The Home Front’s Dispossessed

Magazine cover with photo of cabin in forest and pasture, text reads "Eminent Domain"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 23 No. 2, "Eminent Domain." Find more from that issue here.

In 1941 the United States military evicted several hundred people near Havelock, North Carolina, which then consisted of not much more than a railroad depot and general store near the south shore of the Neuse River. Construction of the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station began immediately. Forty-thousand soldiers and construction workers arrived almost overnight. Soon a bustling town and one of the world’s largest airfields rose out of the swamps and forests. The citizens evacuated to build Cherry Point — most of whom were black — were swiftly forgotten. To this day, they remain separated from their former homes by barbed-wire fences.

What happened at Havelock in 1941 was not an isolated incident. During World War II, the federal government acquired well over a million acres of land in the Southeast and displaced as many as 50,000 persons in order to build military bases and defense factories. Disproportionately, the military’s land condemnation fell on rural black communities.

Those wartime evictions remain a forgotten chapter in America’s home front experience. How and why they occurred, whom they affected most, and what happened to the dislocated communities have been an untold story for 50 years. Moreover, the ramifications of those long-ago events continue to be felt.


From Nelson Town to Toon Neck

Emma Davis grew up in Nelson Town, a black community evacuated to build the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station. A retired schoolteacher, she remembers her abandoned home vividly. She also recalls the nearby communities of Toon Neck and Tar Neck. There were 40 black families in all, plus two white families living down on the Neuse River. Most farmed their own land. Davis’s extended family had owned a hundred-acre farm in Nelson Town since Reconstruction.

The Davis family grew cotton, peanuts, corn, and tobacco. They raised hogs and cattle. They fished on the Neuse River. As a girl, Davis reveled in fruit trees and grapevines cultivated since her great-grandfather’s day. Nobody had much money, but unlike most Craven County blacks, they owned land. “It was tough,” she recalls today, “because nobody had anything, but as I think back we were well off by having the farm and being able to have something to eat.”

Located in dense piney woods 20 miles down a muddy road from the county seat at New Bern, Nelson Town and its neighboring communities maintained a school, the Melvin School, and a church, the Little Witness Baptist Church. A few local men worked at sawmills, but they relied mostly on their own land for food, timber, and — in every sense of the word — security.

Until the spring of 1941. In May a government agent visited every home between Slocumb and Hancock creeks. He informed the residents that the War Department had chosen their land to build a Marine Corps air base. By summer’s end, Nelson Town, Tar Neck, and Toon Neck all disappeared. The local people left their farms, homes, cemeteries, church, and school — everything they had built over the generations.

“That was one devastating time,” Emma Davis remembers. “It was awful to pull up and take everything you need.”

The dispossessed families received only the undervalued tax assessment for their land, and even that small sum was slow in coming. Local families received no payment for several years and had to scrounge to find new farms and homes. Most became wage laborers and sharecroppers. The federal government did not even help with the evacuation costs. The people of Nelson Town, Tar Neck, and Toon Neck — the Nelsons, Hills, Johnsons, Berrys, Hollands, Fishers, Toons, Wests, Richards, Turners, and a few others — scattered across Craven County.

Several families later moved back as close to their former homes as they could get. Now living along Highway 101, they have worked hard and successfully to build new lives. But, as Emma Davis says, “When you’re shoved out of your house with nothing, it’s a setback for life.”

Patriotism muted their outrage during World War II, but the people dispossessed by Cherry Point gained new reasons for anger as the years went by. In every corner of Craven County, black-owned land gave way to what local political leaders called Progress. Near New Bern, an airfield paved over a black cemetery. An urban renewal project later gutted a town’s black business district. Two highway projects razed neighborhoods in James City, the site where Civil War refugees built some of the first black schools and churches in the South. New bridges, roads, and housing developments all hit black communities hardest. Even Cherry Point’s recent flight easements passed directly over black neighborhoods, including former residents from Nelson Town. “Of course,” said one, “that’s how they treat people of color.”


Part of a Larger Story

Some years ago, at the request of local leaders, I began to inquire into the military’s eviction of Nelson Town and other black communities at Cherry Point. I had a personal interest in the fate of these communities. As a child, I had lived for several years on the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station. Exploring its vast woodlands, my friends and I often stumbled onto old graveyards and wondered who lived there before us.

As I began my research, Tom Schlesinger, then at the Highlander Center, volunteered to help. A talented investigative reporter, Schlesinger had written Our Own Worst Enemy, an important critique of the defense industry’s impact on the Southeast. Dee Dee Risher, then an editor at Southern Exposure, also lent her skills to our inquiry.

A review of Congressional hearings and military reports from World War II quickly revealed a startling number of other black communities displaced by military bases and defense factories. A visit to the National Archives confirmed the trend. There the records of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), which provided relief to farmers uprooted by the war effort, pointed to many more cases. Inquiries to friends elsewhere in the South turned up yet more. In Midway, Florida, and Harris Neck, Georgia, uprooted black residents were still battling to regain ancestral lands, 50 years after V-J Day.

Among the most striking cases we found:

• In 1942 the Army gave 85 Gullah families in Harris Neck, Georgia, 48 hours before bulldozing their homes and cemetery and burning their crops. “We had two or three sheets that we had to make a lean-to against a tree,” recalled local resident James Campbell, “and we stayed there two years.” Founded by former slaves in 1865, Harris Neck was a bustling fishing community until the army arrived. After the war, the military converted the land into a wildlife refuge, much to the dismay of residents who had wanted to return.

• In Seminole County, Florida, north of Lake Okeechobee, the Navy condemned the all-black town of Midway. Reputedly Florida’s most prosperous black municipality, Midway claimed between 2,500 and 3,000 citizens. Until removed by the Sanford Naval Air Base, the town had been a powerful model of successful black enterprise and self-government. Rather than returning the land to the former residents after the war, the Navy allowed Midway to become a municipal airfield.

• In Huntsville, Alabama, construction of the Seibert Arsenal displaced two thriving communities of black farmers, Pond Beat and Sand Flat. The regional FSA director reported that “children from these Negro families have helped to build up Alabama State Normal [College] . . . and have formed the bulk of a small but very stable Negro middle class group in Huntsville.” Some African Americans found jobs temporarily building the arsenal, but the dislodged farmers had little hope of making a living on the small displacement subsidy granted by the government.

• In Childersburg, Alabama, the construction of a DuPont powder plant and the expansion of Fort McClellan resulted in the removal of 342 families. Blacks, roughly a third of Talladega County’s population, comprised 73 percent of the evicted farmers. The plant displaced a full one-fifth of the county’s black farm owners.

• In the Santee-Cooper River basin, the federal government evacuated 841 South Carolina families. Predominantly rural black landowners and squatters, their ancestors had farmed on that land since the Civil War.

From Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to Fort Stewart, Georgia, dispossessed black communities emerged in our search through the historical record.


The Home Front

The rush of war mobilization, the politics of defense spending, and the military’s land acquisition process all conspired against black farming communities. Below the Mason-Dixon line, those factors also became entangled with Jim Crow and white supremacy.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s War Department did not intend a mass upheaval for black communities. In the frenzied panic after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, military planners cared only about moving quickly. They had a small army that was ill-prepared to train more than eight million recruits, much less fight a global conflict. They wanted unprecedented numbers of military bases and defense factories built — and built overnight, no matter what the cost.

The War Department targeted the South for 60 of the Army’s 100 new camps. This was true for three reasons. First, in the U.S. Congress, Bourbon Democrats had the power to bring military bases South. They chaired the four House committees and two of the four Senate committees concerned with defense planning. Elected from one-party states where incumbents were rarely challenged, the Southern Democrats had accumulated extraordinary seniority. Without them, Roosevelt could never have passed his early war mobilization bills. Second, their power dovetailed with FDR’s interest in spreading the defense boom’s largess into the areas hardest hit by the Great Depression. Finally, the South’s temperate climate was ideal for training and maneuvers. From Tidewater Virginia to Texas’ piney woods, small towns and rural byways soon hummed with activity, and armies of laborers swarmed from base site to base site.

Military officials had certain minimal requirements for base locations. Coastlines had to be guarded; Marines had to have beaches; pilots required air space; and anti-aircraft gunners needed large practice fields. Access to deep water ports and railroads was often important, as was proximity to recreational facilities. But within these broad parameters, the War and Navy Departments allowed Southern leaders to influence decisions over the siting of military installations. At times this occurred, by military planners’ own admissions, at the expense of the most fundamental considerations of topography, locale, and soil.

The problem rested in the South’s Jim Crow society and in the U.S. military’s customary willingness to bolster it. During the Second World War, the Armed Forces maintained segregated military units and bases not only in the South, but at all facilities in the United States and abroad. The Marine Corps, in fact, did not permit black soldiers into combat during the war, despite the overwhelming success of black Army units. It was not surprising, then, that African Americans did not sit on the civilian or military boards that selected base sites or that military officials did not consult local black leaders. Defense planners worked instead with elected officials who felt little accountability to disfranchised black constituents. They also cooperated closely with white business leaders who welcomed the possibility of federal dollars pouring into their local economies.

While business leaders protected their own lands, they frequently showed a willingness to sacrifice their black neighbors’ lands for what they perceived as the wider community’s prosperity. In the worst cases, they even steered war planners toward black-owned sites that local whites considered economic threats or obstacles to white business plans. At bottom, they harnessed to white supremacy the unlimited powers of a wartime federal government to confiscate private citizens’ land in the name of national security.

The racial geography of the South did not help. In general, military planners sought rural land as undisturbed as possible by major roads or other civilian developments. In the 1940s South, white political leaders assiduously routed public spending for electricity, water, and roads away from rural African-American communities. This neglect was as much a part of Jim Crow as separate drinking fountains. As a result, when military planners surveyed sites for potential bases, they often found underdeveloped black farm communities most appealing. The large number of Southern blacks in the eastern portions of the Carolinas and Georgia, a legacy of plantation days, also placed heavy concentrations of African Americans close to the coastal locations desired by Marine and Navy planners.

The problems of black landowners did not end with their evacuation. Large numbers of rural blacks lived on land without clear titles. Rural blacks often did not register deeds because of the expense, the scarcity of black lawyers, and a deep distrust of the county courthouse, long perceived as a symbol of white corruption. Understaffed war agencies proved slow to confirm land titles, which postponed reimbursement for years. Unclear titles did not deter the military’s land condemnations; in fact, Congress and the courts expedited them. But black families were on their own to find new homes. Land profiteering and housing shortages near the new military bases aggravated the dispossessed people’s problems. Their only compensation was that some found jobs at the new camps as land grubbers, domestics, builders, and laundresses.


Appalachian Military Bases

Military land condemnations hit African Americans hardest, but many thousands of white families also lost land for the war effort. During the first stage of military mobilization from 1939 to 1941 — before Pearl Harbor — military installations had already displaced 25,000 people in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. By 1943, a conservative estimate is that 40,000 to 50,000 persons lost their land and homes in the South. The Army alone condemned more than one million acres in Southern states; the Navy, another 200,000 acres.

For many Southern whites, poverty, not race, led to their downfall. None felt the wartime tidal wave more than Appalachian people of Black Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In October 1942, the Army condemned 92 square miles in this East Tennessee valley and removed 1,000 families in four communities. These mountain farmlands gave way to a top-secret plant, code-named the Clinton Engineering Works, where the first atomic bomb was built. After the war, the facility was renamed the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

More powerful whites resisted base sitings with greater success. The most notorious case involved Key Biscayne, Florida. Though the military clearly identified that site best-suited for a naval air base, opposition from the Key Biscayne Yacht Club and Miami’s tourism-oriented business leaders persuaded the War Department to build at Jacksonville instead. A significant part of the South’s development since World War II has revolved around such wartime decisions. Military decisions to bulldoze, dredge harbors, and provide housing have shaped the South’s urban landscape.

Compared with the terrible scale of human displacement wrought elsewhere during the war years, the Southern experience and the injustices inflicted upon African Americans may seem small. Certainly it cannot be likened to what happened in many parts of Europe, Asia, or North Africa. Yet the evacuation and lack of compensation of the least powerful communities throughout the South was a significant social injustice visited upon thousands of people, and it has received little attention. Like the internment of Japanese-American citizens and resident aliens during World War II, which has received attention only in recent years, it is important to accept moral responsibility for the displacement of minority communities in the South.

World War II transformed race relations in the South in a hundred ways, and the uprooting of black communities has remained an untold story for too long. Especially for black communities still seeking justice, exposing what happened to them during World War II remains critical.

Those events 50 years ago bear remembering for another reason. For the last decade, the Pentagon has been increasing the size of military reservations on a scale unprecedented since World War II. Even as the military reduces the number of bases in the United States, the remaining installations are claiming tens of thousands of new acres and enacting restrictive ordinances on civilian activities in far larger areas. Based on what happened during World War II, the public would be well advised to monitor closely whether current military growth is necessary, how it will occur, who will profit from it, and who will pay its price.