Thursday, July 01, 2010

Transfer Harris Nect Back To Original Owners - NOW

In 1942, Harris Neck, a thriving community of black landowners who hunted, farmed and gathered oysters, was taken by the federal government to build an WWII Army airstrip. Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1962 by transfer of federal lands formerly managed by the Federal Aviation Administration. Now, the original landowners want to know why they cannot have it back. So does AAEA. We support transferring ownership of this land back to the original owners or their descendants.

The Harris Neck Land Trust, formed by the former residents, their descendants and a handful of white families who owned land but did not live on Harris Neck, is asking Congress to return the land. The Fish and Wildlife Service maintains that the land is a crucial part of the national refuge system. The Fish and Wildlife Service is wrong and the U.S. Department of the Interior already has serious racial problems that need to be addressed too.

When the managers from the federal Fish and Wildlife Service talk about the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, they speak of endangered wood stork rookeries and disappearing marsh habitat, dike maintenance and interpretive kiosks. But when the members of the Harris Neck Land Trust talk about it, they speak of injustice, racism and a place they used to call home.

On its face, the quest of the former residents pits the goal of environmental conservation against that of righting a historical injustice. But it is also a conflict about two ways of life — one that tries to protect natural resources from human encroachment, the other demonstrating that humans can live in harmony with nature. AAEA is not conflicted by this at all. After the closure of the base, the land should have reverted to the original landowners. This also represents more of the historical injustices meted on Black people during the first half of the 20th Century.

Harris Neck was deeded by a plantation owner to a former slave in 1865. Black families who settled there built houses and boats and started crab and oyster factories. But the community, many descendants suspect, was too independent for the comfort of McIntosh County’s whites.
During World War II, when federal officials were looking for a site for an Air Force base, the county’s white political leaders led them past thousands of uninhabited acres to Harris Neck. The government condemned the land and ordered the families to clear out with the promise, some residents recall, that they could come back after the war. Blacks received an average of $26.90 per acre for the land, while whites received $37.31, according to a 1985 federal report. In 1962, the wildlife refuge was established.

Trust members plan to utilize solar energy, cutting-edge sewer treatment and organic farming at the site and most of the acreage would remain wild and open to the public. But a little more than a tenth of the land would be developed — each of about 70 families would get four acres, with design requirements and a strict covenant that the land, now worth $100,000 or more an acre, could not be sold. There would be an eco-lodge and a convention center, which the county now lacks.

Complicating matters is that the former residents are themselves, in a way, endangered. They are Gullah/Geechee, descendants of West African slaves who became some of the nation’s earliest black landowners. Their distinctive culture, preserved for years by isolation on the coastal barrier islands, has been threatened by development to such a degree that in 2006, Congress designated a Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor stretching from North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida.

Contact Representative Jack Kingston (R-GA), right, who represents the area, today and demand that he introduce and aggressive push for legislation to transfer this federally protected land to its original owners.

(NYT, 6/30/2010)

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