within the spirit of what we are working toward,” said Eric Turpine, executive director of the Native Islander’s Business Community Affairs Association. “We understand the issues, but we don’t think it is the right approach.”
Yet, Turpine also said change is needed.
“It is time for us to set an example,” he said. “We have the best beaches, the best bike paths, the best resorts. We can be an example for solving these issues.”
Turpine said he believed the Town Council was already moving forward in support of the community. The town has created a plan and funding source to pave roads in the native islander community, located on the island’s north side, along with connecting homes to sewers.
Bennett fought back tears as he addressed the crowd made up of about 30 to 40 Gullah descendants.
“I can’t imagine what it feels like to be at the other end of two-plus decades of not having sewers or roads paved,” he said. “As far as I am concerned, I am going to maintain my seat at the table. I get it; we aren’t done, and I’m not going to stop talking about it until we are.”
The speech, which Bennett rose for, brought “amens,” clapping and support from the crowd.
Scott said Wednesday he appreciated Bennett’s statements.
“Bennett put out the idea that he hasn’t lived it — that meant a lot,” Scott said. “There is a sense of understanding there. Personally, I think there was a higher understanding that was in the room yesterday. It was no sugar-coating. It was obvious. It was in everyone’s face.”
Town Council member Marc Grant called for an action plan following Bennett’s speech.
“I’m asking to fast-track this,” he said. “No more talk. You can say how important it is. I am saying, ‘Let’s get it done.’ ”
Grant on Wednesday, though, said he felt it wasn’t the right time and place for Bennett to give the speech.
“I felt that was the citizens’ time,” he said. “I felt it was grandstanding.”
Following the meeting, Bennett said he will have to meet with other town officials to figure out how the town can proceed with heirs’ property issues. He was unable to put a timeline on the discussions.
The Town Council previously approved that creating a plan for heirs’ property issues would be a top priority for 2017.