Mock Congressional Hearing at Emory Law School for the Harris Neck Land Trust

We recently participated in a mock congressional hearing on the claims of the Harris Neck Land Trust at Emory Law School in Georgia.  The hearing was designed to assist the Harris Neck Land Trust effort to win congressional backing to recover the land now controlled by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  A brief history of the situation is provided below.  We provided the following testimony during the mock hearing and will provide similar testimony at a congressional hearing:

1. The takings violated the just compensation standard. Some families were not paid at all.  The families that were paid were not given just compensation because they were only paid for their  land and not for improvements such as buildings.  The lack of justness in compensation is further evidenced by the fact that the white landowners, who were not Harris Neck residents, were paid 40% more than the African American landowners.

2. The takings violated the 5th Amendment due process requirements by failing to provide residents with individualized notice of the compensation award proceedings.

3. The residents of Harris Neck should have had the opportunity to repurchase the land.  Federal agents made oral promises that, at the end of WWII, the residents would have this opportunity.

Harris Neck Farms is a stunning 2600 acres of land nestled along the Georgia Coast.  The history of Harris Neck Farms is a heart-wrenching story that began shortly after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865, when landowner Margaret Ann Harris bequeathed her land, Harris Neck Farms, to her former slave Robert Dellegall and his heirs in her will.

Harris Neck became an isolated community of small farms tended to by the former slaves and their families.  They were a hard working and self sufficient group of individuals who were dependent upon the land and the bounty provided by the sounds, streams and marshes in the area, where residents regularly rowed their heavy bateaus out on ebb tide to collect oysters, shrimp and mullet.

In the 1940’s, during WWII, Washington needed an emergency air strip along the Georgia coast for Air Force planes to guard against the threat of German U-boats.  The government was led to Harris Neck Farms by a few local power brokers, and decided that they needed the land.  They asked the 75 families to move, and the residents responded patriotically.  They received a modest amount of money plus an assurance that after the war was over, they would get their land back.  Their homes were bulldozed and their crops burned to make way for the airstrip that was necessary to help protect the nation against the Germans.

Over 40 years have gone by and their promised land was never returned to them.  Since the initial transaction in 1940, the land was turned over to the county to be used for a civilian airport.  That never got off the ground, so the county leased the land, and casinos and brothels became prevalent.  Finally, it went back to the federal government where it became the wildlife refuge that it is today.  During this time, the former residents pleaded to get their land back.

At the time of the taking, the residents were never presented with and never signed any contracts.  When asked in a 1983 60 Minutes interview why the residents didn’t demand contracts and take initiative to make sure they were treated fairly, one resident stated that a black person in southern United States in the 1940’s didn’t have the means to exercise their rights and more importantly, the residents at the time didn’t know how to conduct business in that manner.  Additionally, they had faith in their government to reinstate their rights as verbally promised to them.  Not surprisingly, the US defense department claims they have no records regarding the transactions that occurred at Harris Neck Farms in the 1940’s.

Richard Epstein stated in his book on takings, “the quid pro quo when the government takes somebody’s property is that if you want to use your coercive powers to take away the property of individual citizens, you  must provide benefits to the individuals who have been coerced, that leave them at least as well off as they were before.”  Serious claims have been brought from the people who own this property that have not been left as least well off.

The former residents of Harris Neck have unsuccessfully tried to get their land back over the past 40 years.  They have even requested to lease just a small portion of their former land in order to continue farming, fishing and using the property how it would be used today if the government had not taken it from them. They are now planning to exercise their 1st amendment right as citizens of this country to petition the government for redress of grievances.  The former residents are hopeful that a Congressional Hearing will help them reclaim their land.

Make a donation to the Harris Neck Land Trust, or learn more about their story.   Learn more about Emory Law School.

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