Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia is a 2,800-acre mixture of saltwater marsh, grasslands and woods. It is home to thousands of egrets, ducks, and herons, and it is considered an important link in a chain of wildlife refuges along the Atlantic seaboard. But before WWII, it was a vibrant African-American community home to hunters, farmers, and oyster gatherers. Then the government took possession of the land for a federal air base. Now, the New York Times reports that the families of the displaced African- Americans want the land back.

The Harris Neck Land Trust is made up of former residents and their descendants, as well as a handful of white property owners who did not live on the land. Kenneth R. Dunham Sr., 80, fled the land with his family in 1942, after the government gave them two weeks to vacate before their home was bulldozed. As he told the New York Times, “Wildlife was a part of us all of our lives…In my back door, I could hear the wild geese coming. We left food in the field so they would have something to eat.”

But critics of returning the land to private ownership worry that the environmental impact of human residency would be too costly. Trust members assure environmentalists that their occupation would be low impact, with solar energy and organic farming. Only around a tenth of the land would be developed. Each family would be given four acres with strict design requirements, and they would not be able to sell the land. Further, an “eco-lodge” and convention center would be built.

It is a debate filled with shades of gray. African-Americans were paid $26.90 per acre for their land in 1942, while white owners were paid $37.31. Many feel that the land was chosen for the air base in 1942 because local whites were uncomfortable with the successful African-American community in their midst. Evelyn Greer, 82, vividly recalls to the New York Times her mother’s horror when she discovered their home was burned ahead of schedule.

As the New York Times points out, segments of this African-American culture are on the verge of extinction. These people are Gullah/Geechee, descendants of West African slaves. The Gullah preserved West African traditions while living in almost isolation on the Georgia and South Carolina barrier islands. They built a culture in which parts of West African languages, cultures, and community life were preserved. Supporters hope the return of this land will go far in revitalizing and preserving their traditions.

In the meantime, the descendants of Harris Neck hope that what they consider to be their rightful claim to the land will be restored.

For further reading:

Descendants of slaves look to reclaim government lands
Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, once a thriving African-American community, was taken during WWII for a federal air base.