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