In the late 1970s a group of former Harris Neck community members and their descendants began organizing an effort to reclaim their homeland. The group, calling itself People Organized for Equal Rights, brought a lawsuit against the Federal government. A Federal District Court dismissed the case in 1980. The judge ruled that the statute of limitations had expired and that the people of Harris Neck had been justly compensated after their land was taken in 1942.
Following this ruling, many from Harris Neck decided that they would simply move back onto the land. Many people attempted to do just that. However, in fairly short order Federal Marshalls were called in, arrests were made, 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 first movement ended, unsuccessfully in 1980.
Beginning in 2005 a second movement for justice was initiated. All aspects of Harris Neck 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 during Woodrow Wilson's presidency, under circumstances and for motivations similar to those in Harris Neck, were returned to the Colorado River Indian Tribes in 2005.
As in the first movement, a few individuals started planning and strategizing, and the Harris Neck Land Trust (Trust) was formed in December 2005 as the legal entity at the center of the new Harris Neck Justice Movement. A Board of Directors, comprised solely of people from Harris Neck and their descendants, was formed, as was an Advisory Board, made up of experts in fields that would be helpful to the Trust's strategy, needs and future work.
Almost all of the original families were found, not just in Georgia and Florida but elsewhere across the United States. The few White families that owned land but had never lived on Harris Neck were also invited to join the movement. Some of these families were represented at a few early meetings in 2006, but they stopped attending that year. Each family chose a family representative to the Trust, and monthly meetings were begun in December 2005. These meetings continue to the present day.
Since an equitable solution for the people of Harris Neck seemed to rest with the US Congress, the Trust focused its efforts for the first few years on gathering support on Capitol Hill. Also, initially the Trust was seeking the return of title to all of the homeland - all 2,687 acres. However, even though members of the Trust were invited to testify before Congress in 2011 and were subsequently invited to introduce legislation, it eventually became clear that there was not going to be enough support in Congress to pass a bill that would return Harris Neck to its rightful owners.
In 2011, after a good amount of research, the Trust approached the large and prestigious law firm, Holland & Knight. In March of 2012, this firm agreed to represent the Trust pro bono in its continuing efforts to reclaim some, if not all, of the Harris Neck homeland. Over the next few years, the Trust went from seeking title to all of Harris Neck to considering several other options, including a lease of all of the land, a lease of part of the land and a land transfer.
In 2017 members of the Trust met with a Special Advisor to President Donald Trump and a Special Advisor to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. In this meeting, the government introduced the concept/practice of a Cooperative Agreement, saying these were done in the National Wildlife Refuge System and that we might consider going this route.
After much discussion with the attorneys and research into such agreements, the Trust submitted a draft Cooperative Agreement to the Department of Interior in late 2018. Since then there have been a few meetings to discuss the details, scope and other terms of such an agreement. The Trust then met with US Representative Buddy Carter (GA - District 1), who, after reviewing the Trust's draft Cooperative Agreement expressed interest in helping facilitate the work on this path toward an equitable resolution. Mr. Carter hosted two meetings in Savannah with the Trust, its attorneys and other Harris Neck "stakeholders".
Discussions of this proposed agreement, which asks for a long-term renewable lease to create a Living Museum and some supporting elements on a small fraction of the eastern most portion of Harris Neck, thousands of feet from the nesting and fishing ponds of the Wood Stork and other migratory birds, continue.
" No, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. ~ Dr. Martin Luther King jr.
The following Resolution, regarding Harris Neck, was passed unanimously by the McIntosh County Board of Commissioners on January 9, 2007. With this Resolution the Board of Commissioners declared its support of the present Harris Neck Justice Movement. The Resolution also made public the complicity of certain McIntosh officials in 1947 when the federal government, at the end of World War II, gave the land to McIntosh County instead of returning it to the Harris Neck community.
WHEREAS, the land known as Harris Neck, located in the northeast corner of McIntosh
County, was home in 1942 for approximately 75 families, and
WHEREAS, Harris Neck had been home to these families since the land was legally
bequeathed to them, via the Last Will & Testament of Margret Ann Harris,
on September 2, 1865, and
WHEREAS, the land and waters in and around Harris Neck provided this community
with its essential livelihood, and
WHEREAS, the community had lived in harmony with nature from 1865 to 1942 and
had a completely sustainable and self-sufficient way of life, and
WHEREAS, the Federal government took the 2,687 acres of land, that was the home
and livelihood of the community known as Harris Neck, from these 75 families in the summer of
1942 under the auspices of Eminent Domain, and
WHEREAS, this particular use of Eminent Domain was improper and incorrect and,
therefore, illegally and wrongfully implemented, and
WHEREAS, the community’s rights to due process were violated in numerous ways during
this implementation of Eminent Domain, and
WHEREAS, the Federal government in 1942 promised that these 2,687 acres of Harris
Neck would be returned to the rightful owners – the 75 families – at the end of World War II, and
WHEREAS, certain residents of McIntosh County conspired to gain control of the land
of Harris Neck from the Federal government at the end of World War II, and
WHEREAS, McIntosh County did obtain control of these 2,687 acres of Harris Neck
after World War II, and
WHEREAS, the contract between the Federal War Assets Administration and McIntosh
County, signed in 1947, stipulated that Harris Neck be used only as an airport for the county, and
WHEREAS, the Federal government took back these 2,687 acres from McIntosh County
in 1961 because McIntosh County violated this contract in numerous illegal ways, and
WHEREAS, the Federal government then transferred ownership of these 2,687 acres to the
Department of Interior in 1962, and
WHEREAS, the Department of Interior established a National Wildlife Refuge on these
2,687 acres to be managed by the United States Department of Fish and Wildlife, and
WHEREAS, these 2,687 acres have been managed from 1962 to the present by U. S.
Fish and Wildlife, and
WHEREAS, this transfer of ownership to the Department of Interior was improper and,
therefore, illegal since the original taking of the land in 1942 was improper and also illegal, and
WHEREAS, the actions of the Federal government in 1942 and after World War II took
away the livelihood of the community of Harris Neck, and
WHEREAS, the Federal government did not keep its promise and did not return the land
of Harris Neck to its rightful owners – the 75 families – but instead gave the land to McIntosh
WHEREAS, the actions of the Federal government destroyed the community of Harris
Neck and the entire way of life of the families who called Harris Neck their home and led to
great hardships for the people of this community, and
WHEREAS, former members of the Harris Neck community and their descendants
have formed the Harris Neck Land Trust, and
WHEREAS, this Trust represents the original 75 families of Harris Neck and their
WHEREAS, this Trust has agreed to protect the six existing ponds on Harris Neck - all of
which were created by the Department of Fish and Wildlife – and the migratory birds that use these
ponds, in perpetuity, once the land is returned by the Federal government, and
WHEREAS, this Trust has agreed to protect the lands and waters of Harris Neck, in
perpetuity, once the land is returned by the Federal government, and
WHEREAS, this Trust has also agreed to restrictions on future sale of the land as well
as restrictions on the use of the land, i.e. that the land will be used in environmentally sensitive
ways, after it is returned by the Federal government, and
WHEREAS, this Trust is now representing the former community members of Harris
Neck and their descendants with present and ongoing efforts to have a bill introduced in the
Congress of the United States so that said bill can become law and effect the return of the 2,824
acres of land of Harris Neck to its rightful owners – the living former members of the Harris
Neck community and their descendants, and
WHEREAS, it is fitting that we should recognize the Harris Neck Land Trust as the
legal entity pursuing the return of the 2,687 acres of Harris Neck by the Federal government to its
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED by the Board of Commissioners of McIntosh
County, Georgia, in lawful meeting on this 9th day of January, 2007, that the Board of
Commissioners hereby recognizes the Harris Neck Land Trust and encourages and supports the
Trust with its efforts to regain these 2,687 acres of Harris Neck from the Federal government.
This 9th day of January, 2007.
STEPHEN D. JESSUP
CHARLES E. JORDAN
OWEN A. GREENE
ELENORE L. GALE, Clerk
The following is a list of the issues of equity relating to Harris Neck, beginning with the original “taking” of Harris Neck in the summer of 1942. Each item listed has been fully documented.
1. Virtually every aspect of Eminent Domain was violated in the taking of Harris Neck in 1942, thereby making this original taking illegal and rendering each subsequent transfer of title void and invalid.
2. The rights to Due Process of the people of Harris Neck were denied in the original taking.
3. The “just compensation” required under Eminent Domain was not made to the people of Harris Neck since:
• the White landowners, only one of whom ever lived on Harris Neck, were paid 40
percent more than the Black landowners – the 75 families that had called Harris Neck home from 1865 when they were given legal title to Harris Neck via the Last Will & Testament of Margret Ann Harris, and since
• many Black families, most likely, were never paid for their land, because the money paid by the Federal government went through E.M. Thorpe – the largest White landowner on Harris Neck and a McIntosh County Commissioner in the 1940s.
4. During the actual taking of the land in 1942, E. M. Thorpe was given preferential treatment by the Federal government, which allowed him to keep some of his Harris Neck property, land that gave him valuable access to deep water on the east side of Harris Neck. This was done at the same time that the entire community of Black families was completely destroyed.
5. The Federal government broke its promise to return the land to the people of Harris Neck at the end of World War II.
6. Members of the McIntosh County Board of Commissioners and other prominent officials in McIntosh County, conspired to influence the taking of Harris Neck by the Federal government and to gain control of the 2,687 acres of Harris Neck after World War II, which they did.
7. McIntosh County violated its contract with the Federal government during the time the county held title to Harris Neck (1948 to 1961) by allowing many illegal activities, including prostitution, gambling, drag racing, cattle grazing (for Whites only), and drug smuggling.
8. Again, in 1961, when McIntosh County could have assisted with the return of Harris Neck to its rightful owners, it did not. The Federal government reacquired Harris Neck and transferred title to the Department of Interior in 1962. This all transpired without the knowledge of anyone from Harris Neck – any of the Black families, that is.
The White families that owned land on Harris Neck have been invited to be part of the Harris Neck Justice Movement. The Harris Neck Land Trust, which is the legal entity at the center of this movement, is comprised of and represents the surviving families from Harris Neck. Each family has its own representative to the Trust.
Plan your visit to the Harris Neck Land Trust and explore the history of the area. Admission is free for children under 12 and $10 for adults. Guided tours are available for groups of 10 or more. Don't miss out on this opportunity to experience the past.
Eminent Domain Violations in the Harris Neck Taking
The three core principles of Eminent Domain are: just compensation, due process and leaving the landowners in at least as good a condition as they were before the taking. All three of these principles were absolutely violated in Harris Neck in the summer of 1942. It should also be noted that there were 3,595 acres of virtually uninhabited land, just as suitable as Harris Neck, just south of Harris Neck. This land had been owned by one of the McIntosh County Commissioners. The specific violations of Eminent Domain include:
1. With the exception of Lilly Livingston, who was White, White landowners of Harris Neck never lived on Harris Neck, nor did they make any "improvements" to their raw land. Yet all the White landowners were paid 40 percent more than the Black owners, all of whom had houses, barns and other buildings on their property. In fact, this was a community with two churches, a general store, fire department and a school house.
2. There is no evidence that everyone was paid.
3. People were paid long after the time specified in this Eminent Domain taking.
4. The “taking” was done in a very short time – about 3 weeks.
5. There was no public hearing.
6. People were not even told they were permitted independent appraisals of their property.
7. There was nothing done about relocation. It was all about just getting off the land, and everyone was left homeless. This was in direct violation of the 1934 US Supreme Court case Olson vs US.
- Families went from owning as many as 300* acres on Harris Neck to less than 2 acres per family in Eagle Neck. (* Average was 16 acres per family before the taking.)
- Many families forced from Harris Neck bought lots in the area west of Harris Neck, called Eagle Neck, from Irvin Davis, a White man who had acquired a large number of acres on Harris Neck by 1942.
• Therefore, there were many violations of Due Process and people’s Civil Rights in this implementation of Eminent Domain in 1942. The official eviction date in Harris Neck was July 27, 1942. Since this taking was wrong and illegal, all subsequent transfers of title, including the last transfer to the US Department of Interior, were invalid.
• Definition of Eminent Domain (Condemnation): The Power of local, state or federal
government agencies to take private property for “public use” so long as the government pays “just compensation.”
Dan Biersdorf: 1-612-568-0465………..firstname.lastname@example.org