Harris Neck Battles U.S. Government
Vol. 2, No. 1, 1979, pp. 14-17
For the people of a tiny fishing and farming community located on Georgia’s rich Atlantic coast, standing up to the Klan and going to jail are but small prices to pay in their 37-year struggle with the United States government for reclamation of their community.
Taken in 1942 by the federal government for the World War II campaign, the 2,687 acres of land known as the Harris Neck community provided an economic base for 75 to 95 Black families.
Located 40 miles south of Savannah, Georgia, this plenteous tidal basin, intersected by three navigable rivers, is a natural bed for oysters, crabs, shrimp and clams. The topsoil of the area is a fecund mixture of black dirt and white sand.
So rich was this land that not only were all the community’s substantive needs met, but also an economic base was built. The families before 1942 has built an oyster cannery, fishery, and processing facilities for the food grown in the productive “truck gardens” located on the land. The only item that families had to purchase from outside their community was flour.
Because of the closeness of the community, the culture had remained very strong, with histories and skills being passed from generation to generation. Many Africanisms were preserved in the rich “gullah” tradition of the Georgia Sea Islands.
The Black families had lived on this land since
January 16, 1868 when General William T. Sherman issued the celebrated Field Order No. 15, which set aside all the Sea Islands, from Charleston to Port Royal, and adjoining lands to a distance of thirty miles inland, for the use of Blacks. This coastal area had been under the control of rich white planters, who had fled the land in fear during the Civil War.
Blacks were given title to 485,000 acres of land, including parts of the . dread “Peru Plantation” located in McIntosh County, Georgia. This is the parcel of land, settled by these 75 to 95 Black families, that later became known as the Harris Neck community.
The takeover of Harris Neck by the federal government during World War II began a chain of events that continues even today. While the men of the community were in Europe shouldering their share of the U.S. war effort, the federal government, encouraged by local businessmen, came to Harris Neck, gave its residents a 48hour notice to move, set fire to their homes and their crops, bulldozed their community burial ground and gave the residents as little as $2.44 per acre for destruction of their lives and livelihood.
One of the businessmen involved, E.M. Thorpe, received nearly$ 14,000 for his 26 acres of land and retained 14 acres of land located on one of the three intersecting rivers, while another businessman, Irving Davis, not only sold the Harris
Neck families a 26-acre tract on which they are still “temporarily” relocated, but also retained grazing rights on the land for his herd of cattle.
All Harris Neck families contend that the government promised to return this land at the end of the war. However, upon the foundation of crushed bones, charred homes and thwarted lives, the U.S. government erected a “temporary” air base consisting of three 5,000 feet runways, a water system, docks, roads and approximately 98 buildings to house the Third Fighter Command.
Many residents moved from their land would not live to know that this air base was never used extensively because of the marshy conditions of the land and the proximity of other war time military installations. Many would also never know that this land was not to be returned by the U.S. government to its rightful heirs. Soon after the war, the voice of the Harris Neck community was lost in the roar of land speculators including churches, various businesses, as well as local individuals.
The chances of returning home grew even slimmer for the Harris Neck residents when, in 1944, the Surplus Property Act gave federal agencies and state and local governments priority over the rights of the former residents. Under the Farm Credit Administration and the War Assets Administration, McIntosh County was named receiver of the 2,687 acre tract. County Attorney Paul J. Varner pointed out that McIntosh County had “big plans” for maintenance of the air base facilities.
These “big plans” never commenced. Soon after county takeover of the land, local government officials and businessmen came in and looted the government property.
Tom Poppell, former McIntosh County sheriff, obtained a lease for 102 acres of the land at a cost of $10 per year. Poppell, later accused by the federal government of using adjacent lands for “importation of marijuana”, surrendered his lease in 1957 because of alleged improprieties in obtaining the land. Poppell admitted in a letter to Georgia Sen. Eugene Talmadge, that although he knew the land taken by the government had been promised to be returned to Blacks, he felt McIntosh County was the better landlord.
Perhaps because of improprieties that resulted from county takeover of the land, the federal government moved to retake the land on May 25, 1962. The government declared the 2,687 acre tract a wildlife refuge, stating that it was the “only place on the eastern seaboard where the Canadian wild geese would land.”
Alton Davis, son of Irving Davis, was allowed by the federal government to retain his father’s grazing rights at a cost of $1 per year. Davis is also one of five current commissioners in McIntosh County.
Meanwhile the Harris Neck families waited and observed. In 1972, the 26 families who are direct descendents of the original community organized to reclaim their ancestral land.
Led by Edgar Tim mons, Jr., the Harris Neck community formed the People Organized for Equal Rights (POER) and in April 1979 staged a camp-in on the Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge. POER asked the U.S. government for a $50 million reparation to the community to rebuild churches, schools, businesses and residences lost during the military takeover.
U.S. District Judge Avant Edenfield issued a restraining order against the camp-in which residents chose to ignore. On May 1, in an emotional confrontation with federal marshals, three Harris Neck residents, Edgar Timmons, Jr., Rev. Chris McIntosh and Hercules Anderson, as well as Atlanta activist Rev. Ted Clark were arrested.
Three days later, Judge Edenfield sentenced the four men to 30 days in jail and ordered the refuge closed to the public. Federal marshals were instructed to arrest any trespassers. The four protestors are out of jail, pending appeals.
The Harris Neck community has moved its fight to other arenas. In a counterclaim filed in the U.S. District Court to the government’s ejection action the residents are asking for return of their titles to the land.
U. S. Representatives Walter Fauntroy (D-Washington, D.C.) and Bo Ginn (D-Georgia) have introduced a bill, HR 4018, calling for return of the land to the residents.
The residents now await a court ruling on the validity of their case and for the bill to be reported out of Congressional committee.
However, they do not wait passively. With the support of such groups as the Emergency Land Fund, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the people of the Harris Neck community are waging a massive informational and educational campaign for the public.
At the beginning of the summer, 28 Black elected officials, including Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and State Reps. Douglas Dean and Bobby Hill, pledged their support to the Harris Neck community.
In July, during a three-day protest rally commemorating their eviction from their land,
Harris Neck residents were warned that the issue was “larger than they thought.”
Emergency Land Fund Executive Director Joe Brooks told the residents they were a part of a national scheme to take land away from Blacks, especially fertile land on the Georgia coastal islands, including Hilton Head and Jekell Islands. “In 1905, Blacks in this country owned more than 15 million acres of land; now, in 1979, Blacks own less than 3 million acres; and, by 1985, at this rate, Blacks will be landless,” warned Brooks.
Earl Shinhoister, regional director of the NAACP, advised the residents not to be deterred in their struggle, not even by the likes of such organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of White People, who had eleven members stationed at the protest rally to heckle the Harris Neck residents.
Comedian-activist Dick Gregory told the residents recently that he had several serious questions about the government’s takeover of the land. Gregory said that he thought the issue went beyond the government taking farming and fishing land from a small Black community. Gregory suspects the building of a military airstrip and the history of drug trafficking in the area may mean that there is government involvement in illegal dealings.
A long-time community resident, a child during the 1942 eviction, best sums up the “new” Harris Neck spirit, “I feel something is going to give. I feel good about it. I believe the Lord is going to look out for us. He’s going to help us because we need this land. Our children need this land.”
Chini is a member of the Southern Collective of African-American Writers.