Law allows White Attorneys to Take Black family's S.C. land

JOYCE THELMA IRVING TAYLOR’S father purchased a South Carolina parcel nearly 100 years ago to ensure the family would also have a place to call home. Family members maintain an unscrupulous attorney acquired and sold the property without her knowledge or any Irving family members.

“They just took it,” is a Chicago woman’s simple explanation of a complex legal battle her family has been fighting in South Carolina for 10 years. 

Debrah Taylor-Greene said when her grandfather was 19 years old in 1917, he bought 110 acres of land in Saluda County, SC. Today, the family has lost the land through what they term as deceit and lying. 

Taylor-Greene’s 86-year-old mother, Thelma Joyce Irving Taylor, recalled her father’s intentions in acquiring the acreage was to ensure “future generations would have someplace to call home.”

In 2004, that notion got turned upside down when a white attorney, who had represented the Irving family for more than 20 years and considered a family friend, tried to convince two of Donald Irving’s sons to sell him the property.

Taylor-Greene recounted that the brothers and Billy Coleman, the attorney, had fished and hunted together on that property for several years. She added that Coleman, now 89 years old, had been the attorney and/or counselor for most of the family members still in Saluda County.

The Irvings are an enormous clan with more than 120 members spanning five generations, who are able to trace their roots to Donald Irving. About 40 are considered to have interest in the property, according to Taylor-Greene. Coleman and his then-partner, Richard Clark—now deceased—waited more than 25 years after all of the first-generation sons died to pursue the sale and ultimate acquisition of the land. Taylor-Greene explained the attorney began talking with several other family members urging them to deed their “interest” in the parcel to him. She said Coleman and Clark paid those family members between $1,000 and $5,000 for their signatures. 

Saluda County Court records show Taylor-Greene stated, “Billy Coleman and his cohorts have lied, cheated, performed illegal business transactions, printed untruths in public documents, filed false documents in court record, and executed scare tactics and sneak attacks.” Saluda is a hamlet of about 20,000 people with approximately 26 percent of them Black, U.S. Census Bureau data shows.

“They especially preyed upon and took advantage of weak, ill, needy, greedy, slow and mental members of the Irving family.” Taylor-Greene explained that Coleman and Clark constructed fake deeds and got 13 family members to sign their interest in the property to them. She offered, “When they were younger, Coleman and his cohorts wanted to prove that because they were white, Black people could not refuse them, say ‘no’ to them. They felt they could just take what they wanted because they are white,” she said. 

On March 28, 2014, eight days after the Irving family filed a complaint against Coleman, the family matriarch was informed the property had been sold for $200,000.

Taylor-Greene and South Carolina State Senator Robert W. Hayes (R-15) explained this kind of dispute is usually contained within a family. Hayes related the only situations he was aware of non-family members taking land is when developers pit family members against one another in order to obtain an interest and force a sale. 

Hayes has unsuccessfully introduced the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act in the South Carolina Senate, and said the bill will be re-introduced in January 2015. The bill addresses what is termed, “a dispossession of land through forced sales.”

Background on Hayes’ bill details that following the Civil War, African Americans had between 16 and 19 million acres of land. Today, that number is about 7 million, according to the bill’s introductory section. It further explained many African-American landowners die without a proper will in place, which makes it easy for non-family members to acquire interest in any property the deceased owned.

Taylor-Greene stated that in papers filed with the county clerk, Coleman maintained he had paid all property taxes when it was the Irvings who ensured payments were always current. Besides the land, Coleman acquired access to $50,000 worth of mature timber, which he sold, Taylor-Greene said. 

The Irving family filed several complaints against the attorney, Henrietta Gill, who served as special referee when the family contested the land acquisition. Each time, the Supreme Court of South Carolina Office of Disciplinary Counsel found no wrongdoing on Gill’s part, and dismissed the family’s complaints. The most recent ruling came June 23.

Taylor-Greene said lawsuits and subsequent hearings proved futile. Equally frustrating, she added, was obtaining a lawyer to replace Willie B. Heyward, the attorney who quit the case last January after 10 years.

“Every lawyer in and around Saluda County is either related to Billy Coleman or worked with him before, and consider taking our case a conflict of interest,” Taylor-Greene added. She said she has contacted every major civil rights group in the nation, but to no avail. She is awaiting a response from some attorneys outside the state who may be licensed to practice in South Carolina and are willing to take the case. 

Another anomaly with the case is the county attorney, Christian Spradley, was able to represent Coleman. A complaint filed by the Irvings cited a conflict of interest over that arrangement also was dismissed. Agent Tom Berry of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) said it is not unusual in small counties, such as Saluda, to contract with a private attorney to serve as its county attorney. 

The property, Taylor-Greene said, was sold to Adam Barnes and Randy A. Barnes of Batesburg-Leesville, S.C., 16 miles from Saluda County. She said she didn’t know whether the land had been developed. The Barnes’ business has locations in Batesburg and Saluda. Records show the Barnes paid $201,000 for the property. Those same records from the appellate court case show disbursements ranging from $4,622.65 to $14,253.61 were made to six Irving family members. Joyce Thelma Irving Taylor, Taylor-Greene’s mother received the largest check, but will not cash the check as she said that would mean she agreed with how the land was taken from the family.

Randy Barnes refused to speak to the Crusader, referring all inquires to Moore, Taylor and Thomas law firm where the letterhead lists Spradley as a partner. 

Spradley said he instructed Barnes not to talk about the land because SLED notified Spradley on July 14 that a threat had been made by Taylor-Greene, but did not know who specifically was threatened. Taylor-Greene said she did not make any threats. Berry of SLED said the captain assigned to the area that includes Saluda County told him he was unaware of any threat investigations involving Barnes or Spradley.

Spradley elaborated on the case that, “Miss Taylor-Greene should not even be involved in this case because it was not her land. It was her mother’s land.” He added that the land acquisition by Coleman was legal and all court documents substantiate that. 

“She has tried to show something is wrong or illegal, and everybody who looks at the court records proves nothing improper was done. And now, she is using you,” the attorney said. The attorney was referring to the Crusader.

He said the six Irving family members listed in the state appellate court document “Disbursement Explanation” are the only Irvings entitled 

to a portion of the proceeds from the sale. Spradley’s firm received $30,150—more than twice as much as Joyce Thelma Irving Taylor received. Spradley also said, “I have wasted five years on this case, and frankly, I am tired of it.”