Driving the long, flat roads of Hilton Head Island is hypnotic. One bike-rental shop blends into another; countless villa-style office complexes advertise real-estate agents and banks. Tourists meander to their cars wearing all white, carrying brightly colored smoothies. Rows of palm trees wave slowly over the crawling traffic. A waterfront hotel looms on the horizon.
Along Allen Road, though, an older version of Hilton Head is preserved. The short street bisects a 38-acre plot and travels past some 23 trailers that house members of the Allen family. Tall oak and pine trees block the sun from flowering shrubs in the sandy soil. The noise from passing cars is drowned out by bird chatter and an occasional shout from one family member to another.
Matthew Allen, now in his 70s, grew up visiting this family land where his father and grandfather grew up. “When [my father] was coming up,” he recalls, “they used to…go down to the water to fish. They used to hunt. [They] used to farm the land, used to grow okra, corn, sweet potatoes. They took full advantage of the land.”
It was Dennis Allen, Matthew’s great-grandfather, who purchased the land on Hilton Head. The son of slaves, Dennis Allen bought his first parcel of nearly 20 acres in 1897, at a time when African Americans were purchasing land across the country. Today, the Allen family owns the largest undeveloped lot on Hilton Head.
But as the land enters its 120th year in the family, the Allens are struggling to hold on to it. Because of ambiguities surrounding the land’s title, there is no primary owner of the property; all of the heirs of the original owners—and there are more than 100 known heirs—are legally co-owners. As such, the land is classified as “heirs’ property,” a designation that makes it vulnerable to being sold without the family’s full consent. As the Allens attempt to overcome a stacked legal system—exacerbated by corrupt lawyers and predatory developers—they are at the center of a decades-long fight to retain black-owned land across the South.
In the 45 years following the Civil War, freed slaves and their descendants accumulated roughly 15 million acres of land across the United States, most of it in the South. Land ownership meant stability and opportunity for black families, a shot at upward mobility and economic security for future generations. The hard-won property was generally used for farming, the primary occupation of most Southern blacks in the early 20th century. By 1920, there were 925,000 black-owned farms, representing about 14 percent of all farms in the United States.
Over the course of the 20th century, however, that number dropped precipitously. Millions of farmers of all races were pushed off their land in the early part of the century, including around 600,000 black farmers. By 1975, just 45,000 black-owned farms remained. “It was almost as if the earth was opening up and swallowing black farmers,” writes scholar Pete Daniel in his book Dispossession: Discrimination Against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights. Implicit in the decline of black farming was the loss of the land those farmers once tilled. Today, African Americans compose less than 2 percent of the nation’s farmers and 1 percent of its rural landowners.