What if the occupiers of Malheur Wildlife Refuge had been black, rather than white?

Living on Earth
Harris Neck Wildlife

In 1979, a group of African American protesters breifly occupied Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, pictured above. The authorities moved in quickly to remove them — in stark contrast to the recent situation at Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Becky Skiba/US Fish and Wildlife Service

During the recent occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by anti-government ranchers, some wondered whether federal authorities would have been as patient with black, rather than white, occupiers.

As it turns out, a past incident may provide some insight: In 1979, a group of black protesters briefly occupied Georgia’s Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge in an effort to rebuild a community that had been displaced decades earlier — but, unlike the ranchers at Malheur, they were unarmed and had a legitimate claim to the land they were occupying.

Reporter Joseph Rose of the Oregonian, who unearthed this story, says the reaction by the federal government in 1979 contrasted sharply with the recent standoff at Malheur.

While it took six weeks for the FBI to take any action against the armed ranchers in Oregon, within three days of the occupation at Harris Neck, the FBI had forcefully removed all of the campers and arrested them, Rose says.

Media coverage of the 1979 protest also differed from the coverage of the recent Oregon occupation, Rose adds. While the occupiers in Oregon were roundly ridiculed and criticized by much of the public, the news media largely remained impartial.

“[But] if you look at the headlines back in 1979, during the Harris Neck occupation, the headlines were almost insulting,” Rose says. “They were called ‘black squatters,’ in fact … There was almost like a police blotter tone to it — that these were criminals.”

Were the authorities motivated by racism? Hard to say. But there is little doubt that the origins of the 1979 occupation were rooted in racism. Here’s the backstory:

After the Civil War, a white plantation owner in an overwhelmingly white county on the Georgia coast deeded all of his land to former slaves. Many of them were descendants of a culturally unique group of African Americans called the Gullah Geechee.

“They set up, for all intents and purposes, a city, with a vibrant economy based on fishing and on farming,” Rose says. “There was some manufacturing there. There were even some cattle ranchers in the area. It was a very vibrant community.”

Then, during World War II, the US Army invoked a wartime right of eminent domain and took over the land to use it for a military airfield. The Army paid the African Americans who lived there pennies per acre and essentially forced them out, Rose says.

This created a great controversy, because there was a lot of uninhabited land in this county in Georgia that could easily have have been used for this purpose — land where no communities or structures existed.

“But these areas had white landowners,” Rose says, “who ... said to the army, ‘Why don't you look over at Harris Neck?’ And that's exactly what US government did.”

When the war ended, the African-American settlers expected to return to their land. They had been promised, they said, that once the land wasn't needed for military exercises, it would be given back to the community and to the landowners who had a legitimate claim to it. Instead the military gave it to the county.

But in 1962, citing mismanagement by the county, the US government took the land back again and turned it into a wildlife refuge, Rose explains.

Many years later, in 1979, a small group of descendants decided to occupy the wildlife refuge in protest.

“They didn't go in armed with weapons, like the Bundys did here in Oregon,” Rose says. “Instead they went in armed, if you will, with building materials. They wanted to once again start building a community.”

The FBI issued an ultimatum within a couple of days threatening to arrest the occupiers if they did not leave. Most of the people left, Rose says, feeling they had made their point. But four people stayed on the land in tents. Within 24 hours they were forcibly removed, dragged into paddy wagons, arrested and sentenced to jail for trespassing.

The families that used to live at Harris Neck have also tried several times, without success, to sue the federal government to get their land back. One lawsuit is still active, on appeal. 

“The government's stance is that there was never any written or legal documentation that stated that the government would give it back once it entered into a type of foreclosure by the government, for military operations,” Rose explains.

Descendants of the community are also trying to lease back a portion of the refuge from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

But there is little local support in the still predominantly white county for the Harris Neck community’s claim to the land, Rose says. What support there is has come from historians and researchers outside of Georgia and from African American organizations who feel this was a great injustice.

“The descendants and the survivors of Harris Neck are on their own, unfortunately,” Rose says.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.