"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” ~ Frederick Douglass

Savannah Morning News

Sunday, April 19, 2009

By Tom Barton
Savannah Morning News
Savannah Now

Reading the Paper
BARTON: END HARRIS NECK INJUSTICE


What happened to 75 families who were removed from their homes in coastal Georgia in 1942 remains a national disgrace.

Rev. Robert Thorpe vividly recalls what happened to him, his seven siblings and 75 other families more than 60 years ago along the Georgia coast just south of Savannah.

The injustice still makes his blood boil.

Now 78, Thorpe was 11 years old when federal agents came to his remote corner of McIntosh County in the summer of 1942. The feds, steered to this area by corrupt local politicos, decided it needed his family's home and farmland in the Harris Neck community more than the descendants of slaves who lived and prospered in this close-knit enclave since the end of the Civil War.

"It was July and our corn crop was just getting ripe, and then we were told to get out," recalled Thorpe, who's now the pastor of Peaceful Zion Baptist Church in Savannah near Reynolds and 31st streets.

"We lost all of that."

What happened to Thorpe's family and other mostly African-American families remains a national disgrace.

Uncle Sam, using his power of eminent domain, acquired the 2,687 acres of lush woodlands and farmland at Harris Neck to build an airstrip for the U.S. Army. It gave the people who lived there only weeks to get out. Homes burned.

The military said it needed this facility to train pilots and to improve surveillance along the Georgia coast, where German U-boats were taking their toll on American shipping in the early years of World War II. But a combination of homegrown corruption and Washington ineptitude conspired to cheat hard-working families out of land and money. Here's what new research has found:

-- Instead of getting a fair price for their land, black families got 40 percent less than white families who sold similar properties.

-- Due process was not followed during the condemnation process.. That makes the original sale and subsequent transfers of title invalid.

-- More than 3,500 acres of virtually uninhabited land just across Julienton Creek from Harris Neck was available in 1942. Yet McIntosh power-brokers steered the feds to Harris Neck, essentially an island surrounded by salt marsh.

 

Why? Because these local fixers had inside knowledge.

They knew that after the war, the government would have no use for Harris Neck. It would first offer it back to the county. In effect, the local good ol' boys would gain control. And that's what happened. From 1947 to 1961, this county-owned land was a site for gambling, prostitution, illegal cattle grazing, drag racing and even drug smuggling.

 

The feds took it back in 1961. They turned the site into a jewel of a National Wildlife Refuge, which exists today.

 

Twice over the past 30 years, the families who were driven off their land in the name of national security tried unsuccessfully through the federal court and Congress to right a horrible wrong. Today, another effort is underway.

 

But this one, which is modeled after successful legislation that returned 15,000 acres out West to the Colorado River Indian Tribes in 2005, looks encouraging.

 

On Saturday night in Darien, hundreds packed the Banner of Truth Church, where a group called the Harris Neck Land Trust publicly announced plans to introduce new legislation in the U.S. House this year. The land trust, whose members include representatives from each of the remaining original families (now down to 69), has come up with a thoughtful, sensible proposal to regain the land.

 

Here's how it would work. Each family would get four acres, regardless of how much each originally owned. Strict covenants would apply on usage. The trust would preserve existing ponds and all wildlife and allow for public access. It would permit limited commercial development to generate jobs and revenue.

 

McIntosh County could use the financial boost. But this case is about more than economics. It's about justice. Even the McIntosh County Commission has passed a resolution acknowledging its past sins.

 

"This movement has brought together blacks and whites, old and young," said David Kelly, a 59-year-old California writer who moved to McIntosh to assist the latest effort.

 

Rev. Thorpe, who chairs the land trust, lives 50 miles north of his family's roots in Harris Neck. Other surviving families live close to the old home place, too. But even as the Savannah pastor sneaks up on his 80th birthday, there's still an 11-year-old child in him. And he still feels the hurt from a time when his world evaporated..

 

"It would mean a great deal to get back what was taken from us," Thorpe said.

 

Amen. But for a nation that promises equality, it would be a greater deal.


Tom Barton is the editorial page editor of the Savannah Morning News.

tom.barton@savannahnow.com