A stunningly beautiful 2,687 acres of meadows, woodlands, freshwater ponds and marsh, Harris Neck – a national wildlife refuge since 1962 – was once home to a prosperous and self-reliant community of 75 African American families. From the end of the Civil War until 1942, the people of Harris Neck, located along the coast in the northeast corner of McIntosh County, Georgia, lived harmoniously with each other and their natural environment. Speaking about their lives before 1942, many of the remaining elders who still live in Georgia say, “It was a hard life, but it was a good life.”
The people lived off the land, creeks, rivers and ocean, and they took their crops, wild game and seafood to market in Savannah and Darien in small sailboats. 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 ways - a culture that came to be known as Gullah or Gullah Geechee. A hard working and resourceful people, they had their own seafood processing plants, schoolhouse, general store and firehouse.
Then in the summer of 1942 everything changed.
Not long after America entered World War II, the US Army began looking for land along the Georgia coast on which to build an Army Airfield. In McIntosh County the Army was led to Harris Neck by a few local power brokers. The Federal government took Harris Neck via eminent domain and gave the community just a few weeks to move. On July 27, 1942 everyone was evicted, some forcefully; the Army then burned and bulldozed everything in the community and began construction of its Airfield. This implementation of eminent domain was unjust and illegal since eminent domain takings require, by US Supreme Court decision, Olson vs US (1934), that the owner of condemned property should be left in as good a position, after the taking as he/she was before the taking. The people of Harris Neck were all left homeless, and every person's livelihood was destroyed in a single day. This taking was the first in a long series of injustices that the people of Harris Neck have endured up to the present day.
"In the shadowlands courage and patience are the lessons anyone with a dream should learn." ~ Alex Haley
1863 January 1 The Emancipation Proclamation is issued by President Lincoln.
1865 January 16 Sherman’s Field Order No. 15 is issued. This order confiscates, as federal property, a strip of coastline stretching from Charleston, SC to the St. John’s River in FL, including Georgia’s Sea Islands and the mainland thirty miles in from the coast. This amounts to approximately 400,000 acres that
is to be distributed to former slaves in 40-acre parcels. This order is a short-lived action by the federal government; President Andrew Johnson rescinds it later the same year. However, the historical importance of Field Order 15 is that present-day discussions, supporting reparations, point to it as the federal government’s first attempt to make restitution for slavery.
1865 September 2 In her Last Will & Testament, Margret Ann Harris deeds the lands of her plantation to Robert Dellegall, her former slave and an ancestor of the Moran family and others in present-day Harris Neck. This establishes rightful ownership of the lands that come to be known as Harris Neck by the 75 African American families that are living on Harris Neck in 1942.
1942 July The federal government, via an Eminent Domain condemnation, takes the 2,687 acres of Harris Neck for the stated purpose of national security to build an Army airfield to train fighter pilots for World War II. The Harris Neck community is given just a few weeks to move. Crops are burned and people’s houses and all other buildings in the community, except the church and the house of Lilly Livingston (the only White person living in Harris Neck), are bulldozed and/or burned. No provisions are made by the government for the community, regarding new land or future living arrangements; the people, now homeless, are simply left to fend for themselves. This is in direct violation of the US Supreme Court’s 1934 decision in Olson vs United States.
Over the years in the early part of the 20th century, many acres of Harris Neck had been bought by Whites. Most, but not all, Black owners are paid a few dollars per acre for their land, but they are all paid 40 percent less than the White property owners. None of the White owners, except Ms. Livingston, had ever made any “improvements” to their land, meaning none had built homes, while every Black family had a house, barns and other buildings on their property. Therefore, in effect, the 40 percent difference in payment is really much greater, in favor of the White owners.
The federal government also promises the people of Harris Neck that they will be able to return to their land at the end of the war– a promise that is never kept.
The official eviction date is July 27, 1942.
Research has shown that most of the procedures stipulated under Eminent Domain were not properly followed and people’s rights to Due Process were violated in numerous ways, making the original taking of the land and, therefore, all additional transfers of title, unlawful and invalid.
In the spring of 1942, two ships had been sunk off the Georgia coast, south of Harris Neck, and, reportedly, German U-boats were sited offshore. Some say this is the reason the government came to Harris Neck to build its airfield. However, it is the contention of those from Harris Neck that a few local power brokers in McIntosh County started this rumor in order to lead federal agents to Harris Neck, specifically, with plans that these few men, or at least the county itself, would get the land after the war, which is exactly what happened.
Newly discovered documents support this contention of a local conspiracy, or at least duplicitous behavior, by county officials, not only in the 1942 taking but also after the war when the county acquired Harris Neck. Documents also reveal that there was other land adjacent to Harris Neck and just as suitable that the Army could have used. In fact, there were 3,595 acres of virtually uninhabited land just a good stone’s throw from the southern boundary of Harris Neck that had been owned by one of the county commissioners, who was also the largest White landowner on Harris Neck.
1943 A triangular airfield is constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers for the Army Air Corp. It is used for only 12 months.
1944 October Congress enacts the Surplus Property Act of 1944 to provide for the disposal of government property after World War II. This act, which is repealed just five years later, places the people of Harris Neck last in the order of conveyance of their homeland - after other federal agencies, the state of Georgia and local government.
1946 October 25 Assumption of accountability of Harris Neck by the War Assets Administration.
1948 June 24 The War Assets Administration, the federal agency that deals with the disposition of surplus property after World War II, conveys the 2,687 acres of Harris Neck to McIntosh County. The deed for this conveyance states that Harris Neck is to be used only as a county airport. This does not happen; instead, from 1948 to 1961 McIntosh County completely violates its contract with the federal government, permitting numerous illegal activities – including prostitution, gambling, drag racing and even drug smuggling – to occur.
1961 After years of complaints about McIntosh County’s misuse of the lands of Harris Neck, the federal government reclaims all 2,687 acres and conveys title to the Department of Interior, which creates a National Wildlife Refuge, operated by the U S Fish & Wildlife Service (“FWS”) from 1962 to the present.
1979 McIntosh County Sheriff Tom Poppell apologizes to the congregation of First African Baptist Missionary Church of Harris Neck for not helping when he had the opportunity to get the land back for the community. He was terminally ill at this time and died not long after. In the hospital he asked for a few of the leaders of the former community to visit him, but he died before they arrived. Was he going to tell them the details of what the county did in 1942 and in 1948 and who was responsible?
1979 April 28 Former members of the Harris Neck community and their descendants, as well as several national civil rights leaders, converge on Harris Neck in an attempt to reclaim their land. People go onto Harris Neck, set up tents, and prepare to construct new buildings.
1979 May 2 Four Harris Neck descendants are arrested by federal marshals and sentenced to a month in jail in Savannah.
1980 August 1 Edgar Timmons, Jr. and the group known as People Organized for Equal Rights (POER) file a Motion for Relief (Civil Case No.56) for the return of Harris Neck. The NAACP and the Emergency Land Fund assist POER in its legal efforts.
1980 August 25 U S District Court, Southern District of Georgia* (Judge B. Avant Edenfield) denies this Motion and permanently enjoins the defendants from occupying Harris Neck. In his ruling the judge states, “Title is vested in the United States and cannot be returned to the original owners without Congressional authorization. There is no remedy for defendants in the courts.”
1979-1980 Attempts are made by Mr. Timmons and POER to have US Congressman Bo Ginn and Senator Herman Talmadge sponsor bills in the House and Senate for the return of their land. Nothing materializes; no bill even makes it out of committee.
1980 This first movement for justice ends unsuccessfully.
1983 February 20 The CBS TV news program 60 MINUTES** airs a program on the Harris Neck controversy, its history, and attempts by former community members and their descendants to reclaim their land.
2005 A new effort to reclaim the land of Harris Neck for its rightful owners – beginning with research of old court documents, thousands of pages of federal and county records, and more – is initiated.
2005 December The Harris Neck Land Trust, LLC (the “Trust”) is formed. A Board of Directors is elected and an Advisory Board and Executive Committee are formed.
2006 Most of the original families, who lived on Harris Neck, are located. A few families cannot be found.
2006 A duly authorized Family Representative is chosen by each of the original and surviving families of Harris Neck.
2007 January 9 The McIntosh County Board of Commissioners unanimously passes the Harris Neck Resolution, which acknowledges McIntosh County’s complicity in its acquisition of Harris Neck after World War II, and the numerous violations of its contract with the federal government from 1948 to 1961. The Commission also recognizes the Trust as the legal entity pursuing the return of Harris Neck to its rightful owners.
2007 With the assistance of a landscape architecture/land use planning firm, the Trust begins work on a Preservation and Community Development Plan for a new Harris Neck community.
2007 Members of the Trust’s Board of Directors meet with US Representatives Jack Kingston (R-GA, District 1) and John Barrow (D-GA) to inform them of the new Harris Neck Justice Movement and to ask for their support.
2007 The Trust contracts with a natural resources consulting firm to conduct environmental and cultural/historical assessments of Harris Neck. These assessments and inventories are incorporated into the Preservation and Community Development Plan.
2008 Meetings with other key members of the US House of Representatives and Senate are held to advise members of the movement and to ask for their support of legislation to effect the return of Harris Neck.
2008–2009 Meetings continue with key members of the House and Senate, and the frequency of discussions with US Congressman Jack Kingston and his staff increases. Mr. Kingston tells the Trust he wants to have FWS “on board” with the Trust before legislation is introduced.
2009 December 10 After several months of effort by the Trust, a meeting is finally held with Mr. Kingston and other members of Congress, FWS and the Trust’s Board in Washington, DC. Mr. Kingston makes a commitment, agreed to by all present, to find an “equitable solution” to the Harris Neck situation. He says a second meeting should be held as soon as possible.
2010 March 11 A follow-up meeting to the one on December 10th is held in Hardeeville, SC. Representatives of FWS, Congressman Kingston, and the Trust try to find some common ground from which to proceed toward legislation. However, FWS makes it clear to the Trust’s Board that it will not support any efforts that lead to a transfer of title and the return of any land on Harris Neck to the people of Harris Neck.
2010 May 18 The Trust holds a news conference at First African Baptist Missionary Church of Harris Neck, inviting all the major media in coastal Georgia.
2010 June The Trust receives a letter from the SE Regional Director of FWS, regarding the called-for “equitable solution” in which FWS offers “to explore the possibility” of having an annual homecoming day for the people of Harris Neck and a small informational kiosk on the Harris Neck Refuge. The Trust’s Board chooses not to respond to what it considers an insulting offer.
2010 July 1 A national media campaign begins with an article in The New York Times. This is followed by many local, state, national and even international newspaper articles and radio and TV broadcasts.
2011 December 15 An Oversight Hearing is held before the US House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs. After members of the Trust testify, this sub-committee votes to accept draft legislation from the Trust.
2012 March The Trust signs a letter of engagement with the prestigious law firm, Holland & Knight, which agrees to assist the Trust, pro bono, with its efforts to reclaim Harris Neck for its rightful owners.
2012 March The federally-mandated Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission passes a resolution in support of the Harris Neck Land Trust’s efforts to reclaim Harris Neck for the rightful owners. FWS pressures this commission to remove the resolution from the commission’s Comprehensive Plan. It does not.
2012 Summer At its summer conference the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials adopts a unanimous resolution in full support of the Harris Neck Justice Movement.
2013 Confronted by the realities of a dysfunctional Congress, the Trust, with the advice of Holland & Knight and Congressman Jack Kingston, decides to change strategies. Instead of pursuing title to all of Harris Neck, it is decided that a long-term, renewable lease of a small portion of the Harris Neck Refuge will better serve the Trust's mission and objectives.
2013 May 30 The Trust and several officials from FWS and the Department of Interior meet in Holland & Knight’s Atlanta offices. Among the things discussed, is the Trust’s concept of a long-term lease of 700-800 acres on the Harris Neck Refuge, instead of seeking title to all 2,687 acres.
2013 August 27 A follow-up meeting to the one on May 30th is held at FAB Church of Harris Neck. Many of the same people who attended May’s meeting are at this meeting. FWS tells the Trust that it cannot permit the construction of houses on the Refuge, but it does say it will consider the construction of a Living Museum on the Refuge, as well as the incorporation of several other cultural elements.
2014 February 5 A full-day conference, entitled the Harris Neck Symposium, is held at Savannah State University. Co-sponsored by Savannah State, the event covers the history of Harris Neck from 1863 and the struggle for justice since 1942.
2014 May An ecologist, who specializes in maritime forests, finishes his maritime forest assessment of Harris Neck. His report states, “Harris Neck is not a maritime forest.” The Trust contracted this work, because Cynthia Dohner, the SE Regional Director of FWS had told the Trust that the reason “we cannot allow you to build houses on Harris Neck is that it is a maritime forest”.
2014 June 26 Members of the Harris Neck Land Trust, including some of the Harris Neck elders, meet in Harris Neck with Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Department of Interior. The members of the Trust briefly outline the history of Harris Neck and the Harris Neck Justice Movement for Ms. Jewell and then discuss the partnership the Trust seeks with FWS in the creation of a new Harris Neck community on the Refuge. Ms. Jewell asks the Trust to develop and submit a site plan for the proposed community.
2015 February 2 The Trust submits a General Special Use Permit Application and a Preliminary Site Plan to Interior and FWS. With this application the Trust is requesting a long-term, renewable lease to the most eastern portion of the Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge.
2015 February 26 The Trust’s Board Chair, Executive Director and an Executive Partner of Holland & Knight, Robert Highsmith, meet in DC with the Deputy Chief of Staff for the Secretary of Interior and the Director and a Deputy Director of FWS to discuss the permit application and the preliminary site plan.
The government denies the application, but FWS Director, Dan Ashe offers two possible paths forward to achieving an equitable solution for the people of Harris Neck. One path is that of a land transfer, the other is to prove the uniqueness of everything that has happened in Harris Neck since the summer of 1942. Director Ashe says that "If you prove the uniqueness, we (FWS) will support legislation" for the return of Harris Neck.
2016 May 2 Members of the Trust and attorneys from Holland & Knight meet again in DC with FWS Director, Dan Ashe and other FWS staff to discuss a possible land transfer and the Uniqueness document that the Trust submitted months earlier. With no explanation and barely any discussion, whatsoever, Dan Ashe closes the door on the uniqueness path to resolution.
2017 July 31 The Trust’s Board Chair and Executive Director and lead attorney, Robert Highsmith meet in DC with a Special Advisor to President Trump and a Special Advisor to the Secretary of Interior, Ryan Zinke to try, once again, to find a path toward resolution. The words “we are change agents” are repeated often in this meeting by these officials of the new Trump administration. The Advisor to Secretary Zinke suggests that the Trust and Holland & Knight consider a Cooperative Agreement as a path toward resolution.
2018 December After much research and preparation, the Trust submits a draft Cooperative Agreement to FWS. This document, which is similar to cooperative agreements that other non-profits and individuals have with FWS throughout the refuge system, describes and outlines all the elements of a Living Museum that the Trust has been working on for over a year. With this agreement, the Trust asks for a 25-year, renewable lease of the eastern-most 500 acres of Harris Neck. The small number of buildings planned for the museum, and supporting features, would have a footprint of less than 20 acres and would be more than three-quarters of a mile from Woody Pond, the nesting site of the Wood Stork and other migratory birds, thereby ensuring that there would be absolutely no human impact on any of the bird species.
2019 August 20 Congressman Buddy Carter (GA – District 1) hosts a meeting in Savannah at which FWS staff commit to reaching an equitable solution to Harris Neck within weeks/months.
2019 October 15 A follow-up meeting to the one on August 20th is held at Mr. Carter’s Savannah offices. Members of the Trust, Holland & Knight and
FWS review and discuss the Cooperative Agreement.
2021 September 3 U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Lawrence Bell, visited Harris Neck and met with the Trust’s Board Chair, Winston Relaford, community historian, Wilson Moran, Holland & Knight attorney, Robert Highsmith, and GA State Representative, Al Williams. After tours of the land and waters of Harris Neck and a history discussion, the Trust presented Mr. Bell with its plans for a portion of the Harris Neck Refuge that it is seeking to reclaim for Harris Neck descendants. Later, several other members of the Trust joined this group for a delicious dinner at Jerome’s Old School Diner.
* Of additional historic note and importance, relating to Harris Neck, and especially to
one of Judge Edenfield’s main contentions that the Statute of Limitations had expired
for the people of Harris Neck, there have been at least two major developments since
that 1980 court ruling that make the Statue of Limitations a moot point for Harris Neck.
** Since the late 1970s, there has been a great deal of media coverage about Harris Neck, mostly newspaper and magazine articles, but also radio and TV reports and programs.