HARRIS NECK NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Ga. — When the managers from the federal Fish and Wildlife Service talk about this 2,800-acre preserve of moss-draped cypress, palmetto and marsh, they speak of endangered wood stork rookeries and disappearing marsh habitat, dike maintenance and interpretive kiosks.
But when the members of the Harris Neck Land Trust talk about it, they speak of injustice, racism and a place they used to call home.
In 1942, Harris Neck, a thriving community of black landowners who hunted, farmed and gathered oysters, was taken by the federal government to build an airstrip. Now, the elders — who remember barefoot childhoods spent climbing trees and waking to watch the Canada geese depart in formation — want to know why they cannot have it back.
The Harris Neck Land Trust, formed by the former residents, their descendants and a handful of white families who owned land but did not live on Harris Neck, is asking Congress to return the land. The Fish and Wildlife Service maintains that the land is a crucial part of the national refuge system.
On its face, the quest of the former residents pits the goal of environmental conservation against that of righting a historical injustice. But it is also a conflict about two ways of life — one that tries to protect natural resources from human encroachment, the other demonstrating that humans can live in harmony with nature.
To the former residents, the suggestion that they cannot coexist with the wildlife on Harris Neck is absurd. “Wildlife was a part of us all of our lives,” said Kenneth R. Dunham Sr., 80, who was a child when the federal government gave Harris Neck families two weeks to leave before their houses were bulldozed and burned. “In my back door, I could hear the wild geese coming. We left food in the field so they would have something to eat.”
Harris Neck was deeded by a plantation owner to a former slave in 1865. Black families who settled there built houses and boats and started crab and oyster factories. But the community, many descendants suspect, was too independent for the comfort of McIntosh County’s whites.
During World War II, when federal officials were looking for a site for an Air Force base, the county’s white political leaders led them past thousands of uninhabited acres to Harris Neck. The government condemned the land and ordered the families to clear out with the promise, some residents recall, that they could come back after the war. Blacks received an average of $26.90 per acre for the land, while whites received $37.31, according to a 1985 federal report. In 1962, the wildlife refuge was established.
Trust members do not imagine that they can recreate their old way of life, but their plan for the land is meant to be similarly low impact. It includes solar energy, cutting-edge sewer treatment and organic farming. Most of the acreage would remain wild and open to the public.
But a little more than a tenth of the land would be developed — each of about 70 families would get four acres, with design requirements and a strict covenant that the land, now worth $100,000 or more an acre, could not be sold. There would be an eco-lodge and a convention center, which the county now lacks.
Transferring federally protected land is, of course, no easy matter. Representative Jack Kingston, a Republican who represents the area, has been generally supportive of the trust’s efforts but has tried to caution its members on the political difficulties. “Environmental advocates can be formidable adversaries,” he wrote in a May 25 letter to the trust.
Environmental groups, for the most part, have yet to voice opposition. Deborah Sheppard, executive director of the Altamaha Riverkeeper in nearby Darien, was hesitant to address the issue, saying that her organization had not taken a position. “This is not the traditional question that’s posed to environmental groups, and to the extent that people aren’t being responsive, it’s probably that they don’t know how to weigh in,” she said.
As a local resident, though, Ms. Sheppard said she was familiar with the history of Harris Neck and sympathetic to the former residents, displaced from land whose status as a wildlife refuge has helped drive the construction of million-dollar retreats nearby.
“People continue to suggest that people from Atlanta with money can live here in an ecologically sound way — why can’t people with experience hunting and fishing and living off the land live in an ecologically sound way?” she said. “Those people are rightly suggesting that they have a historic capacity to interact well with their natural resources. And the rest of us haven’t.”
Complicating matters is that the former residents are themselves, in a way, endangered. They are Gullah/Geechee, descendants of West African slaves who became some of the nation’s earliest black landowners. Their distinctive culture, preserved for years by isolation on the coastal barrier islands, has been threatened by development to such a degree that in 2006, Congress designated a Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor stretching from North Carolina to Jacksonville, Fla.
But without access to the land that sustained the Gullah way of life, there are few options for preserving it. Some official ideas were detailed in a letter from Cynthia Dohner, the regional director of Fish and Wildlife, who proposed, in lieu of returning the land, an “annual homecoming day” at Harris Neck and the chance to collaborate on an “interpretive kiosk.”
Evelyn Greer, 82, recalls the forced move out of Harris Neck in vivid detail: residents lugging furniture by hand or mule cart, leaving jars of preserved food and livestock behind. On the morning their house was to be demolished at 6 a.m., she and her mother woke early to retrieve a treasured phonograph and its two records. On the path, her mother froze.
“I heard the fullness in her voice,” Ms. Greer recalled. “She said, ‘We in plenty of time, but we’re too late.’ ” The house was in flames.
The family moved into a barn owned by the white man her mother worked for.
Now, Ms. Greer and other trust members meet monthly to pray, sing and mull their next move. There will be a meeting with a congressman who is friends with President Obama, and another with a Georgia Department of Natural Resources employee. Two longshoremen were in the room at a recent meeting — maybe the A.F.L.-C.I.O. could do something. “The Return of Our Land,” read an agenda. Then, pointedly, “Community Meeting No. 49.”
Mr. Dunham rose to deliver encouragement. “We’re going to move on, and we’re going to come on in spite all,” he said to amens and mm-hmms. “Won’t that be a happy time, when we all get to heaven? I’m talking about Harris Neck, now.”