Judge to decide if Georgia immune from slave descendant suit




BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) — A federal judge said Tuesday she will decide soon whether Georgia agencies are immune from a lawsuit claiming discrimination and neglect have eroded one of the last Gullah-Geechee communities of slave descendants on the Southeast coast.

Residents and landowners from the tiny Hogg Hummock community on remote Sapelo Island filed a suit against the state and McIntosh County last December in U.S. District Court. The suit 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. Reachable only by boat from the mainland, Sapelo Island has no schools, police, fire department or trash collection.

Attorneys for the state have asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit. They argue 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.

U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood told attorneys during a short hearing Tuesday that she planned to rule on the immunity issue within 30 days. Other arguments for dismissal, including county attorneys' claim that whites on Sapelo Island deal with the same tax rates and lack of services as black residents, will be decided later if necessary.

"By June 16, you will know where you stand as far as the immunity defenses," Wood said.

Lawyers for the Sapelo Island landowners have argued in court filings that Georgia agencies have given up their constitutional immunity rights by accepting federal funding for Community Development Block Grants and other programs that by law prohibit discrimination.

They also say immunity should not apply to the McIntosh County sheriff and board of tax assessors, which are also named in the lawsuit. The county's attorneys argue the sheriff and assessors should be considered "arms of the state."

Slave descendants 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, is one of the last such communities from North Carolina to Florida.

Scholars say separation from the mainland caused these people to retain much of their African heritage, from a unique dialect to skills and crafts such as cast-net fishing and basket weaving. But isolation also caused Gullah communities to shrink.