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Judge won’t dismiss discrimination suit by slave descendants

A federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit that claims racial discrimination is eroding one of the last communities of slave descendants on the Southeast U.S. coast.

Residents and landowners from the tiny Hogg Hummock community on remote Sapelo Island sued the state and McIntosh County in December 2015. The lawsuit in U.S. District Court says the enclave of about 50 black residents is shrinking rapidly as landowners pay high property taxes yet receive few basic services, pressuring them to sell their property.

Attorneys for the state and county asked the court last year to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing slave descendants wrongly claimed discrimination compared to whites living on the mainland rather than whites on Sapelo Island. But Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. ruled Monday there is enough merit in the case to move forward with claims that agencies violated black landowners’ constitutional rights.

Those claims, “if supported by proof, may indicate that discriminatory intent exists or is at least plausible,” Bowen wrote in his order. He concluded the black landowners “also allege a very specific motive for this conduct—to force Plaintiffs from Sapelo Island to make way for more commercially beneficial development and wealthy white residents.”

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

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—though island property owners pay taxes used to fund those services elsewhere in the county.

The judge dismissed several counts in the lawsuit, ruling some discrimination claims were improperly made under the federal Fair Housing Act and provisions of the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination by programs receiving federal funds. He also dropped county tax assessors from the lawsuit, saying civil claims against them belong in state court.

Bowen ultimately ruled the lawsuit’s broad race discrimination claims alleging violations of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution could move forward. So can civil counts accusing the state of operating ferry boats and docks that fail to meet federal accessibility standards for people with disabilities.

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