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Josephine Wright, who resisted development of family’s Gullah land on Hilton Head Island, dies at 94

Jan 10, 2024, 2:16 PM | Updated: 7:56 pm

Josephine Wright poses in her yard facing a barren plot under development in Hilton Head Island, S....

Josephine Wright poses in her yard facing a barren plot under development in Hilton Head Island, S.C., June 2023. Wright, who drew national attention from the likes of Tyler Perry and Snoop Dogg as she fought off developers in her final years, died Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024, at her Hilton Head home surrounded by loved ones, according to a publicist for her family. She was 94. (AP Photo/James Pollard)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/James Pollard)

A woman on South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island who drew national attention from stars such as Tyler Perry and Snoop Dogg as she fought off developers in her final years has died, according to a publicist for her family. She was 94.

Josephine Wright came to embody the development pressures displacing residents of historic African American communities in the beautiful South Carolina coastal town and around the country. An investment firm sued her early last year over alleged property encroachments on a proposed 147-unit neighborhood near land her late husband’s family had owned for more than a century.

“Her legacy as a pillar of strength, wisdom, and commitment to justice will forever remain etched in our hearts,” the family wrote in a statement after her death Sunday at her Hilton Head home. A cause of death was not mentioned.

Wright moved around 30 years ago from New York City to the historic Gullah neighborhood of Jonesville — named for a Black Civil War veteran who escaped slavery and purchased land there. She and her late husband sought peace while he suffered from Parkinson’s disease. The couple thought they’d found the perfect quiet place in the same spot where his ancestors once took refuge.

The Brooklyn-born matriarch was a dedicated community participant and a hard-working woman. She raised seven children and recounted terms as president of three different Parent Teacher Associations. She returned twice to school for certificates in computer science and insurance. She also helped out her husband’s law office until he could afford a secretary and worked for a time in the New York City Department of Transportation’s legal department.

“You have run your race and fought an incredible fight!” Perry, the actor and filmmaker, wrote in an Instagram post. “Journey well my dear lady. You have inspired me.”

The Hilton Head home became a “sanctuary” for a family that totals some four remaining children, 40 grandchildren, 54 great-grandchildren, six great-great-grandchildren, two Cockapoo dogs and a Shih Tzu, according to Charise Graves, one of Wright’s granddaughters, who spoke with The Associated Press last summer.

Graves fondly recalled trips there as a teenager.

“Everybody comes here, everybody visits,” she said.

The hope was that future generations would also enjoy it. Whether they’ll withstand the developer’s lawsuit, or any future growth, remains to be seen. According to the most recently published online court records, a third party had been appointed to resolve the dispute. Altimese Nichole, the family’s public relations representative, said conversations about a settlement are ongoing.

Wright held strong against offers to give up the land.

“Why haven’t I? Because I want to keep my property and I don’t want to sell,” Wright told The Associated Press last summer of the offers she’d declined in recent years.

“I just want to be able to live here in this sanctuary with a free mind,” Wright said.

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Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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Josephine Wright, who resisted development of family’s Gullah land on Hilton Head Island, dies at 94