Author ORCID Identifier

Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Tad Mutersbaugh


This project traces the history and legacy of the seizure of Harris Neck, approximately 2,600 acres on the Georgia coast, once largely composed of rice and cotton plantations. After the Civil War, freedmen and women transformed the area into a thriving Black community. The community of approximately a hundred families, a school, a church, a post office, and many small farms and businesses flourished from the late 1800’s until 1942, when the federal government seized Harris Neck for use as an Army airfield.

The procedures used by the federal government to seize and, later, reallocate Harris Neck will be examined, as these processes are grounds for a long struggle for the return of Harris Neck to former owners. Two key elements of the dispute will be examined in depth: the way in which Harris Neck families were notified of eminent domain procedures and associated rights and whether former landowners should have been given the opportunity to repurchase their land after it ceased to be used by the US Army. Ultimately, governmental policies and political maneuvering meant the land and its facilities were offered first to state and local governments, and it is at this point that any path toward repurchasing property was foreclosed to former landowners. This narrative constitutes an important history of a strong Black community in the Jim Crow South.

After Harris Neck’s tenure as an Army airfield, local officials lobbied for and took ownership of Harris Neck. Under an agreement with the Civil Aeronautics Association, the county government committed to utilizing the facilities as an airport. However, the area was instead enrolled in the county’s long history of corruption and race-based oppression. Even after the federal government retracted the deed due to breach of contract, Harris Neck continued to enrich local whites. In 1962, Harris Neck became a National Wildlife Refuge and since has provided recreational opportunities for and added to property values of local, primarily white residents. Today, Harris Neck’s Black community has been largely written out of Harris Neck’s history, as published by its managing agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Tracing the ways in which Harris Neck has continued to exist as a site of loss and oppression connects a seemingly distant initial seizure with a much longer history of indifference to and dismissal of Black communities.

Finally, the project examines efforts by former Harris Neck community members to reclaim their properties. Legal battles have been fruitless, as statutes of limitations and legal principles like res judica have stymied suits filed by former Harris Neck community members. Congressional hearings have provided a platform for and validated oral histories of former Harris Neck residents but have failed to bring tangible change. In recent years, Harris Neck Land Trust has emerged as an advocacy organization pursuing various “equitable solutions” to the current struggle over Harris Neck. In the final section of this dissertation, the shifting aims and the tireless efforts of Harris Neck Land Trust will be examined as an instructive example of community organizing and self-advocacy.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

Funding Information

Funding from University of Kentucky's Graduate School, Summer Research Grant, 2015