Friday, July 27, 2012

THORPE: HARRIS NECK: 70 YEARS TO JUSTICE

By Rev. Robert H. Thorpe
Savannah Morning News
Savannah Now

By Shaila Dewan
The New York Times

More Info Coming Soon

What happened to 75 families who were removed from their homes in coastal Georgia in 1942 remains a national disgrace.

Rev. Robert Thorpe vividly recalls what happened to him, his seven siblings and 75 other families more than 60 years ago along the Georgia coast just south of Savannah.

The injustice still makes his blood boil.

Now 78, Thorpe was 11 years old when federal agents came to his remote corner of McIntosh County in the summer of 1942. The feds, steered to this area by corrupt local politicos, decided it needed his family's home and farmland in the Harris Neck community more than the descendants of slaves who lived and prospered in this close-knit enclave since the end of the Civil War.

"It was July and our corn crop was just getting ripe, and then we were told to get out," recalled Thorpe, who's now the pastor of Peaceful Zion Baptist Church in Savannah near Reynolds and 31st streets.

"We lost all of that."

What happened to Thorpe's family and other mostly African-American families remains a national disgrace.

Uncle Sam, using his power of eminent domain, acquired the 2,687 acres of lush woodlands and farmland at Harris Neck to build an airstrip for the U.S. Army. It gave the people who lived there only weeks to get out. Homes burned.

The military said it needed this facility to train pilots and to improve surveillance along the Georgia coast, where German U-boats were taking their toll on American shipping in the early years of World War II. But a combination of homegrown corruption and Washington ineptitude conspired to cheat hard-working families out of land and money. Here's what new research has found:

-- Instead of getting a fair price for their land, black families got 40 percent less than white families who sold similar properties.

-- Due process was not followed during the condemnation process.. That makes the original sale and subsequent transfers of title invalid.

-- More than 3,500 acres of virtually uninhabited land just across Julienton Creek from Harris Neck was available in 1942. Yet McIntosh power-brokers steered the feds to Harris Neck, essentially an island surrounded by salt marsh.

Why? Because these local fixers had inside knowledge.

They knew that after the war, the government would have no use for Harris Neck. It would first offer it back to the county. In effect, the local good ol' boys would gain control. And that's what happened. From 1947 to 1961, this county-owned land was a site for gambling, prostitution, illegal cattle grazing, drag racing and even drug smuggling.

The feds took it back in 1961. They turned the site into a jewel of a National Wildlife Refuge, which exists today.

Twice over the past 30 years, the families who were driven off their land in the name of national security tried unsuccessfully through the federal court and Congress to right a horrible wrong. Today, another effort is underway.

But this one, which is modeled after successful legislation that returned 15,000 acres out West to the Colorado River Indian Tribes in 2005, looks encouraging.

On Saturday night in Darien, hundreds packed the Banner of Truth Church, where a group called the Harris Neck Land Trust publicly announced plans to introduce new legislation in the U.S. House this year. The land trust, whose members include representatives from each of the remaining original families (now down to 69), has come up with a thoughtful, sensible proposal to regain the land.

Here's how it would work. Each family would get four acres, regardless of how much each originally owned. Strict covenants would apply on usage. The trust would preserve existing ponds and all wildlife and allow for public access. It would permit limited commercial development to generate jobs and revenue.

McIntosh County could use the financial boost. But this case is about more than economics. It's about justice. Even the McIntosh County Commission has passed a resolution acknowledging its past sins.

"This movement has brought together blacks and whites, old and young," said David Kelly, a 59-year-old California writer who moved to McIntosh to assist the latest effort.

Rev. Thorpe, who chairs the land trust, lives 50 miles north of his family's roots in Harris Neck. Other surviving families live close to the old home place, too. But even as the Savannah pastor sneaks up on his 80th birthday, there's still an 11-year-old child in him. And he still feels the hurt from a time when his world evaporated..

"It would mean a great deal to get back what was taken from us," Thorpe said.

Amen. But for a nation that promises equality, it would be a greater deal.

Tom Barton is the editorial page editor of the Savannah Morning News.

tom.barton@savannahnow.com

Sunday Dec 2, 2001

Torn From the Land

PROPERTY WRESTED

FROM BLACKS VAST
AP PROBE FINDS

By TODD LEWAN
and DOLORES BARCLAY
Associated Press

For generations, black families passed down the tales in uneasy whispers: "They stole our land."
These were family secrets shared after the children fell asleep -- old stories locked in fear and shame.

Some of those whispered bits of oral history, it turns out, are true.

In an 18-month investigation, the Associated Press documented a pattern in which black Americans were cheated out of their land or driven from it through intimidation, violence and even murder.

In some cases, government officials approved the land takings; in others, they took part in them. The earliest occurred before the Civil War; others are being litigated today.

Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia, oil fields in Mississippi, a baseball spring training facility in Florida.

The United States has a long history of bitter land disputes, from range wars in the old West to broken treaties with American Indians. Poor white landowners, too, were sometimes treated unfairly, pressured to sell at rock-bottom prices by railroads and mining companies.

The fate of black landowners has been an overlooked part of this story. The AP documented 107 land takings in 13 Southern and border states. In those cases alone, 406 black landowners lost more than 24,000 acres of farmland and timberland plus 85 smaller properties, including stores and city lots. Today, virtually all of this property, valued at tens of millions of dollars, is owned by whites or corporations.

Reporters found evidence of other takings that could not be fully verified because of gaps in the public record. Thousands of additional reports collected by land activists and educational institutions remain uninvestigated. The findings "are just the tip of one of the biggest crimes of this country's history," said ray Winbush, director of Fisk University's Institute of Race.

Properties taken from blacks were often small: a 40-acre farm, a modest house. But the losses were devastating to families struggling to overcome the legacy of slavery.

"When they steal your land, they steal your future." Stephanie Hagans of Atlanta, whose great-grandmother lost 35 acres in North Carolina. A white lawyer foreclosed on Ablow Weddington Stewart in 1942 after he refused to allow her to finish paying off a $540 debt, witnesses told the AP.

Examples of other documented land takings:

> After midnight on Oct. 4, 1908, 50 hooded white men surrounded the home of a black farmer in Hickman, Ky., and ordered him to come out for a whipping. when David Walker shot at them instead, the mob set fire to his house, according to newspaper accounts. Walker ran out, followed by four screaming children and his wife, carrying a baby in her arms. The mob shot them all, wounding three children and killing the others. Walker's oldest son never escaped the burning house. No one was ever charged with the killings, and the surviving children were deprived of the farm their father died defending. Land records show that Walker's 2 1/2 acre farm was simply folded into the property of a white neighbor. The neighbor soon sold it to another man, whose daughter owns the undeveloped land today.

> In 1964, the state of Alabama sued Lemon Williams and Lawrence Hudson, claiming the cousins had no right to two 40-acre farms their family hand worked in Sweet Water, Ala., for nearly a century. The land, officials contended, belonged to the state. Circuit Judge Emmett Hildreth urged the state to drop its suit..... severe injustice." But when the state refused, the judge ordered the family off the land. In the same courthouse where the case was heard, the AP located deeds and tax records documenting that the family had owned the land since an ancestor bought the property on Jan. 3, 1874.

Most of the current owners of the land, nearly all of whom acquired it years after the land takings occurred, said they knew little about the history of their land. When told about it, most expressed regret. Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman called the Sweet Water case "disturbing," and asked the state attorney general to review the matter. The Land takings are part of a larger picture:
a decades-long decline in black landownership in America.

In 1910, black Americans owned at least 15 million acres of farmland, nearly all of it in the South, according to the U.S. Agricultural Census. Today, blacks own only 1.1 million acres of farmland, and are part owners of another 1.07 million acres. The number of white farmers has declined, too, as economic trends have concentrated land in fewer hands. However, black ownership declined 2 1/2 times faster than white ownership, according to a 1982 federal report, the last comprehensive government study on the trend.

The decline in black landownership had a number of causes, including the migration of blacks from the rural South. However, the land takings also contributed.

In the decades between Reconstruction and the civil rights struggle, blacks were powerless to prevent them, said Stuart Tolnay, a University of Washington sociologist. In an era when black men were lynched for whistling at white women, few blacks dared to challenge whites. Those who did rarely could find lawyers to take their cases.

In recent years, a few black families sued to regain ancestral lands, but the cases were dismissed on grounds that statutes of limitations had expired. Some legal experts say redress for many land takings may not be possible unless laws are changed.

The Espy family in Vero Beach, Fla., lost its heritage in 1942 when the U.S. government seized its land through eminent domain to build an airfield. Government agencies frequently take land this way under rules that require fair compensation for the owners.

In Vero Beach, however, the Navy appraised the Espys' 147 acres, which included a 30-acre fruit grove and 40 house lots, at $8,000. The Espys sued, and an all white jury awarded them $13,000. That amounted to one-sixth of the price that the Navy paid white neighbors for similar land, records show.

After World War II, the Navy gave the airfields to the city of Vero Beach. Ignoring the Espys' plea to buy back their land, the city sold part of it, at $1,500 an acre, to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1965 as a spring training facility. The team sold its property to Indian river County for $10 million in August, according to the Dodgers.

The extent of land takings from black families will never be known because of gaps in public records. About one-third of the county courthouses in Southern and border states have burned since the Civil War. Some of the fires were deliberately set. On the night of Sept. 10, 1932, for example, 15 whites torched the courthouse in Paulding, Miss., where property records for the eastern half of Jasper County, then predominantly black, were stored.

Suddenly, it was unclear who owned a big piece of eastern Jasper County.

A few years after the fire, the Masonite Corp., a wood products company, went to court to clear title to its land in the area. Masonite believed it owned 9,581 acres, and said it had been unable to locate anyone with a rival claim. In 1958, the court ruled the company had a clear title to the land, which has since yielded millions of dollars in natural gas, timber and oil, according to state records.

From the few property records that survived the fire, the AP was able to document that at least 204.5 of those acres had been acquired by Masonite after black owners were driven off by the Ku Klux Klan. At least 850,000 barrels of oil have been pumped from this property, according to state records. Today, the land is owned by International Paper Corp., which acquired Masonite in 1988.

"This is probably part of a much larger, public debate about whether there should be restitution for people who have been harmed in the past," a company spokesman said, "We should be part of that discussion."

Today, interest in genealogy among black families is surging, and some are unearthing the documents behind those whispered stories.

Bryan Logan, a 55-year-old sports writer from Washington, was researching his heritage when he uncovered a connection to 264 acres in Richmond.

Today, the land is Willow Oaks, a country club with an assessed value of $2.94 million. But in the 1850's it was a plantation worked by the Howlett slaves - Logan's ancestors.

Their owner, Thomas Howlett, directed in his will that his 15 slaves be freed, that his plantation be sold and that the slaves receive the proceeds. But the blacks never got a penny. After Howlett's death, Benjamin Hatcher, the executor of the estate, ran the plantation as his own, court records show. When the Civil War ended, the newly freed slaves complained to the Union Army, which ordered Virginia courts to investigate.

Hatcher testified that he had sold the plantation in 1862 but had not given the proceeds to the former slaves. Instead, records show, the proceeds were invested on the slaves' behalf in Confederate War Bonds in 1864 - a dubious investment in the fourth year of the war.

Within months, Union armies were marching on Atlanta and Richmond, and the bonds were worthless pieces of paper. The blacks insisted they were never given even that, but in 1871, Virginia's highest court ruled that the former slaves were owed nothing.

Willow Oaks Corp. acquired the property in 1955 for an unspecified amount. "I don't hold anything against Willow Oaks," Logan said. "But how Virginia's courts acted...goes against everything America stands for."

Associated Press writers Woody Baird, Allen G. Breed, Shelia Hardwell Byrd, Alan Clendenning, ron Harrist, David Lieb and Bill Poovey and investigative researcher Randy Herschaft contributed to this article.

Sunday March 17, 2002
McIntosh Stole Land

FAMILIES EVICTED BY ARMY

CLAIM MCINTOSH REFUGE

By BILL OSINSKI
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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.

Unwritten promises

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.

Cooperative organized

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."

'Slickety-slicked'

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."