Reclaiming the Land Part 2: Keya Meggett's Story

By: Amanda E. Machado + Save to a List

In November 2020, Keya moved to Edisto Island — the land where her ancestors were enslaved. Now she's leading a movement to take back the land for Black families.

Keya Meggett took the photo above seven months ago, on her ancestral homeland of Edisto Island. It’s a photo of a moment when she described feeling “comforted by the sea air and distant relatives.”

“In this moment I paused—and listened, I listened deeply with my soul and then murmured softly under my breath:

Sankofa—go back and get it.

And that’s what I intend to do.”

Weeks before that moment, Keya was living in Greensboro with her toddler son, looking for where to settle down next. She wanted a place where she could have more space to grow her own vegetables and have her own garden, and she also wanted to live within a Black community. She had considered places like Charlotte and Asheville, but after losing her job once the pandemic started, she worried about her options.

Then, one night, Keya’s grandfather — who had passed away nearly two decades ago, on her 14th birthday — visited her in a dream.

“All he told me was ‘Call Martha.’ I didn’t know what that meant. I called the only relative I knew named Martha — and she told me “Martha” was also the name of my grandfather’s niece, my second cousin. “

In August, she drove down to visit Martha on her land on Edisto Island — a small island off the coast of South Carolina. She realized then that Martha owned two houses — one she kept empty so relatives could come. Martha admitted that lately, folks weren’t coming all that often, and she offered the second house to Keya and her son.

“I had no idea I’d be sent back to my U.S. ancestral homelands. But I truly believe my grandfather led me here,” she told me. “I was so nervous and also so ready. I feel like I’m listening and taking the directions that are given to me.”

I reached out to Keya after reading her Instagram post telling part of this story. I had just published my first piece for The Outbound setting the intention to connect with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color who were living on land in radical ways. I was inspired by the way Keya’s story reclaimed a piece of U.S. land that was otherwise known to have a brutal colonial and anti-Black history.

Edisto Island’s name derives from the “Edistow” indigenous community that originally lived here. After English colonizers arrived, their violence towards indigenous communities, coupled with the spread of disease, made the Edistow people nearly extinct (These days, aspects of Edistow culture were adopted by the Kusso-Natchez Tribe, now known as the Edisto Indian Organization because of their location near the Edisto River). 

By the 1800’s, Edisto island had mostly been converted into cotton plantations, managed by white overseers who used enslaved Africans for labor. The Smithsonian’s National African American History Museum in Washington D.C. even holds a cabin from the Point of Pines Plantation in Edisto Island — a house that served as the residence for enslaved persons.

Through her research, Keya discovered that her family lived in one of the cabins as recent as the 1940’s. Although there are few records of the enslaved families that lived in these houses before then, the history she has uncovered has led her to conclude that it’s likely her family descended from those first enslaved families.

“When you think about slavery, and the history of overseers raping women and creating families, we know that a lot of our last names were taken from those overseers,” she told me. The overseers of the Point of Pines Plantation were still buried at a gravesite on the original plantation land in Edisto Island.

“When I realized that every gravesite had just two last names — Meggett or Seabrook — I started putting the pieces together.”

Once slavery ended in the late 1800’s, racial discrimination and segregation still continued to restrict how Black communities could engage with the island. In the 1930's, the Civilian Conservation Corps developed Edisto Beach State Park as a segregated "whites only" recreation park. When African Americans — led by J. Arthur Brown, the head of the Charleston Chapter of the NAACP — began fighting for the rights to use the park, the State Park officials fought back, and ultimately, in 1963, closed down the entire park to everyone, regardless of race. Edisto Beach State Park remained closed for a decade.

During her time on Edisto Island, Keya has noticed that the Black elders she meets often still hold the subconscious belief that they’re still not allowed on the beach.

“When I tell my cousin I’m going to the beach, she’s like ‘what, you’re going to the beach? All those white people are on the beach!’ I had to take a step back and reflect on why she says that.”

In December of 1970, Edisto Beach — a less than three square miles area of the 68 square miles of Edisto Island — voted to incorporate itself as its own separate city and county, completely segregated from the Black communities who had lived on the island for centuries. Even though the town of Edisto Beach is smaller than Edisto Island, Edisto Beach has a mayor and city council, while Edisto Island still doesn’t have any form of governance.

“The mostly Black residents of Edisto Island are still paying taxes without any representation, which means they have been severely disenfranchised for over 400 years.”

These days, Edisto Beach and many of the surrounding islands are packed with tennis courts, golf courses, beach resorts, and other touristic development. On the Edisto Realty website, the island is marketed as a place to “escape the anxiety of life and retreat to an elegant oasis.” But in their website’s description of the history of the island, there is no recognition of how the system of slavery built this area’s wealth, or that decades of segregation prohibited access to this land to Black residents for generations. The company calls themselves “experts” on the area and claims “our roots go deep into Edisto’s sand.” The entire sales team of Edisto Realty is white.

Knowing now the centuries of oppressive policies that made it nearly impossible for Black families to thrive here, Keya sees her cousin’s ownership of two houses on the island as its own radical accomplishment.

“In my cousin’s mind, she was just thinking about family. That was the one thing she holds on to. But I tell her also ‘You saved this land for all these years. A lot of black families can’t say the same for the land they had in the South.”

Throughout our conversation, Keya and I kept circling around the true definition of wealth and inheritance — words that, for me, had always seemed confined through capitalism. For years, I had only thought about notions of “family wealth” and “family inheritance” through the limited scope of obtaining money. In my twenties, when I first quit my job to travel and hike around the world — for the first time spending a year intentionally not making money — I realized quickly how expansive “wealth” could be: while there may be value in wealth of money, there was also value in having a wealth of time, a wealth of new experiences, a wealth of moments communing with nature.

Speaking with Keya expanded my definition even further. It made me make the connection between communing with nature, and reconnecting with family, and transforming “inheritance” into a reclamation of history.

“To me, wealth is finding ways to live off the land, having food you grew yourself, having time to be with the land, connecting with ancestors,” Keya told me, “Just having the money to pay bills doesn’t feel like wealth anymore.”

As Keya stays with her cousin Martha on the island, she made an agreement with her to renovate the home and maintain the surrounding land. In the last few months, she’s renovated three bedrooms and the front porch, built an enclosure for starting a vegetable garden, and removed a giant, dying sweetgum tree at risk of falling on the house.

In the next few years, Keya hopes to partner the nonprofit she founded —Earth Child Inc. — with local organizations that connect youth and young adults to nature via stewardship, education, healing, exploration and adventure. In nearly 400 years, Edisto Island has never had one recreation center. Recently, when the Edisto Island Youth Recreation Dept. finally acquired 143 acres of land, Keya began working with the organization to raise funds and create more programs for Black families on the island.

Eventually, Keya wants to begin connecting Black Americans outside the island with the land and culture here — especially the vibrant Black and Gullah/Geechee culture that thrived here. Since Edisto island was so isolated from the mainland, once slavery was abolished, Black communities here could more more firmly hold onto much of their language, culture, traditions and spiritual practices.

“As a Black person in this country, the sea islands alone need to be protected and saved from development, poor and inequitable land management and coastal erosion, because it’s one of the last surviving places in the U.S. where African history is still preserved,” she says, “Especially for Black people who don’t know where they are from, it’s really important that we preserve what has incubated here for hundreds of years”.

For now, Keya is settling in her new home and community, preparing for the growing season, leaning into the next steps for Earth Child Inc., exploring the island with her son, and enjoying finally feeling a true sense of home.

“I have found myself many nights just crying because this feeling of being in the right place felt so, so real. For the first time in my life, I feel safe, divinely guided and protected—and that is confirmation for me.”

***

To learn more about Keya's work and donate/contribute to the movement, visit her GoFundMe page here

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Do you love the outdoors?

Yep, us too. That's why we send you the best local adventures, stories, and expert advice, right to your inbox.