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Descendants of enslaved people on S.C. island band together to stop a developer

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In South Carolina, a developer is challenging a decades-old zoning law enacted to protect the direct descendants of enslaved Africans who live on a sea island near Beaufort. The law bans golf courses, resorts and gated communities, which Gullah Geechee people say threaten their existence. South Carolina Public Radio's Victoria Hansen reports.

VICTORIA HANSEN, BYLINE: Sarah Reynolds Green plucks yellow squash from twisting vines...

(SOUNDBITE OF PICKING SQUASH)

HANSEN: ...On the same land her enslaved ancestors picked cotton.

SARAH REYNOLDS GREEN: They were forced to work it, and they knew the value of it.

HANSEN: Green's great-grandfather bought 20 acres on Saint Helena Island after the Civil War. Thousands of other newly freed Africans bought land here too. On this quiet island, the direct descendants of slaves have farmed and fished for nearly 200 years. They have their own language, culture and African traditions.

GREEN: Whenever anyone walks on the soil here on Saint Helena, they feel something.

HANSEN: Roughly 1 million Gullah Geechee still live along the southeast coast, but their populations are diminishing, as is their rural land. When word spread on Saint Helena eight months ago a developer had purchased 500 acres, islanders, like 86-year-old Joe Freeman, began lining up outside the county administration building to sign petitions.

JOE FREEMAN: Yes, I'm worried, big-time worried.

HANSEN: Inside, they packed hallways to get into public meetings, and they prayed.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Amen.

HANSEN: Islanders held up signs before county leaders reading, no golf courses, no gated communities. They worry golf course chemicals could pollute their waterways while gated community homes would increase property taxes. They banned both with a zoning law they wrote decades ago. But developer Elvio Tropeano wants to build a golf course despite the law. He drives me around the property he wants to develop. It's pristine and wild, with creeks and marshes.

ELVIO TROPEANO: It's got a lot of views that a lot of people haven't been able to see for a really long time.

HANSEN: Tropeano says his golf course would benefit the community by allowing public access to land that's on the National Register of Historic Places. He wants to use it to educate island visitors and raise money for Gullah Geechee people. The 35-year-old, who moved to the area from New York, knew about the zoning law, but insists he's trying to help by asking...

TROPEANO: How do I create recognition and generate resources in a manner that does not displace people?

HANSEN: Tropeano wants his property removed from the zoning ordinance and says if it's not, he'll have to make good on his investments by building more than 160 luxury homes. Some islanders fear that would be worse than a golf course. But preservation attorney Will Cook calls it a disingenuous threat.

WILL COOK: There is no guarantee that he could max out the zoning envelope in the way that he is proposing that he can do.

HANSEN: Cook says multiple state and federal permits would be needed for so many homes. He and local conservationists would like to see the land preserved, but Tropeano says he will not sell. Meanwhile, islanders have spent months fighting Tropeano's request and won, when the county recently said his golf course cannot be exempt from the local ban. Now he's suing, questioning if the golf course ban itself is legal. Islander Marie Gibbs works at the Penn Center on Saint Helena, one of the first schools for freed slaves in the South.

MARIE GIBBS: When someone comes here with their dreams, we already have our dream. We're living our dreams.

HANSEN: She says Gullah Geechee people don't need a golf course or help raising money. They need the land that has sustained them the way it is, unspoiled and resilient.

GIBBS: People don't understand the land is me. You see me. I am that. I am that.

HANSEN: It's through the land, Gibbs says, Gullah Geechee people thrived despite slavery. She says they will fight to save every acre.

For NPR News, I'm Victoria Hansen on Saint Helena Island. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.