Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Richard H. Schein


Heirs’ property is land that is collectively inherited by family members when an ancestor dies without a will. The complexity and ambiguity of rights among family members makes these parcels legally vulnerable to dispossession. This form of land tenure is found across the United States, but is particularly prevalent in southern African American communities, where educational inequities and distrust of law led to a reliance on extralegal practices of inheritance. This dissertation investigates the dispossession and preservation of heirs’ property in the Gullah-Geechee communities of Lowcountry South Carolina.

This investigation of heirs’ property is rooted in the interdisciplinary literature on common property. As a critical geographer and political ecologist, my approach to studying common property utilizes three distinct lenses: historical geography, legal geography, and Common Property Theory (CPT). Results rely on a mixed-method approach including: interviews, focus groups, participant observation, and archival research.

Results are presented in three interlocking empirical chapters. Chapter three triangulates interviews, focus groups, and archival data to construct a historical narrative of African American landownership in the Lowcountry. The chapter closes with a discussion of how historical narratives animate contemporary land conflicts. Chapter four triangulates interviews with a variety of archival data to analyze the process and outcomes of two legal cases. These case studies are followed by a discussion of how legal conflict exposes conflicting property regimes. Chapter five triangulates interviews, focus groups, and archival data to uncover social practices that are used to manage property. This chapter closes with a discussion of how extralegal property regimes converge and diverge from the legal property rights.

Together these interlocking chapters uncover clashing property regimes and values while paying careful attention to the uneven legal ground on which these conflicts occur. Further, results uncover the wide variety of ownership forms that emerge from conflicts over heirs’ property. These findings reveal property as a diverse and highly contested concept and strengthen the currently faint bond between the literatures of heirs’ property law and Gullah-Geechee culture.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)