No Place in the Sun for the Hired Help

a coast under clouds

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 10 No. 3, "Coastal Affair." Find more from that issue here.

Thirty-five years ago, the residents of Hilton Head Island worked on farms or fished from boats; they grew beans, peas and cotton, and in the winter women generally made quilts and clothes, while the men left to find seasonal work on the mainland. Concentrated largely on the northern end of the island, black families formed a modest self-sufficient community of 1,000 people. A higher portion of them owned their land than did families on several neighboring islands, but like blacks throughout the Sea Islands, they had little cash income.

In the most literal sense, the enslaved forebears of today’s Sea Islanders built the rice-indigo-cotton plantation system and buttressed the national economic, political and cultural clout of the area’s white minority. In 1861, shortly after the first shot was fired on Fort Sumter, Union troops occupied Beaufort, South Carolina, and took control of the strategically important port towns and islands. Liberated Sea Island blacks began cultivating the land for themselves, and under various programs sponsored by federal and private agencies, they subdivided the plantations and purchased or assumed ownership of the land.

On January 16, 1865, General William T. Sherman officially awarded possession of “the islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for 30 miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. John’s River, Florida,” to the former slaves of the area. Soon thereafter, however, President Andrew Johnson voided Sherman’s order and returned thousands of acres to the former plantation owners.

Only about 1,000 black families could establish valid titles to land at the time, and despite white hostility, they passed the land down to the next generation. In subsequent years, other blacks managed to buy land, especially from whites who left after finding it difficult to revive an agrarian economy. Many blacks moved off the islands, too, but the continued decline of cotton prices and a series of devastating hurricanes in the 1890s and early 1900s convinced virtually all the whites to abandon the Sea Islands.

Subsistence farming and fishing became the norm, and land prices remained depressed from the early 1900s to the mid-1950s. The Gullah dialect and culture that evolved over three centuries, along with the absence of bridges to the mainland, fostered the independence and relative isolation of Sea Island black communities, like the one on Hilton Head Island.

In 1950, Charles Fraser, Sr., and two partners bought large sections of the southern end of Hilton Head Island, mostly from private owners on the mainland. They timbered some of the land, and for a while provided a few jobs for blacks. Some Hilton Head Islanders contend the partners used the trust established with local workers to buy black-owned parcels at unbelievably low prices.

Regardless of the truth of that charge, relations dramatically changed after Charles Fraser, Jr., convinced his father to let him undertake development of a lavish 5,200-acre resort, Sea Pines Plantation. Land sale records at the Beaufort County Courthouse indicate that the erection of the first bridge to the island in 1956 and the opening in the next several years of three resort “plantations” — Sea Pines, Hilton Head and Honey Horn — generated a rash of land speculation, as other developers rushed in to profit on spin-off projects. Fraser’s award-winning projects included dead covenants rigidly controlling growth on the southern tip of the island, but other developers built more mediocre housing tracts and led a run on land parcels.

Blacks, who still owned much of the land, were often not compensated properly because they did not know the property’s true market worth, or because it was taken from them through trickery, or because problems with unclear title to the land allowed speculators to buy it at a fraction of its value. As on other Sea Islands and parts of the rural South, land owned by blacks is often inherited by many heirs; if a land title is not properly transferred from parents or grandparents, largely because of failure to leave a will, then it legally belongs to all heirs of the original owner, perhaps as many as 30 or 40 cousins, even though only one or two of the heirs live on the property. To buy a parcel of heirs’ property, a developer may force a “partition sale” by tracking down one of the heirs (typically in a Northern city), buying his or her share, and then asking a judge to order the whole parcel sold on the grounds that one owner (the developer) claims the property was not equitably divided among heirs, due to variations in quality and location.

To help blacks clear up titles to their land and secure their ownership rights, Charles Fraser, Jr.’s Sea Pines Plantation Company promised to start an heirs’ property program several years ago. The program was originally funded at $80,000, but even that much may not have been enough for the mammoth legal and detective work required to track down the heirs. Sea Pines was the only company to offer help, and local blacks gave it credit for at least making a minimal effort. But after the money was supposedly granted by the company, and before it was spent in any substantial amount, landowners were told the account was depleted. The local head of the NAACP called the program “a scheme to get black property in the disguise of help,” saying the company only wanted blacks to gain clear title so that whites could buy the property. Blacks now own less than one-fourth of the land on the island.

Land loss is not the only reason blacks distrust the new plantations. Dirt roads in their communities have been truncated or absorbed by developers, yet some public access roads are now blocked by guardhouses. Centralized water and sewage systems serve only the areas with resort developments, but the huge consumption of water for the plantations’ golf greens and other needs is jeopardizing everyone’s private wells (see article on page 40). After carefully examining other new services on the island — schools, library, firehouse, roads, airfield, stores and local hospitals — it is apparent that each benefits blacks only as a by-product of the intended benefit they bring to whites. When that byproduct does not naturally flow to blacks, they lose out.

The promised job opportunities from resort development have also not materialized. In fact, nearly half the 10,000 jobs that exist are held by residents of other islands or the mainland. As of 1976, all the domestics connected with the Hilton Head Company came from Ridgeland, a small town about 20 miles away. At the large Holiday Inn on Hilton Head, 60 percent of all employees and 80 percent of the housekeepers commuted to the island each day from Beaufort, Savannah, Hardeeville, Bluffton, Parris Island and Ridgeland.

The positions held by blacks are almost all in the uniform services, such as maids, maintenance workers, kitchen personnel and waitresses. Many of the jobs are temporary or part-time; all of them pay little more than minimum wage. There are no unions on the island. Interviews with hotel managers reveal general satisfaction with black workers but dismay over the resentment many display toward white visitors. They complain about rude waitresses; a former Sea Pines manager who became vice president for a new resort development on nearby Kiawah Island spoke of his attempts to prevent what he called “the Hilton Head phenomenon,” where a courteous staff gradually turns into a surly one.

One reason for the resentment, say workers, is that blacks are restricted to menial, dead-end jobs, with only a very few “showpieces” — usually men — in high positions. When a visitor enters one of the many hotel lobbies, he or she will likely find that the front desk personnel are all white. A visit to the hotel restaurant reveals a host of black waitresses and busboys. The kitchen food preparers and dishwashers are also black, with the exception of head chefs and wine stewards. By noon the army of black household personnel (maids) is in the midst of its daily rounds.

While promotions and other long-term opportunities are slim, the high number of available jobs continues to woo black youngsters away from school or homework because it is so easy to earn money waiting tables or caddying on the golf course — work is available until midnight or one a.m. Eventually many young people drop out of school, ensuring their entrapment in a low-wage, low-skill job market.

After reviewing the employment patterns on Hilton Head, Paul Good observed in American Serfs: “It could be argued — and is — that white development brought economic betterment to black chambermaids and to a generation of career caddies. However, a chambermaid-caddy economy never made anyone except motel owners solvent.”

And the chances of a local black becoming a motel owner are remote, though not impossible. A few years ago, Beaufort County proposed the zoning of several predominantly black-owned areas of the island as agricultural or industrial, in an apparent attempt to limit their commercial development. Islanders successfully blocked the move, but more recent efforts to establish a land-use plan and island government (white residents now outnumber blacks by five to one) pose serious hurdles for a black entrepreneur interested in maximizing the potential of black-owned land.

Several black-owned businesses — grocery stores, service stations, bottle shops, a bus line, a landscaping and tree-care firm, and a few other service operations — are struggling to stay afloat. In general, none has reaped much profit from the new resort and residential developments, for the simple reason that they are not patronized by white visitors. The businesses are not located on the wealthy southern oasis of white islanders, and white visitors and residents regularly speed past black-owned stores to shop at tourist-attracting facilities. There are notable exceptions. A black-owned, modern Gulf station and a small grocery store are bustling with activity. A shrimping cooperative has been a success, in large part because the motel industry and other islanders provide a ready market. The cooperative, organized by Thomas Barnwell, provides a number of jobs for local blacks, but on an uneven basis.

Research shows that the limited business opportunity for blacks in resort areas is not unique to Hilton Head Island. The situation is perhaps worse at nearby Kiawah Island, where contractors are building a magnificent complex of six resort villages for the Arab investors from Kuwait who own the entire island. While small contracts have been made with local businesses, such as a tree nursery and firms dealing with trash pickup, wells and locks, on the whole blacks do not own the types of businesses that a resort developer needs or wants.

Even in the area of arts and crafts, a top Kiawah executive contends, the need for “high quality” goods to satisfy upper-income tastes limits the use of local producers. In the end, Kiawah and other resorts aim to be self-contained societies, providing within their own borders sufficient restaurants, craft stores and gas stations for their visitors. This closed economy and enclave mentality ultimately work to restrict all contact with local blacks to those whose service uniforms render them invisible or mere extensions of the resort’s placid environment.