Key Georgia agencies not immune in slave descendant lawsuit

AP News
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Posted: Jun 22, 2016 5:18 PM

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — A federal judge ruled that key Georgia agencies are not immune from a lawsuit that claims one of the last Gullah-Geechee communities of slave descendants on the Southeast coast is being eroded by discrimination and neglect.

Residents and landowners from the tiny Hogg Hummock community on remote Sapelo Island sued the state and McIntosh County last December in U.S. District Court. The lawsuit says the enclave of about 50 black residents is shrinking rapidly as landowners are pressured to sell because they pay high property taxes yet receive few basic services.

Descendants of enslaved people known as Gullah, or as Geechee in Georgia, live in small island communities scattered over 425 miles of the Southern Atlantic coast, where their ancestors worked on plantations before they were freed by the Civil War. Hogg Hummock, also known as Hog Hammock, on Sapelo Island is one of the last such communities from North Carolina to Florida.

Reachable only by boat from the mainland, the largely undeveloped barrier island about 60 miles south of Savannah has no schools, police, fire department or trash collection.

Attorneys for the state asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit. They argued the Department of Natural Resources, which manages most of Sapelo Island, and other agencies are immune under the 11th Amendment, which grants states broad protection from lawsuits in federal court.

In a ruling last Friday, Judge Lisa Godbey Wood in Brunswick granted immunity to just one agency — the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority — and ordered that it be dropped from the lawsuit. Other defendants including the Department of Natural Resources, Gov. Nathan Deal, McIntosh County, county Sheriff Stephen Jessup and the county Board of Tax Assessors still face civil claims.

However, the judge declared both the sheriff and the tax assessors immune from monetary damages in the case.

Wood is still considering other arguments for dismissal that are not related to immunity.