Descendants of black property owners in Georgia whose land was seized by the federal government at the beginning of World War II are locking horns with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS). The black landowners want the government to give back what it took, and bureaucrats at FWS want to hold on to what they have.
At issue is the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, a 2,800-acre preserve in coastal Georgia, about 40 miles south of Savannah. In 1865, a plantation owner deeded the property, known as Harris Neck, to a former slave. Over the years, other former slaves settled in Harris Neck, where they made use of the area’s abundant natural resources. The community thrived, with crab and oyster processing factories providing residents with a steady income.
All this came to a sudden end in early 1942, when the U.S. government seized the property for an air strip. Residents were given two weeks notice to clear out before their homes were demolished. As compensation for their loss, black landowners received $26.90 per acre for their land, while whites in the area were awarded $37.31 per acre. After the war, the base was closed, and the property was transferred first to Macintosh County and later to the Federal Aviation Administration. In 1962, the land became a wildlife refuge and placed under the jurisdiction of FWS.
Today, the sub-tropical refuge is home to egrets, herons, alligators, ducks (in winter), palmetto palms, and moss-draped cypress trees. And if the Harris Neck Land Trust gets its way, humans, too, may be residing in the area. Formed by elderly former residents, their descendents, and a handful of white families who owned land but did not live on Harris Neck, the land trust wants the property returned to what it believes are its rightful owners. Congressman Jack Kingston (R), in whose district Harris Neck is located, has been generally supportive of the families who want their land back. But he has told them that the feds are reluctant to turn over land that is under government protection.
The former residents of Harris Neck are of the distinctive Gullah/Geechee culture. Their language is a mixture of southern English and words and expressions that can be traced back to their West African roots. Their culture survived, because they lived in relative isolation on the barrier islands of South Carolina, and Georgia. If FWS relents and returns their land, the families have agreed to be good environmental stewards by practicing private conservation.
Officials at FWS, however, are in no mood to relent. According to the New York Times (June 30, 2010), FWS regional director Cynthia Dohner has proposed, in lieu of returning the land, an “annual homecoming day” at Harris Neck and the chance to collaborate on an “interpretive kiosk.”
What’s more, the “History” section of FWS’s Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge website makes no mention of how the residents were driven off their land or how the blacks were paid less per acre for the expropriated land than what whites received.