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Former owners want Harris Neck back

Land trust may take case to Congress

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POSTED: July 14, 2010 9:32 a.m.
Photo by Patty Leon/

A turtle suns itself on a piece of driftwood at Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge.

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Sixty-eight years after the federal government took their land through eminent domain, members of the Harris Neck Land Trust Organization are hopeful the latest developments will bring them closer to reclaiming their plots.
The group may get a slot on the agenda for a congressional hearing to plead their case before Congress recesses Aug. 1.
“We don’t have a lot of time,” said David Kelly, Harris Neck Land Trust project coordinator. “But if we don’t get it then we are going to get on the calendar in July for the first week after recess.”
Kelly is a writer with a background in journalism who was living in California in 2000 when he learned about Harris Neck, the people and their plight on National Public Radio. He said he heard an interview with Wilson Moran, a direct descendant of the original landowners who inherited the land from Margret Ann Harris in 1865.
“I was really captured by Wilson’s very first interview that was on NPR,” Kelly said. “To make a long story short, we talked about 30 times on the phone and he said, ‘Why don’t you come and visit?’ and I came down. Later, I did a couple of research trips and then I ended up moving here in 2001. I got involved in the community and in the church. Wilson, a couple of other people and I figured out a strategy that we think is going to result in the return of the land so we got active in that in 2005,” Kelly said.
The original landowners were among the first African American and Gullah-Geechee freed slaves to own land in the area immediately following the civil war.
Seventy-five families called Harris Neck home and their land encompassed more than 2,000 acres which included the marsh, freshwater ponds meadows and woodlands. The families lived off the land growing their own crops, fished the creeks and rivers and hunted wild game. They established their own seafood processing plants, school house, churches, store and fire house.
Moran thinks their success is what eventually led to their demise.
“They had all the skills so they became, one generation removed from slavery, they became very successful,” Moran said.
In 1942 the federal government claimed eminent domain and gave the landowners three weeks to move. According to research done by Kelly, Moran and other board members the government made no provisions for future living arrangements to the displaced families. Their land, crops and homes were bulldozed and burned in order to build an Army airfield the government said was needed to secure the coast during World War II.
Most but not all of the freed slaves received an average of $26.90 per acre. The few white landowners of Harris Neck received $37.31 per acre. The Land Trust members contend the landowners were promised that land would be returned to the community after the war.
They also contend that E. M. Thorpe, the largest White landowner on Harris Neck, a McIntosh County Commissioner in the 1940s, and other prominent officials in McIntosh County, conspired to influence the taking of Harris Neck by the Federal government and to gain control of the 2,687 acres of Harris Neck after World War II.
Harris Neck was returned to the county, not the community, after the civil war. The contract stated the land was to be used by the county as an airport.
According to the chronological time line posted on the Harris Neck Land Trust Web-site, McIntosh County violated its contract with the Federal government during the time the county held title to Harris Neck, 1948 to 1961, by allowing many illegal activities, including prostitution, gambling, drag racing and drug smuggling.
Many of these accounts were documented in the book “Praying for Sheetrock: A work of Nonfiction.”
The government conveyed the title to the Department of the Interior and the Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge was created in 1961.
Kelly said research has shown that the proper procedures for eminent domain were not followed and the people’s rights to due process were violated in numerous ways, making the original taking of the land, as well as all additional transfers of title, unlawful and invalid.
Since 1979 several of the former landowners, along with different civil rights organizations have led the fight to reclaim their land. During an evidentiary hearing, held in 1980, U. S. District Court, Southern District of Georgia Judge B. Avant Edenfield said it would take congressional authorization to return the land to the original owners. Attempts to sponsor a bill to the House and Senate were futile.
In 2005 Kelly, Moran and the board, armed with all their new research, have re-ignited the fight and the media has taken notice.
Recently Georgia Public Broadcasting played an interview about the upcoming land dispute. In May the Land Trust meeting attracted Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson and State Representative Al Williams (Midway). Last week the New York Times and the London Times ran articles about the group and their struggles.
“We are shooting for, with (Jack)Kingston’s leadership, to get a hearing in front of the congressional committee on natural resources,” Kelly said. “They have jurisdiction over fish and wildlife and it’s out of that committee that our bill for legislation will come.”
Kelly said Kingston sent a letter which included the signatures of John Conyers, John Barrow, John Lewis and James Cliburn to the natural resources committee to see if they could be placed on the Congressional agenda.
The board plans to invite former landowners and a few key people to offer testimony and plead their case.
Kelly said they had a previous meeting with the officials of Fish and Wildlife in December 2009We had a very high level meeting in D.C., in December 2009 and meet with Fish and Wildlife.
“Congressmen Kingston was there, Congressman Lewis and then representatives from Conyers, Barrow and Cliburn,” Kelly said recalling the attendees.
He said the regional director of Fish and Wildlife, Cynthia Dohner was also there.
“We had a meeting and everybody agreed to find what Kingston referred to as an equitable solution to Harris Neck,” Kelly said. “Three months later in March almost all the same people met again in Hardeeville at the Savannah Refuge Headquarters and in that meeting it was totally different. Fish and Wildlife made it that clear. They said if you introduce a bill that calls for the return of title to the community it will be dead on arrival. And then they also said we will not support any effort that results in the return of the land to the community.”
Kelly said the sudden turnaround has left a bitter taste in the board’s mouth.
“We all feel that they have not been honest with us,” Kelly said. “We made it clear to Mr. Kingston last month that we are no longer going to be reaching out to Fish and Wildlife to try and get their support because they have made it clear that they are not, so now we are just working with Congress.”
Chris Crawford, Jack Kingston’s Press Secretary said Kingston has worked tirelessly towards an equitable resolution for both sides.
“People in are district feel that they were wronged and we are trying to work with our constituents on it,” Crawford said. “Our main focus has been in trying to bring everyone together and get everyone on the same page and try and get some meaningful discussion and see what we can do to resolve the differences and try to resolve this issue. Right now where we are is we are trying to get a hearing with the natural resources committee to give everybody a chance to make their case and get some more attention on this up here in Washington. I think the biggest obstacle right now is getting everybody on the same page and getting everybody to the table for the discussions.”
 

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