Slave descendants fight for wildlife refuge

MCINTOSH COUNTY, Ga. — A battle has been brewing for 70 years over what some locals consider one of the most magical places in Georgia.

Some people also call Harris Neck in McIntosh County one of the state's most historic places, and that history will go before Congress next year to determine who actually owns the land.

The story begins in 1865, when plantation owner Margaret Ann Harris freed her slaves and gave them the land. The families lived off the land, fishing, farming and hunting. The sustainable community prospered until 1942.

During World War II, the federal government needed Harris Neck for an airstrip to protect the U.S. coast from U-boats. It gave each family $27 an acre and told them to leave.

Many of the descendants remember the day well.

"They came by, gave us two weeks' notice," said Mary Moran, who was pregnant at the time. "'Get out or we'll burn you out.' Some of them did get burned out."

"We were definitely wronged," said Kenneth Dunham. "They didn't have to take it. Why take it? We weren't bothering anybody."

"The government took the land," said Olive Smith. "And promised that when the war was over, they would return the land back. That was the promise."

After the war ended, the federal government pulled out of Harris Neck and gave it back to McIntosh County. When the county did nothing with the land, the federal government took it back in 1961 and created the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge.

The descendants have been fighting ever since to get the land back. Now, the well-known Atlanta law firm Holland & Knight has taken up the case for free.

"Most folks who look at this are disquieted by what happened," said attorney Robert Highsmith. "They think that a wrong was done and it needs to be righted. And the Congress and the administration have the power to right it.

Highsmith plans to take the case to Congress next year.

Still, there are many in McIntosh County who oppose the land returning to the family. One is resident Jim McMahon, who has done extensive research on the subject. He said there is no proof the families were told they could get the land back.

"(The land) was taken according to federal law, right down to the wire, they were paid for the land," said McMahon. "It's a sad story, but you have to remember, it's almost been romanticized to the point of fiction."

The Harris Neck Land Trust Plan calls for four acres for each of the 72 families. Highsmith said the final details are still being worked out, but the families will be bound to protect the wildlife refuge.

"We're not trying to prepare the land for development, we're not trying to sell the land," Highsmith said.

He also said the public still would be invited to visit the wildlife refuge.

Critics think the plan will hurt the refuge.


"According to the plot plan for the Harris Neck Land Trust and their road layout, it appears that when someone enters the refuge and drives around the refuge it will be like going through a subdivision," said McIntosh County resident Richard Brown.

Brown also is worried the county will lose money if tourists stop coming to the refuge.

"Ninety thousand visitors. Even if they spend $10 in the county, that's $900,000. For a small county like we are, that's a lot of money," Brown said.

Still, the descendants believe the law is on their side. The government took the land using eminent domain.

"As I understand eminent domain, it's for the good of the public," said Harris Neck Land Trust Board Chairman William Collins. "The public is not benefiting from this for the intended use, for the reason it was taken. It was not taken away to make a wildlife refuge. It was taken to make an airfield."

The descendants said the time has come to right an old wrong, but win or lose, they won't quit.

"If Congress doesn't act this time around, we'll continue to fight and fight on," said the Rev. Edgar Timmons of the First African Baptist Church of Harris Neck. "Because right always wins. The right will win, and we'll go back home."

"Lord, I'm praying that we get it back," said 90-year-old Moran. "Even if I'm not able to build, but just to walk down and see the place where I was born and raised. I'm praying for it."