Writer’s note: I wrote this for Georgia Trend magazine in 2003, but it’s a story that remains relevant — the people of Harris Neck are still fighting for land that was taken from them in 1942 (something I was reminded of this morning while listening to NPR). I barely scratch the surface here, and there’s so much more of this story to tell, which gets me thinkin’ …
Albert “Swift” Campbell sits behind the wheel of an idle 1970s gas-guzzler parked in Cousin Weezy’s front yard. With a stogie clenched between 70-something-year old teeth it’s impossible to understand what he’s saying. “You’re slipping into Geechee, there, Swift,” says Wilson Moran, making the rounds, checking up on friends and relatives in the neighborhood just down the road from the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge.
Weezy and Swift are quite the pair, one of them hard of hearing the other one blind. Fortunately, the one who’s hard of hearing is behind the wheel. “Hah?” Swift asks. “I say you’re speaking that Geechee,” Moran says again, louder. He shakes Swift’s hand, kisses Weezy’s cheek and we’re off, down the road into the past, to Moran’s ancestral home, Harris Neck, where freed slaves thrived in an agrarian economy, where alligators and wood storks now prosper.
Moran left his north McIntosh County home for a hitch in the army, became a cop in Hartford, CT., and came back after getting his head busted during 1960s race riots. His grandpa, ‘Papa,’ was a wealthy man back when 75 black families lived on Harris Neck, but he died poor and heartbroken.
“Papa was a genius at farming and fishing, he had two boats and didn’t take crap from anyone,” says Moran. Until 1942, when it was forced down his throat by the U.S. Army, which confiscated Harris Neck for an air base, taking land that black families had been living on since Gen. Sherman completed his march to the sea in 1864. Mary Moran was pregnant with Wilson when the Harris Neck families were given two weeks to leave their homes and make other living arrangements, “or they’d burn us out,” Wilson says.
The government promised to return the land after World War II. Instead, the 2,700 acres fell into the hands of McIntosh County leaders, white bullies who used the land for private enterprises like a drag strip, gambling joint and whorehouse. “The only planes that landed there carried contraband,” says Wilson Moran. Melissa Fay Greene documented the corruption of McIntosh County’s white leadership in the book, “Praying for Sheetrock,” which detailed the backwater corruption during Sheriff Tom Poppell’s infamous reign. Moran’s father actually worked as a deputy for Poppell.
Moran, a board member for the McIntosh County Development Authority, says the county’s shady shenanigans set it back years in economic development. “We’re 25 years behind other coastal counties, like Glynn (Brunswick) and Chatham (Savannah),” he says.
Disgusted with the county’s handling of Harris Neck, the federal government took it back in 1962, declaring it a wildlife refuge. Today, Harris Neck has unquestioned environmental and economic value. Home to endangered species, lush plant life and salt marshes it lures thousands of visitors and is one of the reasons McIntosh attracts more than $40 million in annual tourist expenditures.
Wilson Moran continues to fight for some sort of reparation, some sort of closure. He’s been to Washington to enlist the aid of public advocacy lawyers. “We’re strategizing,” says Moran. “Trying to see who else will go out on a limb for us.”
Not surprisingly, Congressman John Lewis’s name keeps coming up. It depresses Moran to drive through Harris Neck, especially today, as a uniformed officer escorts us out – the woods are crawling with bowhunters, ironic camouflaged visitors for a refuge. But somehow, Moran clings to a Horatio Alger outlook.
“We have to share our history with the young people,” says Moran, who serves on the county’s development authority board. “We have to convince them there’s hope for the future and help them achieve their dreams. It all starts in school. Then we have to entice small businesses to come here to McIntosh County. It’s small businesses, not the Daimler-Chryslers and other big shots, that make America work.”