Mention heirs' property in the rural black community, and the sad stories flow easily.

Everyone has heard of someone who knows someone who has lost land.

And it's usually about elderly people who had been paying property taxes on the land for a lifetime; they thought they were doing the right thing to hold on to ancestral land.

Therein lies the problem, said Tish Lynn, resource development coordinator for the Center for Heirs' Property Preservation. One of the biggest myths about heirs' property is that if you pay the taxes you are entitled to more ownership of land. Not so.

To help dispel those and other myths, the center on Wednesday is holding one of its many free seminars to help residents learn to protect their land.

Help for landowners

Heirs' property is land that was purchased by or deeded to African Americans following emancipation and passed down through generations without a will. Therefore, no one has a clear title to the land.

A relative who has “never set foot on the land” has as much right as those who have paid the taxes and lived there all their lives, Lynn said.

The problem is that anyone — a stranger or developer — who wants desirable land need only buy out one of the heirs and force a sale of the full property, leaving the low-income taxpayer with little or no means of holding on to property he spent a lifetime protecting.

And sometimes, land is lost because no one has paid the taxes.

According to Black Family Trust, a center partner, there were 15 million acres of black-owned land across the country at the turn of the 20th century. There are less than 1.5 million acres now.

Center literature say it's due to landowners' lack of access to capital and legal system, lack of education and discrimination.

In the six counties the center covers — Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester, Beaufort, Colleton and Georgetown — there are only 41,000 acres of heirs' property left, Lynn said.

Without a title, heirs' property owners also cannot get loans to repair their homes, a problem that became evident in the wake of Hurricane Hugo, Lynn said.

Director Jennie Stephens, the center's executive director and an African American who grew up in Walterboro, knew of the longstanding problem and started the center in 2005. The nonprofit educates and provides legal services to low-income heirs' property owners and helps them protect their land.

Build a family tree

According to its figures, the center has conducted 209 legal seminars and presentations to 5,893 people. It has cleared 74 titles.

One thing family members of heirs' property can start doing is build a family tree — putting together the names of every relative. That is the first step to a clear title, Lynn said.

The free seminar is at 6-7:30 p.m. Wednesday at St. Andrews Regional Branch Library, 1735 N. Woodmere Drive in West Ashley.

Attorney Josh Walden will explain how to protect your land. To register, call Jackie Wilson at 843-745-7055 or toll free at 1-866-657-2676.

Reach City Editor Shirley A. Greene at 937-5555