Harris Neck - Evicted by government edict from their home by the marsh, the girl and her mother went back to retrieve a gramophone.
They arrived just in time to see their house being burned.
Sixty years after her hometown was obliterated on orders of the federal government, Evelyn Greer trembles as she recalls the day. "It was the first and last time I ever saw my mother shed tears," Greer said. The fires and bulldozers razed what had been a fishing village in McIntosh county that was home to more than 70 black families. "It was awful, like Judgment Day."
The Army confiscated the land in 1942 for an air base, which closed in 1946. It is now a 2,700 acre federal wildlife refuge.
Despite previous failed attempts, Greer and other descendants of the dispossessed families are exploring the prospects of renewing their campaign to press the government to either grant them compensation for their forefathers' land or provide them special fishing rights.
One of the Harris Neck descendants, Wilson Moran, traveled to Washington in January to meet with public advocacy lawyers, who agreed to review the case but declined to comment for this article. While the claim is probably a long shot, the descendants have been encouraged by recent awards of reparations to descendants of Japanese-Americans who lost their property and were detained in camps during World War II.
The descendants, most of whom have scattered since the 1940's, claim the government promised to return the land to the famililes after World War II. Instead, the land went to McIntosh County, whose political leaders used it for their private ventures, such things as cattle grazing, a drag strip and a gambling joint. Consequently, the federal government reclaimed Harris Neck in 1962 and declared it a wildlife refuge.
To people like, the Rev. Edgar Timmons Jr., the Harris Neck episode was the most egregious travesty in a county with a history of racial intolerance. "The plan from jump one was to have all the blacks removed," said Timmons, whose grandfather operated a seafood packing plant on Harris Neck and was among those whose land was taken.
Moran, the grandson of Robert Dawley, a farmer, fisherman and trapper on Harris Neck, thinks "jealousy and greed" were the hidden motivations for the takeover. Moran thinks white people were bothered his grandfather was successful enough to go to Darien, the county seat, in 1930 and by a new blue Ford convertible. "The problem was, my people were too successful," Moran said.
After the eviction, his grandfather, who was then 67, was financially devastated and emotionally dispirited, he said. "His boats rotted on the river." His grandfather and the other landowners of Harris Neck never got proper documentation of the promise to return the land to them after the war, Moran said. Many were illiterate, and they all trusted the federal government too much to believe they would be permanently dispossessed, he said.
Today, only a few descendants live near the refuge, which is down the road from new and exclusive neighborhoods. They argue there was no good reason to confiscate their ancestors' land in the first place. They said the runways built by the Army for a dive bomber school couldn't support heavy planes.
In 1981, the descendants sued the federal government, but U.S. District Judge B. Avant Edenfield dismissed the suit, ruling that land had been condemned legally in 1942 and the statute of limitations had expired long ago. Even so, Edenfield stated in his ruling that McIntosh County had acquired the land fraudulently in 1948. "It is doubtful whether the county ever intended to use the property as an airport," he said. "It appears likely that an attempt was made to mislead the United States into conveying the property to McIntosh County instead of to the other priority holders."
The judge said the Harris Neck descendants should have sued McIntosh County rather than the federal governement, but the statute of limitations had expired on that issue.
In protest, some descendants camped out on the refuge and were found in contempt by Edenfield. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the 1981 contempt finding but also suggested the descendants might have a valid complaint.
"It may be that there is some valid basis to attack by legal process the government's acquistion of the [plaintiff's] tract two generations ago," the court said.
In 1985, the U.S. General Accounting Office ruled the claims of the Harris Neck descendants could not be verified, partly because pertinent records were destroyed in a fire - believed by the descendants to be arson - at the McIntosh County Courthouse.
Gen. William T. Sherman granted land to blacks in Georgia's barrier island region after completing his march to the sea in 1864.
After the Civil War, a black man from New Jersey named Tunis G. Campbell was made agent for the region's Freedman's Bureau, the federal agency that dealt with matters regarding former slaves.
Campbell funded and organized a cooperative of black farmers on nearby St. Catherines Island and later moved his base to a leased mainland farm on Harris Neck. "Campbell was written off by Georgia historians as a mountebank and a scoundrel, but he was one of the first men of his time to understand the strength of black unity and power," historian Dorothy Sterling wrote in "The Trouble They Seen."
"The times transformed him into a teacher, preacher, state senator, justice of the peace and capable political boss of a Georgia county where blacks outnumbered whites by four to one."
In 1875, Campbell was arrested and convicted on charges of false imprisonment of a white man. The cooperative fell apart, but the black farmers and fisherman stayed at Harris Neck until 1942.
From the beginning, Harris Neck offered a life of simple abundance. "We lived off the land and the sea," Evelyn Greer said. "What we had, we had plenty of."
From the 1950's through the '70's, McIntosh County was widely known as a corrupt backwater with gambling dens and "truck stops" that catered to a wide range of vices but sold no gasoline. Its reputation went national with the acclaimed 1991 book "Praying for Sheetrock" by Atlanta author Melissa Fay Greene.
"Rural life was idiosyncratic, mysterious, white supremacist, sometimes violent," Greene said in a recent interview. "Today, McIntosh citizens are concerned not with white supremacy nor with fleecing the Yankees. Like all Americans, they are concerned with good jobs, preservation of the environment, good schools, promoting tourism and enjoying a law-abiding society."
In perhaps the greatest single symbol of change, the county has twice elected a black sheriff, Chunk Jones, an affable Vietnam veteran and shrimp boat owner. He grew up in McIntosh and recalls the legendary Sheriff Tom Poppell, the notorious central character in Greene's book.
While things are far from perfect between the races, times have changed, Jones said. "Before, they used politics to divide blacks and whites," he said. "Now, the people are better off when we can keep that line erased. The old days are gone. We're not having that any more."
Yet, for many blacks, the Harris Neck incident remains a sore spot. Many feel betrayed because they had assumed after the war they'd be allowed to return to their land because of the oral promises they'd been given, said Mary Moran, Wilson Moran's mother. But she said the documents her father and others signed turned out to be leases that allowed then-County Commissioner Irvin Davis to graze his cattle on their land.
"They slickety-slicked us," Moran said. "They had a cute little way of lying."
After the eviction, Greer's family moved to the loft of a barn owned by another county commissioner for whom her mother cleaned house. The commissioner charged them a day's wage, 35 cents, for each week they stayed.
The commissioner, who owned lands in and near Harris Neck, was openly hostile to them, she said. "He'd come right out and say it, what we had [in Harris Neck] was too good for us," she said.
Mary Moran was born, married and had three children on Harris Neck. When she was evicted, she was pregnant with Wilson. The edict was issued in mid-July. She said it read, "Be out by the 27th, or we'll burn you out." Contractors from North Carolina were hired to remove the community, descendants say.
"They even threatened to burn our church," Mary Moran said, adding that the men of the community disassembled the old church and used the wood to build a new one not far from the confiscated property.
Since she was pregnant, the men from several families worked to build her family's new home first, she said. Even so, she had to live about two months in a tent, she said.
After the war, the government determined the land no longer was needed for an airport, federal records show.
While never arguing the land should be returned to its original owners, federal officials acknowledged the owners wanted to regain their land.
On a form dated March 18, 1946, Lt. Col. Robert Fabian of the Army Corps of Engineers filled in the "Opinion of Best Future Use" blank with: "Airport and state park for Negroes."
Meanwhile, McIntosh leaders were finding other uses for the land, including as a place for the cattle of the commissioner Davis to graze. This apparently annoyed federal officials, and in 1947, W.B. Fudger, the regional deputy director of the War Assets Administration, ordered Davis to "quit possession of these premises immediately."
That didn't happen. County officials lobbied federal agencies to allow Davis to keep his cattle on the land until the land was transferred to the county, in 1948 for the stated purpose of operating an airport.
That never happened, either. And Davis continued to graze his cattle until the federal government took the land back in 1962 and declared it a national wildlife refuge.
The loss still hurts
Despite the past, Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge has 'tremendous environmental value," said Jim Robinette, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
It is perhaps the most productive breeding grounds for the endagered wood stork, he said, and the grasslands of Harris Neck form "one of the scarcest forms of habitat."
It looks much as it did in the late 1940's. There is no trace of the airfield buildings. The runways remain, though weeds grow through their many cracks.
The only evidence that people once called this place home is a well-tended cemetery set amid palms and live oaks.
Less than a mile from the entrance to the refuge are some of the fanciest homes in McIntosh County. Wilson Moran lives just down the road from the new developments, in a home his grandfather built after being displaced from Harris Neck.
When he goes to the refuge now, Moran can look down an earthen dam levee and see the church where his family used to worship. He can go to the shore and see Balckbeard Island, where his grandfather would take him fishing and tell him pirate stories.
"It hurts me to come back here," Moran said. "This used to be my people's home."