The Harris Neck Land Trust, officially established in 2006, is the entity that represents all of the surviving families that lived on Harris Neck until 1942, as well as the few white families that owned land but never lived on Harris Neck. The Trust was created by and is comprised of former Harris Neck community members and their descendants. It is the legal body that is the central, guiding force of the new Harris Neck movement to reclaim the lands of Harris Neck, wrongfully and illegally taken by the Federal government in July 1942, and return them to their rightful owners.
A stunningly beautiful 2,687 acres of meadows, woodlands and marsh, Harris Neck was once home to a prosperous and self-reliant community of 75 African American families. From the end of the Civil War until July 1942, the people of Harris Neck, located in the northeast corner of McIntosh County, Georgia, lived harmoniously with each other and their natural environment. Speaking about their lives before their eviction, the remaining elders who still live in Georgia say, “It was a hard life, but it was a good life.”
Farmers and fishermen, they lived off the land, creeks, rivers and ocean, taking their crops, wild game and seafood to market in Savannah and Darien. 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 culture. They were hard working and resourceful people who had their own church, schoolhouse, seafood processing plants, general store, firehouse and law enforcement.
Then in the summer of 1942 everything changed for the people of this Gullah community. Two American tankers were sunk off the coast of Brunswick, GA about 40 miles south of Harris Neck, presumably by German U-boats. Federal agents came to McIntosh County, intending to locate an Army Airfield for the purposes of training and coastal surveillance. New research has shown that these agents were led specifically to Harris Neck by the power brokers in McIntosh, a county that was run by a handful of prominent white families, among them the Poppells. As sheriffs of McIntosh County for more than half a century, the Poppells (father and son) exercised absolute control, on behalf of the power structure.
Although there were more than 3,500 acres of virtually uninhabited land just across Julienton Creek from Harris Neck – land that was owned by one of these power brokers – it was Harris Neck that became the site for the US Army Airfield. Knowing that the county would be the first to be “offered” the land at the end of World War II, these few powerful men conspired to make sure Harris Neck would be the site selected by the Army. They figured that the county, meaning, in effect, they themselves, would gain control of the land after the war. This is exactly what happened.
The people of Harris Neck were given a few weeks notice, and the Federal government condemned and took their land, via Eminent Domain. On July 27, 1942 this community was destroyed. Houses and all other buildings, save the church, were bulldozed, and crops were burned. Although most families had been paid a few dollars per acre, the government did not pay anything for their homes, businesses or any other buildings. The government also made no accommodations for where the people would then live. Some people died that week or soon thereafter from the heartache of their loss, others moved north or west, but many stayed close by because the government had promised they could return to their land at the end of the war.
However, this was not to be; the power brokers were right. The Federal government gave Harris Neck to the county in 1947 with the stipulation that the land be used as a county airport. From 1947 to 1961 the county used Harris Neck for just about everything but an airport: this included gambling, prostitution, illegal cattle grazing, drag racing and even drug smuggling. The Federal government took back the land in 1961, and title was transferred to the Department of Interior. Harris Neck became a National Wildlife Refuge in 1962. (See “Chronology/Timeline” for more.)
In the late 1970s a small group of former Harris Neck community members began organizing an effort to regain their land. Former community members and others were mobilized and a lawsuit was filed. Their case was dismissed in a Federal Southern District Court in 1980; the judge ruled that the statute of limitations had run out and that former community members had been justly compensated when their land was taken. Following this decision, many decided to move back to their land, regardless, but in short order Federal marshals arrested four leaders and this effort was crushed. Justice was also pursued at this time in Congress, but two different bills never even made it out of congressional committees. This movement ended, unsuccessfully, in the early 1980's.
Beginning in 2005 a second movement for justice began. All aspects of Harris Neck’s history, the 1942 taking, and the first movement were researched and analyzed. Some lessons were learned, and, just as importantly, times had changed. For example, the court’s statute of limitations argument was now moot, due in part to two settlements by the Federal government. First, thousands of Japanese American families received some compensation in 1992 for the great losses they suffered during World War II, and second, more than 15,000 acres, taken more than 90 years ago under circumstances similar to those in Harris Neck, were returned to the Colorado River Indian Tribes in 2005.
New research has shown that most of the stipulations required under Eminent Domain were not properly followed; people’s civil rights and rights to due process were violated in numerous ways, making the original taking illegal and, therefore, all subsequent transfers of title invalid.
As in the first movement, a few individuals started planning and strategizing. Experts working on issues relating to Eminent Domain and other relevant legal matters were sought out as were others working in the arenas of environmental justice, environmental protection and preservation, politics, media, and land use planning. Former community members and their descendants living
in Georgia and Florida were organized and the Harris Neck Land Trust was formed. Almost all of the original families were found and contacted (some have died out), and an official representative of each family was appointed. Monthly meetings were initiated in December 2005 and continue to be held in the First African Baptist Church of Harris Neck, the only complete building to survive the community’s destruction.
A comprehensive Community Development Plan – that protects wildlife and habitat in Harris Neck, the ponds created by US Fish & Wildlife, and the birds that call these ponds home – has been developed and adopted by the Harris Neck Land Trust. This plan also allows for continued access by the public and contains covenants, adopted by all the families, which will ensure that future development of residential and commercial property in Harris Neck is environmentally sound and sustainable.
Congress and the Future:
Representatives of the Trust have begun meeting with members of Congress to inform them of Harris Neck’s history and the present movement and to ask for their support of a Bill to effect the return of their land. When this occurs, the new Harris Neck community will be built. Approximately 50 percent of the total acreage of Harris Neck will be fully protected by conservation easements. Each family, black and white, will receive four acres that can be used in accordance with strict community development covenants.
A commercial sector, that will provide many business opportunities and decent, living wage jobs for Harris Neck residents, and others, will be developed in an environmentally sensitive and sustainable manner. And McIntosh County will benefit significantly from tax revenues generated by the new community, taxes the county has been denied for the last 47 years because of the Federal government’s exemption.
Deeply rooted in our religious beliefs and spiritual traditions, we the people of Harris Neck have a saying that relates to this long fight for justice: “All in God’s time.” And we believe that this is God’s time. In the present movement the community has met all challenges, and several very difficult decisions have been made. Guided by faith, wisdom and unity have prevailed.
The return of this land will not only bring a long overdue healing to the people of Harris Neck and McIntosh County, but the story of Harris Neck can help sooth the scars of a nation still struggling, even with Barack Obama’s recent victory, with the issue of race. Also, after all the careful planning to-date and the spiritual guidance from the Harris Neck elders, the new community can become a model for “green” development, regionally and nationally. In this regard the new Harris Neck will be like the original community where all lived in harmony with the natural environment in ways that decades later would be referred to as sustainable, green and eco-friendly.