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Josephine Wright, who fought developers in South Carolina, has died at 94

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A South Carolina matriarch is being remembered this week for her unwavering determination to take on developers and preserve historically significant land. She inspired celebrities and raised awareness for Gullah Geechee people. South Carolina Public Radio's Victoria Hansen has this remembrance of Josephine Wright.

VICTORIA HANSEN, BYLINE: Ninety-four-year-old Josephine Wright just wanted to live in peace on her late husband's family land when bulldozers began to surround the picturesque property on Hilton Head Island. She had turned down an offer for the land years earlier and thought nothing of it. Then, last February, the great-great-grandmother was served with a lawsuit. A developer claimed part of her home encroached on plans for a subdivision and sought damages. Wright told local media...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSEPHINE WRIGHT: It puzzled me at first, but then it got me angry.

HANSEN: Wright got so angry, she fought back and hired a civil rights attorney. The land has been in the family since the Civil War, purchased by an ancestor freed from slavery. The story of this tiny matriarch, less than 5 feet tall, standing up to developers, suddenly grew when actor and filmmaker Tyler Perry took to social media, pledging support. He donated thousands to the family's GoFundMe page. Then, rapper Snoop Dogg did, too, and NBA star Kyrie Irving. Wright's message of perseverance was shared around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WRIGHT: I feel so much pride and comfort in knowing that this is where I will be for the rest of my life.

HANSEN: Wright died Sunday as the battle over her property drags on in court. But those who have fought to save the rapidly disappearing land and culture of the direct descendants of enslaved Africans say they now have an ally in Wright's legacy. Wright's family started a foundation in her name to help other families save their ancestral land. Victoria Smalls of nearby St. Helena Island called Wright an example of what Gullah Geechee communities can do.

VICTORIA SMALLS: To hold onto dear life - to our land and our culture and our people.

HANSEN: Wright was known as Grandma Josephine to those close to her, including Altimese Nichole. She's friends with one of Wright's 40 grandchildren and has served as a family spokesperson. She remembers a day she scheduled a media interview with Wright at her home.

ALTIMESE NICHOLE: I show up at the house. I'm like, hey, Grandma, and they're like, give us, like, 30 minutes. Grandma's upholstering some furniture. And I'm like, what (laughter)?

HANSEN: She says the 94-year-old also made robes for the church choir, all while fighting to save her family's land.

For NPR News, I'm Victoria Hansen in South Carolina.

(SOUNDBITE OF RINI SONG, "SELFISH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.