Finding a fix for a 70-year-old wrong on the Georgia coast

In metro Atlanta, Robert Highsmith is known as one of the best fixers around.

If you’re a politician just arrested for DUI, perhaps in the company of a woman who is not your wife, this is the barrister who receives your one phone call.

Highsmith runs the Atlanta office of the Holland & Knight law firm. Connections? A steadfast Republican, Highsmith served as Gov. Sonny Perdue’s legal counsel. But he is not exclusive. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat, is a former law partner and friend.

We all know that clout usually works on behalf those who already have it. But every now and then, people without such juice are offered a taste. This week, Highsmith announced that he and his law firm would attempt what could be the biggest fix of his career — for free.

Holland & Knight will represent the descendants of a group of black subsistence farmers and fishermen seeking the return of 2,600 coastal acres in McIntosh County taken away 70 years ago by the federal government. An act of Congress is needed to repair the wrong. Literally.

“The idea that the land is never returned to its rightful owners – particularly given the compelling circumstances by which they came to own it – ought to disquiet anyone to whom property rights are important,” said Highsmith, who grew up in the area.

The story starts in 1865, at the close of the Civil War. A widow, Margaret Ann Harris, left her plantation in McIntosh County to the slaves who once cared for her. About 75 families survived — and even prospered — on the land.

Enter World War II and a fierce submarine war up and down the Atlantic Seaboard. The U.S. Army needed an air base to help fend off German wolf packs. White locals, it’s alleged, used the opportunity to clear out an independent enclave of African-Americans.

“McIntosh County officials… intentionally led representatives of the federal government to Harris Neck, right past more than 3,500 acres of virtually uninhabited land,” according to testimony from David Kelly, project coordinator for the Harris Neck Land Trust, offered last December at a congressional hearing arranged by U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Savannah.

Black residents were paid nearly $27 an acre – far less than the price paid to white residents – and told to clear out. But those forced from their homes claim they were promised that the land would be returned to them after the fighting was done. It wasn’t.

After the war, the Army handed the property over to McIntosh County, on the promise that it would develop a civilian air strip on the land. That didn’t happen. The county, an undisputed hotbed of corruption at the time, had its own priorities.

“Over the next 14 years, county officials used Harris Neck for a number of illegal ventures — including prostitution, gambling and drug smuggling,” Kelly reported.

The federal government took the land back in 1961, and created the Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge.

The ousted families have been fighting for their land ever since — from elsewhere. “They were told not to go too far, because they were told they would be able to move back on the land. A lot of them stayed in the general area. But some of the heirs went on to other places — for jobs,” said William Collins, board chairman of the Harris Neck Land Trust. He’s a retired pharmacist who grew up in nearby Jacksonville, Fla. His grandmother was one of those forced out.

A federal lawsuit filed in 1981 by the families was tossed out. The judge declared that the 1942 condemnation of the property was legal, and that the statute of limitations had run out.

This is where Highsmith and his colleagues at Holland & Knight come in. “Our task will be to do a lot of intense research and document these claims. What we have now is this rich oral history,” Highsmith said.

The toughest hurdle may be nailing down the promise from the federal government that the land would be returned to the original owners. Nothing on paper has yet been discovered. And may not exist.

“Do you really think that black fishermen, in McIntosh County in the early 1940s, were accustomed to asking white people in government if they could have it in writing? You think that’s how it worked?” Highsmith asked.

Because legal avenues have been exhausted, the only recourse left is an act of Congress, which Holland & Knight is equipped to handle. “We’re a top- five lobbying practice in D.C., for when the time comes,” Highsmith said.

The firm has done such pro bono work before, successfully lobbying the Florida legislature in 1992 to pay $2.1 million to black survivors and descendants of the 1923 Rosewood massacre.

But the ousted descendants of Harris Neck don’t want cash. They want the land — which is no longer considered a $27-per-acre wasteland.

In pressing the case before Congress, Highsmith and Harris Neck descendants recognize that the fiercest opposition could come from environmental lobbyists worried about the impact of re-introducing people into the delicate marshland.

“It has to remain unspoiled. A key part of this will be integrating this return with the environmental treasure that Harris Neck is. I’m hopeful we can partner with environmental groups that take an interest,” Highsmith said. “No casinos. No convention center. No commercial development.”

Just a happy ending to a sad tale.

- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider

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25 comments Add your comment


April 11th, 2012
6:23 pm

I applaud Mr. Highsmith’s efforts and any others involved in the return of this property to its rightful owners. I believe that reasonable people can come up with a solution that will protect the environment and return the land to the rightful owners. There is and old saying, “where there is a will, there is a way.


April 11th, 2012
7:16 pm

What right do environmentalist have in telling people what they can, and cannot, do on their land within the confines of normal development?

Give these people back their land and let them develop it with all the rights any other owner would have!


April 11th, 2012
8:07 pm

Unless there has been a huge change in the law, and in the absence of an act of Congress, it is the paperwork that will win out–not oral history. Given the reality of a political climate in which the parties cannot seem to agree to the time of day……

Well, good luck with that.


April 11th, 2012
8:07 pm

They should have been paid the “fair market price” at the time. And than this wouldn’t be a factor period. Now all you will hear is black rasicm over and over. I’m sooooooo tired of this BS. Pay the families that are due plus some interest and move on. Easy fix.


April 11th, 2012
8:09 pm

Error “racism”


April 11th, 2012
9:28 pm

Well, this is certainly about time.

Amazing what this State’s supposed leaders will do to suit the greed of a handful of well heeled individuals.

Danny Petaway

April 11th, 2012
10:58 pm

This is a classic case of a lawyer holding taxpayers hostage. What about Native Americans the Creek Indians occupied most of all that land thousand of years before the African Americans, they did not get one dime should they be entitled to repatriations as well? Does statue of limitations never run out? What should the Creek tribal members be paid? Or the Cherokee what should they be paid?


April 11th, 2012
11:57 pm

Just more proof that there is only a “war on liberal women” made up by the democratic party. Ann Romney is not a lib woman so she is fair game to attack. Hypocrisy at is best.

Jim McMahon

April 12th, 2012
9:53 am

This was all settled in 1985 by congress. After five attempts at legislation and a legislative hearing in 1979 the General Accounting Office did an investigation and found everything in order. These actions involved Three senators and two congressmen from Georgia as well as a congressman from DC.This has been settled for a long time. Remember the US government does not lose records. Look this up for yourself. It is very clear Holland and Knight did no investigating before they took this on, and I feel they will come to regret it.

[...] Galloway has done a good job of covering the history of the case, and his piece is well worth reading in its entirety.  [...]


April 12th, 2012
10:12 am

This is not an altruistic venture. The enemies of the concept of federally protected land have long exploited African-American claims to these lands to undo those federal protections. This is just a really thorough and professional version of one of those efforts. Kingston has long been at the center of such efforts on the GA Coast.

Nam Era Vet

April 12th, 2012
10:13 am

It would be simple if that we the simple truth for this case. But it is not. The land has proven Native American burials and ancient village sites on it. The federal government would have to get the approval of all FEDERALLY RECOGNIZED Native Americans to go forward. They do not have that permission. And there is big time [power behind this land grab that will soon take the land away form these African Americans. So how long does anyone realistically think they would own this land. This scam has been going on for years under the guise of poor African Americans. When the money in the background waiting to pounce is wealthy white men.

Aaron Burr V Mexico

April 12th, 2012
10:15 am

@Finddog – What right do private land owners have to affect my environment and screw up legitimate attempts to protect the environment? You operate under the presumption that your wealth and your land were earned and owned in a vacuum. If your ‘private property’ is a right, then so is my right to health care. You say a right to health care is invent? So is the right to private property.

You say ‘the persuit of happiness’ is a right in the declaration of independence?

So is the right to life.

Ah yes. That just means ‘the government can’t kill you randomly.’ You mean like the 2nd amendment only applies to Well Armed Militias?

A right to life is a right to life. And a right to bear arms is a right to bear arms. Period.

And my right to live free from polution you dump, or damage you do to the environment by shooting everything that moves trumps your right to ‘private property.’ If my rights are an illusion, so are yours.

@Table, Diningroom – Because Contards haven’t attacked Michelle Obama…oh wait, yes they have.

When Etch a Sketchy starts trotting out his wife like Trig the Potato Sack in a blatant attempt to say, “SEE I RELATES TO WOMEN. I R NOT SOCIOPATH.” That makes her a legitimate target.

Aaron Burr V Mexico

April 12th, 2012
10:17 am

And actually, I like the idea of Cherokee and Creek indians being paid with Republican lands. Better yet, swap their reservations with the North Georgia Suburbs.


April 12th, 2012
10:20 am

Jim, great story. Please ignore the comments, and keep us updated on how this progresses.

The Ghost of Gen. Ogelthorpe

April 12th, 2012
10:50 am

Well, hell…fair is fair…so how about these well connected Washington lawyers just following this political process all the way back?

For example, Alabama pays Georgia for the Yahoo Land Fraud, Georgia pays the Cherokees, the Creeks, etc.

The US pays Spain for Florida, Spain pays France, France pays the Seminoles.

The US pays Mexico for New Mexico, Mexico pays uh, let’s see, the Catholic Church maybe, which then pays any descendants of the Incas or Aztecs.

Portugal pays Spain for Brazil, or is it the other way around, I forget.

England must repay the Pope for the properties taken over during the Prostestant Reformation. The Pope must then pay the descendants of the Crusaders, who must pay the descendants of the Arabs or Muslims for the Crusade damage.

On and on, back to descendants of Eve paying descendants of Adam (or should it be the other way around)?

Aaron Burr V Mexico

April 12th, 2012
10:59 am

Or we could just sell Washington DC to China to help pay down the National Debt.

Followed by leasing the South for 100 years.

little horse

April 12th, 2012
12:57 pm

Danny Peteway,
You are very correct in your statements. This information on ALL the burrials and towns have been well documented since 1869 by Calarence B. Moore up to the recent times. Section 106 of N.G.P.R.A. applies. There is NO time limit. All this has been forwarded to all the interested parties that have been keeping an eye out on this land of “our” ancestors. We are very tired of the Native American bodies being dug up and put in boxes or bags like storing trash,this includes women,men and children.Would they want their family members done this way? Native Americans respect the Earth and all on it. They use only what is needed. Then when they die, they are returned to the Earth they kept so well. It boils down to respect vs. greed. But even greedy people should have to follow the laws. Everyone keep an extra eye on this. You never know what NEW tactic people will try. As far as the Federaly Recognized Nations…..they have all been told…..they are watching this little county and this affair. Also people from other counries that want to help the Native Americans keep this land and their ancestors buried on it, are also watching.

This is the only planet we have the HONOR to call home. We should take care of it.


April 12th, 2012
1:54 pm

Do a little more research and find out the people behind this effort. They are not the African American descendants. This is all about outside money trying to play the race card to get access to good real estate cheaply. Should we turn over Ft. Stewart to it’s former white owners? For surely the were as ’screwed over’ as this group? How about King’s Bay? Or is it because the perception is that a refuge is ‘wasted land’…..even though McIntosh Co. has been getting in-lieu tax revenue from the US Govt. for the land at Harris Neck. Stipulate that the land can’t be sold or aggregated once turned over to ‘descendants’. Then see how quickly the effort vanishes. Look more deeply. It shouldn’t be that hard.

Aaron Burr V Mexico

April 12th, 2012
2:14 pm

@Little Horse – Yeah sorry, after finding out about the Freedmen, my sympathy for the Cherokee at the least has been reduced to zero. Native Americans are human just like everyone else and if you want to avoid the wise indian stereotype, as well as the other tropes popular in fiction, stop perpetuating the myth that you ‘respect the Earth and all on it.’

Some tribes have this habit, many do not.

Your complaint about the treatment of Native bodies however is EXTREMELY valid and should be enforced with all the force of law. A nation that does not follow its treaties, is a worthless nation.

Yet ANOTHER reason the Constitution is a worthless piece of paper. Don’t talk to me about Federalism until you honor EVERY. SINGLE. TREATY. we have ever broken including ALL of the NAN treaties as well as the International Convention on Torture.

We only pay attention to what we want to, which makes “Federalism” a total and complete sham.

little horse

April 12th, 2012
4:39 pm

YOur comments about honoring all treaties is Very correct. I agree.
In the Native American world the only “treatie” that was inacted was to honor none of them.
The International Convention onTorture should be upheld. There should be NO torture by ANYONE.
I agree. In 1997 in this country, 12,00 Dineh’ were forcefully removed at gunpoint from their ancestoral lands onto a toxic dump, calle the Rio Purqe(I probably mis spelled this). It is 2nd to Cheranoble. They recorded their exsitance there and took their case as well as Elders to the U.N.
There world leaders watched the video, now called “Broken Rainbow” in 2000.The world leaders were horrified at what they were seeing. There is alot of work to be done on many fronts.
This land they were removed from, was for Peabody Coal- a Eruopean company.
Again, there is alot of work to do. Education never stops.


April 12th, 2012
4:40 pm

Aaron Burr Mexico, ” When Etch a Sketchy starts trotting out his wife like Trig the Potato Sack in a blatant attempt to say, “SEE I RELATES TO WOMEN. I R NOT SOCIOPATH.”

This is a great example why the mean spirited perverted democrats liberals like Aaron are so wrong . Aaron you are really a piece of trash.

Mark Yeager

April 12th, 2012
4:56 pm

“On Dec 7. 1941 a detachment of air guardsmen from Hunter Field took over the runway at Harris Neck.” By Charles Rippen in “The Harris Neck Army Airfield 1941-1944″

This is the same emergency runway built around 1930 for the Richmond-Jacksonville commercial flights. Therefore Harris Neck was a prime and proven location for the airfield that the Army decided to build. So representatives of the federal government were already in the area on the day the war broke out.

Mark Yeager

April 12th, 2012
6:55 pm

Here’s a clue: Go to LandTrust and try to find a recognized Land Trust in McIntosh County. Good luck!

Going Right

April 12th, 2012
9:41 pm

Having been born and reared in that area of South GA, I think the best was to solve this is to give the lands back to the original owners: native Americans. We’ve screwed them long enough. The Africans may lay claim to it and in my heart of hearts they should be given some compensation – whether land or financial remuneration. They too, got screwed. Get off the politics; the Democrats are as culpable as any one as they “owned this state’s politics” during the better part of the19th and 20 centuries. Aside from politics, it should be a matter of what is right and just. It may be too late now as someone has already brought up the conundrum of going back and back and back to start at who really owned the land, who it belongs to, etc. I can say one thing however: the Federal Government – if allowed to have it their way, will f- this situation up so badly not even God Almighty will know how to reconcile it.