Property Taxes May Cause Slaves' Descendants To Lose Homes
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And now to a different story about the changing face of another historic community. Sapelo Island, just off the coast of Georgia, is home to one of the few remaining Gullah Geechee enclaves. These tight knit communities in the nation's South-East trace their roots back to slavery times and share a distinct culture and dialect. But now that's being threatened by a changing economy.
Surging property taxes could push residents off of Sapelo even though the island enjoys few public services. There are no paved roads, there's no school and there's no trash pickup, so some residents are wondering just what they're paying for. Cornelia Walker Bailey was born and raised on Sapelo Island, and she wrote a memoir about her life there called "God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man." And she's with us now from her home. Cornelia Walker Bailey, thanks so much for joining us.
CORNELIA WALKER BAILEY: You're welcome.
MARTIN: Now you live in Hog Hammock, that's the Gullah Geechee enclave on the island. Could you just tell us a little something about it that, for people who've never been there, about what makes it special?
BAILEY: Well, we pronounce it Hog Hammock. Hammock is an old dictionary to describe as an elevated piece of land surrounded by salt marsh or salt water on all sides. A hammock is described as an object strung between two poles or two trees. So we suppose to be living in Hog Hammock, Hog Hammock and not a hammock.
MARTIN: Yes ma'am.
BAILEY: But over the years people...
MARTIN: Duly noted.
BAILEY: Over the years people started calling it a hammock and I personally have started going back calling it Hammock and hoping they'll catch on. Just like the word Geechee.
MARTIN: Well, what's it about? Why do you love it so much?
BAILEY: We love it because it's home. We love it because our ancestors - my father, his people, my mother's people all sacrificed a lot to stay here. They love it and so if they love it, and my great, great grandparents loved it, then why shouldn't we? We are the descendents of them. So they loved it enough to say, they could have left right after the Civil War and gone someplace else, but they chose to stay here for various reasons and if you compare Sapelo and its marshes and trees and some of its plants to parts of West Africa, maybe a regressed memory or something that was told to them when they was children by great, great, great grandparents. Maybe that's the reason but whatever the reason is, they all love Sapelo and so do we.
MARTIN: So many people have been there, what, since the 19th century? I see that it says that it was established in 1857.
BAILEY: Yes, but we were here on the island since the 1790s.
MARTIN: Since the 1790s.
MARTIN: So tell me when you first started noticing these big increases in property taxes. How have you been affected?
BAILEY: Well, we all have been affected. You know your savings are being deleted because you have to go to the bank to write out a cashier check to, you know, from out of your savings to pay the taxes. Whereas before that you could have written a check out of your regular checking account to pay the taxes.
MARTIN: So have the land values increased? Is that why the taxes have increased? Or have the authorities raised the tax rate?
BAILEY: They are saying that it has increased because of some of the sales, and some of the people here. Some of the descendants have sold property for - to people who want it for high prices. And, you know, there's always somebody out there who wants something, and if they want something and they can afford it then they're going to buy it. And so that's what has happened. And if you buy an acre of land for $250,000, naturally you going to build a house to reflect the price that you paid for the land. You're not going to buy an acre of land for $250,000 and then build something on it that costs $50,000.
MARTIN: I understand that the appraised value of your property - and I think what is it, you have an acre? Right?
MARTIN: And you have your home there and a small store and a small inn there, right?
MARTIN: That the appraised value has gone from $220,285 in 2011 to $327,063 last year alone.
BAILEY: Yes. Alone.
MARTIN: That's a pretty big steep increase in a year.
BAILEY: That's a pretty big steep increase, and then on the tax payment they'll say things like improvements and so forth and I'm going, I didn't do no improvements. It's still the same. And we're on a homestead but they call it a floating homestead. So a floating homestead I guess they can still, you know, raise your taxes.
MARTIN: Well, what are the authorities telling you about why the tax increases have gone up? You're saying they're saying improvements have been made, but you don't believe that. You think it's why, just the reflecting the recent sales, is that it?
BAILEY: That's what they using, they use that excuse. There's a house that was bought in one of the former communities, because there used to be five committees on the island when I was growing up - Belle Marsh, Lumber Landing, Raccoon Bluff and Shell Hammock. They all have now closed. And we only have Hog Hammock.
But there's a house still, there's some private land in somebody's area, there's still bits and pieces of private land owned by descendants, and years ago, there were descendants who moved away to Savanna, Georgia years ago - sold to this white guy and he in turn sold a piece to another white guy, and this guy built a three-story house on it. And then he ended up selling it to the guy who owned the Georgia Theatre Company. And he died all of a sudden and he left it to the Boy Scouts of America, one of the chapters here in Georgia, and then they sold it.
MARTIN: Well, what I wanted to ask you is this, that, I mean, you're seeing some of the same things in other really desirable places. I mean, there's like, places like The Hamptons outside of New York, which used to be, you know, a potato farms - you know, potato farms and now there are, you know, incredibly wealthy people living there 'cause it's so pretty. And then you're seeing farms out west and places like that that used to be working ranches and now you're seeing a lot of celebrities buy there because it's so beautiful.
MARTIN: Some people will say that's just the way things are. And some people think rising property values are a good thing. That you'll have more to leave your descendants. What do you say to that?
BAILEY: It's a bad thing. It's a bad thing according to where you are. You know, I don't care if my land is valued at $10,000 - it's the love of the land. I don't care what anybody - what they consider an assessed value on my land that my people struggled so hard to buy a long time ago after the Civil War. There is no value on it. It is priceless. To us, it's priceless. This is our heritage, this is our birthright, and so we don't put a price on it and say it's worth this and that sort of thing. It's different.
MARTIN: That's Cornelia Walker Bailey. She joined us from Sapelo Island, Georgia. And it's - help me pronounce it properly, her home in Hog...
MARTIN: Hammock, Hog Hammock.
BAILEY: H-O-M-M-O-C-K, Hammock.
MARTIN: Yes, ma'am. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
BAILEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.