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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Georgia Lost and Found

Air Date: Week of

Jesse Wegman travels the Georgia coast to bring us the story of the near-death of a unique African-American culture and of a small flicker of hope for its survival. The story of the community of black fishermen and farmers at Harris Neck is told through the eyes of Wilson Moran. Mr. Moran left Harris Neck as a teenager, and returned to recultivate his roots there nearly forty years later.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In the mid-coast of Georgia, there's a place that was once so isolated that locals say it was three years before anyone there heard about the Emancipation Proclamation. The place is called Harris Neck. And while Lincoln's words finally did reach the community in McIntosh County, its isolation didn't end with the Civil War. Well into the twentieth century, Harris Neck was a world apart from much of the United States. African-American families fished and farmed and owned their own land and boats. They built a community and sustained themselves for generations through their own businesses. Today that community is almost gone. It's been eroded by forces far beyond its control. And the local African-American culture, with its close connection to the land and the sea and its past in West Africa, is almost gone, too. Almost, but not completely. Living on Earth's Jesse Wegman recently traveled to Harris Neck. He met a man there whose own life story is also the story of the near-death of this unique culture, and of a small flicker of hope for its continuation. Here's his report.

WEGMAN: If you ask Wilson Moran, the trouble started six months before he was born. It was the summer of 1942, and someone reported seeing a German U-boat in the waters off Harris Neck. Within days the military decided it needed an airbase there. The residents were given three weeks to leave.

(Bird calls)

MORAN: They took all the crops, carrying all the beans, peas, okra, tomatoes, all that stuff, carrying it out. Some houses they even tore down.

WEGMAN: Several older townspeople died of heart attacks from the strain. Wilson's grandfather, a farmer and crabber, refused to leave, and was removed by force.

MORAN: There is no sign that we ever lived there. Now, those people, they had a grade school, they had a fire house, they had a police department, which worked from the county seat therein. They had two oyster houses, two crab houses, and they had stores. They made everything, including their liquor. They made moonshine. They were good at it. Very good at it. (Laughs)

WEGMAN: Harris Neck had been a tight community, about 90 families, all black. Mostly fishers and farmers, the children and grandchildren of freedman.

MORAN: And all this way of life was gone.

WEGMAN: The military seized 2,687 acres at Harris Neck. The families were offered plots of land a few miles away, a fraction the size of what they had left. Five months later, in November 1942, Wilson Moran was born on this new land, in a small shotgun shack his parents built with wood they salvaged from their original home. He was the fourth of 13 children.

(A vehicle drives on rough road)

WEGMAN: On a late spring afternoon with the sun low in the sky but the air still warm, Wilson drives his old Dodge pickup a mile or so down Route 2 to the land his family once owned.

MORAN: Now this land here, from here to the woods and back, my grandpa had 11 acres right in here. This was where his main house was.

WEGMAN: Today the land at Harris Neck is lush and seems untouched by human hands. Shaded groves of pecans and live oaks open into the wide, flat marshland of South Georgia's barrier islands. Wilson drives intently, hunched over the wheel. As the truck rounds a bend, he points to a large field.

MORAN: That was a big old point, that's where they grew rice in my grandpa's day. These are people's, you know, livelihood. And it really destroyed a lot of people. Two of them, they left and never came back. Both of them lived in Philadelphia. They became porters on the railroad. But it was just -- this hurt them, you know what I mean? That somebody could be so powerful to move you, and after they were through with it wouldn't let you back. They wanted to use the airstrips right here.

WEGMAN: Out the window a dormant runway lies like an unhealed scar, its pavement cracked and overgrown with weeds. Moran says the military promised to return this land to the residents as soon as the war was over. But no one at Harris Neck remembers getting that promise in writing. So after the war, the land was turned into a county airport. Then in 1962, it was designated a national wildlife refuge.

MORAN: Now it takes an act of Congress for us to get this land back. And you know, the Audubon Society, and they have a little bird watch and they have archery hunting and, you know, things like that. But this land is ours. Is ours. It's beautiful, man, you wouldn't believe it, man. And to walk or ride a bike in here and just listen to all the sounds, man, the red-headed woodpeckers, the larks, the sparrows, the cardinals, the bluebirds. They're all here.

WEGMAN: Do you come in here a lot?

MORAN: No. It's not a good feeling for me. I don't enjoy coming in here.

(The pickup advances)

MORAN: Now, isn't it -- you wouldn't believe this was here, would you? This is where we lived. This place here was called Thomas Landing. This was the main landing for the community. Would you believe?

(Car door opens, shuts)

WEGMAN: Wilson walks through dry marsh grass down to the water's edge.

(Surf, bird calls)

MORAN: This, it doesn't get any better than this.

WEGMAN: The water here is calm. It's protected from the open ocean by the barrier islands offshore.

MORAN: Now, when I was a little boy, we'd come down here, and we'd hit this river, and we'd crab and we'd fish. And, like, there are oysters right there, and we'd eat oyster. Man, it was amazing, you wouldn't believe it. We thought it was all ours. (Laughs) We sure got fooled, didn't we?

WEGMAN: When the families of Harris Neck lost their land, they also lost their docks. Fishing had been central to the community and to blacks up and down the Georgia coast for centuries. Many of the first Europeans to settle here were from cities and knew nothing about fishing. But the Africans who soon followed as slaves did. It wasn't long before they dominated the fisheries. Like their ancestors, they worked close to shore using small boats and cast nets. It was one of the last links they had. Even into the twentieth century, shrimping, crabbing, and oystering all remained virtually 100 percent black.

(A boat engine starts up; voices on radio)

WEGMAN: Then the diesel engine found its way into the area, which meant fishermen could use bigger, more powerful boats. If they could afford them. Within 20 years a new breed of fisherman had pervaded the industry. One with more money to spend, frequently northern, and almost always white.

(Voices, chains. Man: "I'll stop it right there...")

WEGMAN: After World War II thousands of white servicemen came home looking for work. Soon the Georgia fisheries were controlled by white families. By one independent estimate, of the more than 400 shrimp boats currently licensed in the state, blacks own and operate fewer than ten. When Wilson Moran was born, there were still blacks making a living on the water.

MORAN: But as we began to grow older, we saw that it wasn't a good way of life. Every year you were in debt. Every year it was getting harder. And I just didn't want to do it. And none of my brothers. We decided that there had to be something more. There had to be something better than crabbing and being the low man on the totem pole. We didn't have the farms like my grandpa did. So hey, next thing for us, everybody started going into the military.

WEGMAN: Wilson was 17 when he left McIntosh County and joined the Army. Then he went north to Hartford, Connecticut, and became a cop. As American stories go, it's a common one. Young man from small town leaves home to find a better life. In Hartford, Wilson found it. He had a good job, and soon his wife Ernestine gave birth to their first child. But it didn't make sense to him that he should be doing well and yet be so far from home. He grew increasingly uncomfortable with his new life. Then in the late 60s, Wilson hit the breaking point. His unit was called to respond to a riot downtown. Amid the chaos, he shot a man. Not long afterwards, Wilson was on traffic duty, waving a group of children across the street, when a young boy pointed at him. The boy said, "That's the man that shot my uncle."

MORAN: And that was the end of me. And I couldn't last any longer. I didn't like it any more.

WEGMAN: Moran packed up his family and headed back to Georgia, settling in Glen County. He tried catching and selling crabs as his father and grandfather had done. He even tried police work again. Ernestine was losing patience. They had a young child, and their jobs up north had paid well. Here, Wilson was making as little as $86 a week. Eventually he landed a job with the phone company, one of only two black men he remembers being hired in 25 years. It was a decade after the Civil Rights Act, but Wilson was discovering that in small southern towns, things changed slowly.

MORAN: The mainstream jobs were closed, and even today some of them still are closed. There's no secret. You can't cover it up.

WEGMAN: Wilson Moran had entered this world literally surrounded by the wreckage of a once vibrant culture. Now, at the end of his working life, he had never worked in his own community. And he had never been able to earn a living doing what he had been raised to do. His own children were putting down roots elsewhere. Wilson knew as well as anyone what all this meant.

MORAN: When that way of life be interfered with, then the culture begins to fail. That subculture, the dialect, you lose the dialect. You lose the skills. Like building a boat. My granddad built boats. My father built boats. I cannot build a boat. You understand? My grandmother knitted nets. I can't knit a net. So therefore, we've lost these things. That was handed down through generations, is now gone. Now, I still have my garden, so I can keep myself informed. But my boys can't plant. They don't even know what season to plant in, right? That way of life is gone, yeah. It's gone. That's the end of it. Want to see my garden? Man, I've got a great garden. Come on, let's see my garden.


WEGMAN: Wilson's garden is out back, on the same acre of land he was born on. Unlike so many others who left McIntosh county, Wilson Moran has come home.

MORAN: This is my garden. You know what that is. Sweet potato. Man, they are something else. And there's my peppers. Sweet peppers...

WEGMAN: Wilson and Ernestine returned here to Harris Neck in 1992, moving into a modest brick house next door to his parents.

MORAN: I grow it and I can give it away.

WEGMAN: A few years ago, Wilson retired and started this garden. It's small, nothing compared to the hundred acres his family once owned. But it's growing.

MORAN: And this is just enough for me to keep me acclimated to what, you know, how to plant. And look how pretty and green they are. Aren't they pretty?

WEGMAN: It's easy to see the loss in the story of Harris Neck. But the way Wilson sees things, standing on this land he left 40 years ago, something is truly lost only when you stop trying to find it. And recently, he found something remarkable, right in his own back yard.

M. MORAN: (Singing) Wombay I walk a mon a cambaleali lily...

WEGMAN: That's Wilson's mother, Mary Moran. A few years ago, an anthropologist named Joseph Apala heard Mrs. Moran singing this song. When he asked her where she had learned it, she told him her mother had taught it to her as a child. Apala traced the song to a region in West Africa that is now part of Sierra Leone. At less than half a minute, it's believed to be the longest text in an African language preserved by an African-American family.

M. MORAN: (Singing) I walk a mon a cambaleali lily. Wombay I walk a mon a cambaleali lily...

MORAN: We found so much history, man, it is unbelievable, all kinds of stuff.

WEGMAN: Wilson immediately began to look into his family history.

MORAN: You've got the sentence, pictures. This is the root people right here. And all these people...

WEGMAN: In 1997, Joseph Apala and Wilson Moran helped organize a family trip to Sierra Leone. In a small village called Sanahungola they met a woman who knew the exact song Mary Moran sang. She'd learned it as a child, too. Wilson says the trip to Africa was like a fairy tale.

MORAN: Because me, being black, I don't know how many generations black in this country, called African-American, but ain't nothing African about me but my color, because everything about me is American.

(Mary Moran sings)

MORAN: So when they found out that this song took us to West Africa, yeah, it was unreal. How could I trace myself to not West Africa but almost the very village in which my grandmother's people came from? That's impossible. But it happened. And then, what was even more strange was, met a guy on the river banks, and this guy is knitting a net. The same way my grandma, Madie Dolly, knitted nets. And I said wow, this is unbelievable. And there are some guys making boats, the same way this guy here made the boats. It was unbelievable.

(A boat cuts through water)

WEGMAN: In Gala, the West African English hybrid still spoken on the sea islands off Georgia and South Carolina, there is a proverb that says, "If you don't know where you're going, you should know where you come from." A song can't tell you where you're going, but the song that led Wilson Moran to West Africa helped him find a thread that runs through hundreds of years. From a river bank in Sierra Leone through slave ships across the Atlantic, through his family's lost farm land, fishing boats, and nets, right up to his back yard garden, his mother, and himself, today. Wilson Moran knows he can't get back what's gone, but he also knows that the thread which ties his family to this stretch of Georgia coast isn't broken yet. And that he won't be the one to break it.

MORAN: My children don't know this, but my grandson, who comes every summer, I take him on the water. I get him acclimated. And now, this summer I teach him how to cast the net, at ten. I'm just giving him a taste of what it is. He'll never learn how to read the water. He'll never learn how to read the weather, other than listening to it on television. But he will get some knowledge about what we were about. And every year we teach him, and every year we put him in situations that he can know something about his environment, that it was unique, and it is almost gone, but it did exist. So he can tell his children about it.

(Bird calls, fade to flute up and under)

WEGMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Jesse Wegman, with Wilson Moran in Harris Neck, on the coast of south Georgia.



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