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Return Harris Neck Land To Rightful Owners

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The story of Harris Neck, Georgia is an old story of racial cleansing to obtain property in America. This particular story is one about freed African slaves making a life for themselves and their families. For over eighty years this prosperous community existed and was totally self reliant. In 1942 the community was destroyed by the Federal Government. The Harris Neck Land Trust was set up to seek justice which includes the return of land to its rightful owners to once again fulfill a American dream that was wrongly turned into a nightmare.

The Story of Harris Neck

A stunningly beautiful 2,687 acres of meadows, woodlands, freshwater ponds and marsh, Harris Neck – a national wildlife refuge since 1961 – was once home to a prosperous and self-reliant community of 75 African American families.  From the end of the Civil War until 1942, the people of Harris Neck, located along the coast in the northeast corner of McIntosh County, Georgia, lived harmoniously with each other and their natural environment.  Speaking about their lives before 1942, many of the remaining elders who still live in Georgia say, “It was a hard life, but it was a good life.”

The people lived off the land, creeks, rivers and ocean, and they took their crops, wild game and seafood to market in Savannah and Darien in small sailboats.  They lived with nature, not apart from it, in a manner that would decades later come to be known as environmentally friendly and sustainable.  They relied on the outside world for very little and preserved much of their African ways - a culture that came to be known as Gullah or Gullah-Geechie.  A hard working and resourceful people, they had their own seafood processing plants, schoolhouse, general store and firehouse.

Then in the summer of 1942 everything changed.

1863 January 1 - The Emancipation Proclamation

1865 January 16 - Sherman’s Field Order No.15 is issued. This order confiscates, as Federal property, a strip of coastline stretching from Charleston, SC to the St. John’s River in FL, including Georgia’s Sea Islands and the mainland thirty miles in from the coast.  This amounts to approximately 400,000 acres that is to be distributed to newly freed Blacks in 40-acre parcels. This order is a short-lived action by the Federal government; President Andrew Johnson rescinds it in the fall of 1865. However, the historical importance of Field Order 15 is that the present-day “movement” supporting reparations has pointed to it as the Federal government’s first attempt to make restitution for slavery.

1865 September 2 - Margret Ann Harris discovers her white overseer was stealing from her and could not be trusted so she asked her former slave Robert Dellegall to take care of the plantation, herself and her invalid son. Robert Dellegall did as she requested faithfully. In her Last Will & Testament, Margret Ann Harris deeds lands of her former plantation to Robert Dellegall and an ancestor of the Moran family and others in present day Harris neck. This establishes rightful ownership of the lands that come to be known known as Harris Neck by the 75 African American families that live on Harris Neck from 1865 to 1942.

1942 July - The Federal government, via Eminent Domain, confiscates the 2687 acres of Harris Neck for the stated purpose of national security to build an Army airfield.  The people are given three weeks to move off their land.  Crops, houses and all other buildings, save the FAB Church of Harris Neck and the house of Lilly Livingston (one of two white women living in Harris Neck), are bulldozed and/or burned. No provisions whatsoever, are made by the government for the community regarding new land or future living arrangements; the people are simply left to fend for themselves.

Most, but not all, property owners are paid a few dollars per acre for their land.  None are paid for their houses, businesses, or other buildings or any  "improvements".  There is also an oral promise by the government that the land can be repurchased by community and people can return to Harris Neck at the end of the war. Final, complete eviction occurrs on July 27, 1942.

New research has shown that procedures stipulated under  Eminent Domain were not properly followed and people’s rights to Due Process were violated in numerous ways,  making this original taking of the land, as well as all additional transfers of title, unlawful and invalid.  In fact, some living, former community members are still in possession of their deeds, providing additional proof that the 1942 taking was unlawful and, therefore, invalid.

In the spring of 1942, there had been two tankers sunk off the Georgia coast, near Brunswick, and, reportedly, this is the reason the government came to Harris Neck to build their airfield. However, it is the contention of the surviving elders of the Harris Neck community that the local power brokers in McIntosh County in 1942 led agents of the Federal government specifically to Harris Neck with plans that they, or at least the county, would acquire the land after the war. 

There was other land adjacent to Harris Neck that was just as suitable that the Army could have used In fact, about 200 yards from the southwestern border of Harris Neck lies Julienton (more than 3500 acres), which was virtually uninhabited in 1942.

 

1942 - A triangle-style airfield is constructed to be used for Army Air Corps training and coastal reconnaissance.

 

1947 - The War Assets Administration, the Federal agency that dealt with surplus property after World War II, conveys the 2687 acres of Harris Neck to McIntosh County, the first “offeree”, for use as a county airport.  The legal contract signed by this agency and the McIntosh County attorney states that Harris Neck is to be used only as a county airport.  It never is used as such, and from 1947 to 1961 McIntosh County completely violates its contract with the Federal government, permitting many illegal activities - from prostitution to gambling and drag racing to drug smuggling.

1961 - After years of complaints about McIntosh County’s misuse of the lands of Harris Neck, the Federal government reclaimed all 2687 acres and conveyed title to the Departmentof Interior which created a National Wildlife Refuge, operated by U S Fish & Wildlife from 1962 to the present.

1979 - McIntosh County Sheriff Tom Poppell apologizes to the congregation of FAB Church of Harris Neck for not helping when he had the opportunity to do so to get the land back for the community.  He was sick with cancer at this time and died not long after.  In the hospital he asked for a couple of the leaders of the former community to come to see him, but he died before they arrived.  Was he going to tell them the details of how the county got the land in 1948 and who was responsible?

1979 April 28 - Former members of the Harris Neck community and their descendants, as well as several national civil rights leaders, converge on Harris Neck in an attempt to reclaim their land. People go on to Harris Neck, set up tents, and prepare to construct new buildings.

1979 May 2 - Four people are arrested by Federal marshals and sentenced to a month in jail in Savannah.

1980 August 1 - Edgar Timmons. Jr. and the group known as People Organized for Equal Rights (POER) file a Motion for Relief from Judgement, Consolidation and Evidentiary Hearing (Civil Case No. 56) for the return of  Harris Neck. Attorneys for POER include Clarence Martin of Savannah and Eric Schnapper of New York.  The NAACP and the Emergency Land Fund assist POER in their legal efforts.

1980 August 25 - U S District Court, Southern District of Georgia* (Judge B. Avant Edenfield) denies this Motion and permanently enjoins the defendants from occupying Harris Neck. In his ruling the judge states, “Title has vested in the United States and cannot be returned to the original owners without  Congressional authorization.  There is no remedy for defendants in the courts."                                                

1979-1980 - Attempts are made by Timmons and POER to have US Congressman Bo Ginn and Senator Herman Talmadge sponsor bills in the House and the Senate for the return of their land. Nothing materializes; no bill even makes it out of committee.

1983 February 20 - The CBS TV news program 60 MINUTES** airs a program on the Harris Neck controversy, its history, and attempts by former community members to regain their land.

2005 - A new effort to reclaim the land of Harris Neck for its rightful owners – beginning with research of old court documents, Federal and county records, and more – is initiated.

2006 - Most of the original families who lived on Harris Neck are located.  It is discovered that a few families no longer exist.

2006  December - The Harris Neck Land Trust LLC is formed.  A Board of Directors is elected and an Advisory Board and Executive Committee are formed.

2007 January 9 - The County Commission of McIntosh County unanimously passes the Harris Neck Resolution, acknowledging McIntosh County’s complicity in the improper acquisition and use of Harris Neck after World War II and also supporting the present movement to reclaim Harris Neck for its rightful owners.

2007 - A duly authorized Family Representative is chosen by each of the original and surviving families of Harris Neck. 

2007 - A documentary film about the history of Harris Neck – up to and including the  present movement to regain the land – begins pre-production.

2007 - With the assistance of a land use planning firm, the Harris Neck Land Trust begins work on a Community Development Plan for a new Harris Neck community.

2007 - The Harris Neck Land Trust contracts with a natural resources consulting firm to conduct environmental and cultural site assessments of Harris Neck.  These assessements and inventories are incorporated into the Community Development Plan. 

2007- Members of the Harris Neck Board of Directors meet with U.S. Representatives Jack Kingston (R-Ga) and John Barrow (D-Ga) to inform them of the new Harris Neck movement and to ask for their support in Congress, which they receive from both   Congressmen.

2008 - Meetings with other key members of the U.S. House of  Representatives and Senate are held to advise members of the movement  and to ask for their support of legislation to be introduced in the 111th  Congress to effect the return of Harris Neck.  Other work continues

2009 - Legislation to effect the return of Harris Neck has been drafted for introduction to the US House of Representatives in the 111th Congress.

*Of additional historic note and importance, relating to Harris Neck, and especially to one of Judge Edenfield’s main contentions that the Statute of Limitations had expired for the people of Harris Neck, there have been at least two major developments since that 1980 court ruling:

1)  In 1992 thousands of Japanese Americans were awarded $1.6 billion in reparations for their losses of property and livelihood, sustained during the  years of World War II.

2)  In the summer of 2005, the Bush administration returned more than 15,000 acres to the Colorado River Indian Tribe reservation.  This land had been taken by the Federal government more than 90 years ago under Executive Order for reasons similar to those relating to Harris Neck.

* This podcast features a descendant of the Moran family. This petition is ongoing until justice has been served.



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