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Tawana Promprakai and Delphine Gillard on the land that once belonged to their family on St. Helena Island, S.C. 

Tawana Promprakai and Delphine Gillard on the land that once belonged to their family on St. Helena Island, S.C. 

Photographer: Rita Harper for Bloomberg Businessweek

How Generations of Black Americans Lost Their Land to Tax Liens

Sales of repossessed assets have stripped thousands of families of their property—along with the potential to increase wealth.

To the east of the Gay Fish Co. dock on South Carolina’s St. Helena Island, a new bridge soars above the water, high enough for the shrimp boats to clear as they head to sea. It hits ground near the gatehouse for the private Harbor Island, where some of the colorful triple-decker beach homes have backyard tennis courts and putting greens. Across the water to the south, a guard turns the uninvited away from Fripp Island, a playground studded with luxury homes and three golf courses. The gate to a third private island is down Sea Island Parkway toward the mainland. Hilton Head is a short boat ride away.

In the middle of them all sits St. Helena, the largest of the sea islands that stretch out from the antebellum city of Beaufort. St. Helena has no golf courses, no gated guardhouses. Mobile homes are its primary housing stock.