Walking for unity
Service, refuge descendants highlight connection, community

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Townsend, Georgia – The old church has always been the meeting place, where folks met to pay their respects to the past, discuss the present and plan for the future. If you’re one of the descendants of the Harris Neck residents who lived here before World War II, you know: This church is a touchstone.

First African Baptist church is 153 years old. When the federal government in 1942 bought up thousands of acres in this coastal spot south of Savannah, a process called eminent domain, the people knew they couldn’t watch their church be destroyed. Houses and businesses that couldn’t be dismantled in time were bulldozed and burned to create a U.S. Army Air Corps field.

Participants in the July 27 Walk of Sorrow to Hope include (rear, left) Edgar Timmons rear), Mary McIntosh, Johnnie Timmons, Darrell Dunham, Tyrone Timmons, (front left) Margaret Ann Timmons Finley and Fran Timmons. The walk commemorates the 79th anniversary of the day the federal government took the land now comprising the refuge and used it for a World War II airfield.

But congregants stood by the church to protect it long enough to move its hand-hewn columns, hard-as-stone wooden pews and corner stone to erect a new building a few miles away from the original spot. This church remains the pillar of a damaged–yet resilient—coastal community.

The descendants of William Timmons understand. He was their father, grandfather, uncle, great-uncle. He was front-porch sage who dispensed advice to anyone who stopped by. William Timmons slowly built the equivalent of a working-class empire on the banks of the Barbour River. Even now, nearly six decades after his death in 1962, elders remember Timmons Oyster Factory. It was a testimony to what faith and hard work can accomplish, even for a Black American living when Jim Crow segregation was absolute.

Now, those descendants of that long-ago oysterman are preparing to take a commemorative walk on July 27, the anniversary of the day their community was displaced from the land in 1942. They call it the “Walk of Sorrow to Hope.” It will be the culmination of a three-day observance stressing the community’s connection to the area.

The walk will stretch from the entrance of Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge to the church, maybe a mile away. It symbolizes the longer, forced migration from their homes that community members made 79 years ago. Participants will carry lumber, a reminder that their forebears took wood from their old houses to help build new ones.

The preceding day, Monday, will honor some significant community sites throughout the refuge. That includes the original Harris Neck School, the First African Baptist Church, and the Gould Cemetery. They plan to lay wreaths and pray at their stops. Service staff and community members made the wreaths and signs together.

The Service has entered into a partnership with the descendants of the community who want to ensure that their ties to the land are not forgotten. With the help of an intern hired especially to work with descendants of the original community. the Service is preparing programs, kiosks, and other interpretive features highlighting the cultural and historical significance of the land. They will help amplify the voices of those who lived on that land before it was a refuge.

In October last year, the descendants and the Service made their partnership official with a memorandum of understanding. It is a blueprint for plans recognizing the Timmonses and others who once lived here.

The MOU is a good thing, said Frances Timmons, one of William Timmons’ seven children.

“We decided we were going to work together (with the Service) for good causes,” she said.

Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge was found in 1962. It comprises more than 2,800 acres. Photo by Mark Davis.

On a recent July morning, with the heat and humidity rising, Fran Timmons met with six relatives to recall their forebear and check in to make sure everything is lining up in time for their July 27 walk. Naturally, they met at the church.

Joining Fran Timmons were her siblings, Margaret Ann Timmons Finley, Johnnie Lee Timmons and the Rev. Edgar Timmons Jr., who is the church pastor. Tyrone Timmons, who is Edgar’s son, sat beside family-friend Darrell Dunham.

They all agree: The land holds deep significance to the community, and it always will. They’re a part of that land, and want to be sure those ties remain strong.

“Papa,” said Edgar Timmons, “was such a peaceful man.”

But a brewing war changed lives in Harris Neck.

Reaching out

The land that’s now the refuge has an aviation past. Between 1929 and 1932, the Civil Aeronautics Authority established an emergency airfield at Harris Neck; a subsequent U.S. Navy chart from 1935 identifies airstrips on the site.

When the United States entered World War II, the Department of Defense condemned nearly 2,700 acres for use as an airfield. (Even today, refuge visitors can easily discern cracked asphalt where three long landing strips form a triangle among the moss-bearded oaks.)

In 1948, the war over, the federal government conveyed the land to McIntosh County, where Harris Neck is located. It was to be used as a county airport, but reverted to federal ownership in 1961 after federal officials decided the county had not complied with the post-war land-use agreement. In 1962, it became part of the Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System.

Even so, some descendants question the transaction, and the land’s ownership has been a point of contention and friction for years. In 1979, Edgar Timmons and three others were arrested for camping on part of their ancestral land. Originally sentenced to 30 days, they served half that – a sympathetic judge, said Edgar Timmons, let them go home early.

In recent years, the Service, wanting to strengthen relations with its Harris Neck neighbors, has reached out to former residents. Will Meeks, Project Leader of the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge Complex – a seven-refuge complex that includes Harris Neck – applauds the walk. It should further cement relations between the Service and its neighbors, he said.

“I think the ‘community’ concept will continue to grow,” said Meeks, a 26-year Service veteran. “I’m excited.”

Meantime, Meeks has watched approvingly as Alison Schwartz, a recent University of Vermont grad hired specifically to help showcase the community connection at the refuge, has stayed busy with an array of duties. Her tasks have included collaborating with the Direct Descendants of Harris Neck Community to create new educational activity books, kiosks, audio-tour stops, structures honoring significant community sites, and more. She also coordinates frequent meetings between the Service and descendants to ensure the success and longevity of their partnership.

Alison Schwartz is a Service intern hired specifically to work with descendants of the residents who lived on land that is now Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. Her duties have included readying signs showcasing the community’s connection to the coastal tract. Photo by Mark Davis

She’s also made some friends in the family that once lived hard by the river. Schwartz said she’s enamored by the culture of coastal Georgia, and feels welcome here.

She hadn’t been at Harris Neck a week when the Timmons family gave her a gift unique to the coast – wild oysters, still in the shell, picked from local waters. Schwartz was delighted – befuddled, too.

“I had to look up on YouTube how to cook them,” said Schwartz, 23. “They were really good.”

Even better: the connections a New Jersey native has made with people whose roots go back generations in the sandy soil of coastal South Carolina. Schwartz is learning, too.

“If I’ve learned anything, it’s that partnerships are hard,” she said. “It takes a lot of work on both sides, but the results are super rewarding.”

Her new friends in the community agree. They are eager to work with the Service as it embarks on making sure Harris Neck more fully recognizes the community that thrived here for years.

Tyrone Timmons is optimistic. One of William Timmons’ grandsons, he grew up hearing stories about the old days, when the family lived happily on the land and lived off what it gave until a war changed everything. “It hurt to hear about that,” said the younger Timmons.

Fran Timmons, who has known the hurt longer, welcomes the chance to work with the Service to make sure history records their past and present influence on the tract that’s now a refuge.

“They (her forebears) were hard-working, God-fearing people,” she said. It’s a fact worth sharing, and remembering – at the church, certainly, as well as at the refuge.