Oregon standoff: Feds forcibly removed black occupiers from wildlife refuge in … – OregonLive.com
The group’s anger was a slow burn.
But after decades of being ignored by federal authorities, it’s members decided to take a very public stand against what they saw as an unjust land grab by the U.S. government.
Without warning, they started an occupation of a sprawling national wildlife refuge.
The year: 1979.
The drama unfolding with armed occupiers holed up at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns is similar to a standoff that made national headlines 39 years ago in Harris Neck, Ga.
But there are also stark differences, including the race of the Harris Neck occupiers – mostly displaced descendants of West African slaves — and the tactics used by the FBI to quickly remove what the media casually called “squatters.”
Also, the 40 members of People Organized for Equal Rights who set up a camp on the patch of land south of Savannah on April 30, 1979, were unarmed.
Instead of guns, the demonstrators, including prominent civil rights leaders, brought concrete blocks and bags of mortar to build new homes.
Their protest was straightforward and, upon reflection, heartbreaking.
Following the Civil War, a white plantation owner deeded the land on the Georgia coast to a former slave. In the decades that followed, the descendants of slaves moved to Harris Neck to build houses, factories and boats. They fished, hunted for oysters and grazed cattle.
Harris Neck evolved into a thriving community. Its members were recognized as a culturally unique group of African Americans called Gullah.
But in 1942, U.S. military officials gave Harris Neck residents just three weeks via imminent domain to leave their property so they could construct an airbase for training pilots and conducting anti-submarine flights.
Black landowners received an average of $26.90 per acre, while the government paid whites $37.31. Government officials also left uninhabitable rural land around Harris Neck owned by some of the region’s wealthiest whites untouched.
“Residents were paid only for the unimproved value of their land, receiving nothing more for houses, barns, or crops in the field, all of which were bulldozed or burned,” according to a 2010 story by The New American.
Instead of giving the land back to the black landowners and their descendants after World War II, the government left it in the county’s care and eventually converted it into the 2,762-acre Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge.
In contrast to the Burns occupation, federal authorities secured a court order to remove the Harris Neck demonstrators a day after the 1979 camp-in began.
However, four of the unarmed protestors — Edgar Timmons, Jr., Hercules Anderson, Christopher McIntosh and the Rev. Ted Clark — refused to leave.
On May 2, 1979, U.S. deputy marshals “forcibly removed” the men, according to a story in The Oregonian. “Their bodies taut and motionless,” the men were dragged out of their tent, handcuffed and hoisted into a waiting van.
Supporters taunted the police, shouted insults. One woman screamed, “Slavery is over with!”
At a Savannah news conference, Timmons protested: “You can’t tell me that geese, wild birds, cows, lizards and snakes have priority over a taxpaying American citizen.”
A judge sentenced the four men to a month in jail for trespassing.
In 1981, a fire destroyed county records with details on the original home sites.
In the years since, the 7th U.S. District Court has rejected the group’s claim of ownership. It ruled the land belongs to the U.S. government.
(Interestingly, Oregon State Police ended a standoff with Posse Comitatus members who took over an Umatilla County potato-processing facility in 1976 and claimed rights to the land by simply cutting the power, phones and water — and ordering pizza.)
Timmons and many of the original protesters at Harris Neck have died. But according to a 2010 New York Times story, former Harris Neck residents and their descendants are still fighting for what they see as their lost land.
There’s was also a Change.org petition that failed to generate enough online signatures to stay active.
The Times story ended with an 80-year-old displaced Harris Neck resident rising to speak at a meeting of activists planning their next move:
“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.”