Descendants of the original 70-plus African-American families who had their property taken through eminent domain in 1942 are hoping the government will agree to their recent requests to lease a portion of their ancestral lands.
According to a press release from Holland & Knight, the law firm representing the Harris Neck Land Trust, the trust formally submitted a General Special Use Permit Application to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services at the Department of the Interior last Monday. The application requests enhanced access for descendants of Harris Neck to the land given to former slave Robert Dellegall following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.
In 1942, the federal government took Harris Neck, for the sake of national security, to develop an airfield. The government gave families only a few weeks to leave. Houses were bulldozed and burned, and families were left to fend for themselves with only a promise that the government would return their property at the end of the war.
Instead, the government conveyed the land for use as a county airport to McIntosh County in June 1948.
In 1962, the federal government reclaimed the land after proving the county had violated its contract, never using the land as intended. County officials had allowed numerous illegal activities on the land. Those claims eventually were acknowledged in the Harris Neck Resolution of 2007 by the McIntosh County Commission.
Back in federal hands, Harris Neck and all its 2,687 acres were given to the U.S. Department of the Interior and became the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge in 1962.
In the early 1980s, Elliott Campbell, Chris McIntosh, Edgar Timmons Jr. and Wilson Moran — all descendants of Harris Neck families — started a movement to reclaim the land.
“What happened in the early ’80s is that the community first brought up a lawsuit against the federal government,” Harris Neck Land Trust Executive Director David Kelly said. “It went to a federal court in Brunswick and the judge said two things — one being that the statute of limitations had passed, and the other, more important, thing being that there was no legal remedy to this. Because the land is owned by the federal government, Department of the Interior specifically, the return of title to the land can only be accomplished by an act of Congress, meaning legislation.”
Several years passed, but the group was no closer to its goal.
In 2005 the descendants re-grouped with a new determination to reclaim their rights to the land. That group soon became the Harris Neck Land Trust.
“The trust is the organization at the center of the movement,” Kelly said. “Think of it as a big umbrella, and every spoke of the umbrella represents an individual Harris Neck family.”
However, after several years of effort aimed at legislation, the trust, confronted with the realities of a bureaucratic Congress, decided on another course of action.
“Two years ago, Wilson (Moran) and I and a few others were at a meeting with our attorneys, and we talked about the political realities around seeking title to the land,” Kelly said. “We started thinking about other options, and with the law firm’s advice we brought another idea back to the community — to seek a lease of a small portion of Harris Neck, instead of a title to all of it. This is where we are now. We are requesting a long-term, renewable lease.”
Along with the Special Use Permit Application, a preliminary site plan for the proposed new Harris Neck community was submitted Feb. 2. Kelly said the plan is scientifically based, modeled after several self-sustaining, eco-friendly communities throughout the nation, and poses no threat “whatsoever to the wood stork or other migratory birds on the refuge.”
The proposal includes a living Gullah-history mu-
seum with an Oyster House that will be part museum and part working seafood-processing area, interpretive and welcome centers, a building focusing on youth and education, community farm, seafood café, seafood and farmers market, and an area where the families could construct guest cottages and some residential housing.
Kelly said scientists helped the trust decide which portion of the land should be used for their proposed community, which encompasses only a couple hundred acres on the refuge’s extreme eastern boundaries.
Kelly said the planned community will be almost a mile away from Woody Pond, the main nesting pond for the wood stork and other migratory birds, and more than a mile from the other ponds, which were created by Fish & Wildlife.
“The proposed chapel, community farm, museum and welcome center would only take up a few acres across from the existing public parking lot at Barbour River landing,” Kelly said.
Moran added that this area already is busy.
“People already use this for public shrimping, crabbing, getting oysters, sport fishing … it’s happening every day,” Moran said.
The families will have an opportunity to grow their own crops to eat and sell, as well as re-establish their Gullah Geechee culture of fishing and crabbing. Those items will, in turn, feed their families and be offered for sale.
“There will not be a large number of homes … it will be a small percentage of the total number of families that once lived on Harris Neck,” Kelly said.
Kelly added that residences will be powered by solar energy and use green technology to filter and re-use wastewater for the community farm.
“It is not a traditional sewage-treatment plant. It is a completely natural pond system,” he said.
Kelly said that system was developed by a retired NASA engineer.
“And what is amazing about it is, there is no odor from these ponds,” he said. “The effluent from each house, instead of going into a traditional leach field, will go to this pond system, which would take up only a couple of acres, and the water that comes out of is actually drinkable.”
With the leasing arrangement, Kelly said people will own their homes but not their property. The trust will own the cultural, commercial and educational buildings. The individual homes will be financed by the families.
Over the past several years, the trust has been funded through its own fundraising efforts and by grants from several foundations.
Kelly added that none of the required research and legal process would have been possible without the help of Holland & Knight, which is assisting the trust pro bono.
Moran also is one of the Georgia commissioners on the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission.
“We just want to build our culture back similar to what it was,” Moran said, adding he is constantly providing information to universities regarding the history of Harris Neck and the families.
“They want to know the stories,” he said.