John H. Hurst and his sister Harriet Hurst Turner are battling to keep the state of North Carolina from taking from their family without compensation a 289-acre Onslow County waterfront property that once served as a beach for African-Americans in the days of racial segregation.

The Hursts contend that a 1950 deed involving their grandparents’ inheritance provides for the property to go to them as the legal heirs since the state twice has spurned the land. The family has spent the past four years in the state court system trying to obtain clear title to the property.

“The state is trying to steal my clients’ land,” their attorney Charles Francis told Carolina Journal after a Jan. 3 hearing in Wake County Superior Court on the matter.

Should the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources acquire the property, the Perdue administration would be in the unusual position of seizing land that originally was intended to serve as a vacation resort for African-American teachers.

Moreover, DENR only recently became interested in acquiring the property after the state had twice formally refused to accept it from a trust that was established in 1950 to manage the parcel. The acquisition process also raises questions over potential conflicts of interest involving four members of the Council of State, and the unusual role of the office of Attorney General Roy Cooper.

The property was part of a much larger tract that was set up in 1950 in a trust for the purposes of developing and operating a beach resort for the exclusive use of African-American teachers and their families. It included Bear Island, which eventually became the major component of Hammocks Beach State Park. After the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on race, the resort became less attractive to African-Americans, who had other vacation options. The trust was unable to raise enough money to maintain the facility and it fell into disrepair.

According to the terms of the inheritance, if the trust became unable to maintain the property, the State Board of Education would have the opportunity to acquire it. If the board refused to take the land, it would revert to the Hurst heirs.

Court records document that in 1987 and 2007, the Attorney General’s Office expressly stated that the state had no interest in owning or controlling the property.

In an October hearing on the matter, Superior Court Judge Carl Fox ordered the removal of the current trustee, the Hammocks Beach Corp., from control of the property, giving the state another chance to acquire the land. This time, Cooper’s lawyers changed course and initiated action to claim the property for the State Board of Education. The Board of Education plans to turn over the management of the property to DENR.

Gov. Bev Perdue and the nine other statewide elected officials, known as the Council of State, must approve the acquisition, as it must all property transactions involving state agencies. Perdue will ask for a vote that either will end the dispute in favor of the Hurst family, or likely prolong it for years, since the Hursts’ attorney says the heirs do not want to give up the land.

In addition to the governor, the Council of State includes Cooper, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, State Auditor Beth Wood, State Treasurer Janet Cowell, Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin, Labor Commissioner Cherie Berrie, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, and Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson.

Four council members have conflict-of-interest issues because they already have taken action supporting the state’s takeover. Dalton, Cowell, and Atkinson, in their roles as members of the Board of Education, approved a resolution supporting the acquisition. Several attorneys under Cooper’s supervision are representing the state in its legal actions against the Hurst heirs.

Cowell spokeswoman Heather Strickland told CJ that legal counsel had concluded no conflict of interest exists. Atkinson said she is considering whether there is a potential conflict, as is Dalton, according to chief of staff Caroline Valand.

CJ contacted DENR spokesman Jamie Kritzer, asking who could field questions about the Hammocks Beach project. Kritzer referred questions to the Attorney General’s Office. AG spokeswoman Noelle Talley responded: “Per our usual policy with pending litigation, we will not be commenting outside of what is written in court filings or said by state attorneys in the courtroom.” Talley also refused to address any potential conflict of interest for Cooper.

A colorblind friendship

The history of the property revolved around a special relationship, quite unusual at the time, between a white family and a black family. John L. Hurst, the son of a slave and a hunting guide, first met Dr. William Sharpe, a wealthy New York surgeon, when Sharpe ventured to North Carolina in 1914 for a week of a duck hunting. Sharpe returned many times and always used Hurst as his guide. Sharpe was so fond of the area he decided to purchase his own hunting land.

In 1917, Sharpe purchased 4,600 acres of land near Swansboro, known as “The Hammocks,” and hired Hurst to manage the property. He also hired Hurst’s wife Gertrude, a local schoolteacher, as a housekeeper and cook. Sharpe and his wife Josephine became close friends with the Hurst family. Sharpe’s Onslow County estate, including marshland, eventually grew to approximately 10,000 acres.

Sharpe intended to give the property to the Hursts when he died, but instead they persuaded Sharpe to donate it to the North Carolina Teachers Association, which at the time was the employee association for black teachers. The teachers association established the Hammocks Beach Corp. to manage the property for the use and benefit of its members, effectively establishing a segregated resort complex. Sharpe deeded the property to the corporation in 1950.

The deed and an agreement between the Sharpes, the Hursts, and the corporation provided that if it became impossible or impractical for HBC to manage the property as originally planned, the corporation could transfer the property to the North Carolina State Board of Education for the continued management of the property as specified in the agreement. The deed further provided that if the Board of Education turned down the property, it would go to the heirs of the Sharpe and Hurst families.

Equality started decline

In 1961, HBC donated Bear Island to the state of North Carolina and it became the major portion of Hammocks Beach State Park. At the time, the park was open only to blacks. It was desegregated after the federal civil rights law ended racial segregation.

Racial integration also made it impossible for HBC to operate the remaining land as prescribed in the 1950 deed. HBC struggled to generate revenue, leasing portions of the property to the Future Farmers of America, the 4-H, and other groups. Bunkhouses, auditoriums, mess halls, and swimming pools were built but most have been abandoned for years.

Legal action

In 1986, HBC filed a lawsuit against the Sharpe and Hurst heirs, the State Board of Education, and the attorney general. The corporation declared that the terms of the trust made it difficult to develop the property. The trust prohibited the mortgaging or sale of any property and also allowed the Sharpe and Hurst heirs almost unlimited access to the property.

In 1987, the parties signed a consent agreement allowing HBC more leeway to develop the land. The Sharpe family surrendered any future interest in the property and the Board of Education declared it had no interest in becoming a successor trustee because it could not spend tax revenues to administer or improve a racially segregated facility. Then-Attorney General Lacy Thornburg and his chief deputy, Andrew A. Vanore Jr., also signed the agreement. The Hurst heirs did not relinquish their right to acquire the land in the future if they chose.

In 2006, Hurst heirs John Henry Hurst and his sister Harriett Hurst Turner filed a lawsuit against HBC, claiming it had failed to administer properly the trust established to meet the wishes of Sharpe and their grandparents, John and Gertrude Hurst. The Hurst heirs sought a judgment returning the remaining 289 acres to them. Their attorney, Charles T. Francis of Raleigh, also included the SBOE and the attorney general as defendants to clarify that the board had no interest in the property.

The next year, the SBOE and the Attorney General’s Office filed a motion asking to be dismissed from the lawsuit, stating, “The Consent Judgment expunged any interest that the State Board of Education may have in the Trust.” Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour granted the motion.

After the state Supreme Court settled a procedural dispute in 2009, the case was scheduled for trial. In October 2010, a jury trial was held in Wake County in front of Judge Fox, who instructed the jury to rule yes or no on three issues:

• Did the Hurst heirs retain any future interest in the trust property after executing the 1987 Consent Judgment?
• Since 1987, has it become “Impossible or impracticable” to use the trust property for the purposes specified by Dr. Sharpe and his wife in the Deed and Agreement executed in 1950?
• Has the Board of Directors of the Hammocks Beach Corporation acted arbitrarily, unreasonably, or contrary to its duties as trustee by not declaring, by a majority vote of the directors, that it has become impossible or impracticable to carry out the purposes of the trust consistent with the 1950 Deed?

The jury answered yes to all three questions. Fox then issued a judgment Oct. 26 removing the Hammocks Beach Corp. as trustee, contingent on the formal appointment of the SBOE as successor trustee to administer the trust according to the 1950 Deed and Agreement. If the SBOE refused to accept the appointment, then the property would be distributed pursuant to the terms of the 1950 deed.

Since the Board of Education had turned down the property in 1987 and 2007, the Hurst heirs believed they finally had gained control of the property.

They had not. On Nov. 4, after a closed-door presentation to the SBOE by Special Deputy Attorney General Thomas Ziko, the board approved a resolution accepting appointment as successor trustee of the trust, subject to approval by the Council of State.

During another hearing Jan. 3, Fox formally offered the SBOE the opportunity to accept the property. If the Council of State rejects the transfer, the Hurst heirs will receive the land. If it approves the transfer, litigation will continue.

The Hammocks Beach acquisition is not on the agenda for the Council of State’s meeting scheduled Tuesday, but it could be taken up as early as February. The council typically meets on the first Tuesday of each month.

After the Jan. 3 hearing, John Hurst expressed his disappointment. “I felt everything was one-sided even though our attorney Charles Francis did an outstanding job. The judge just didn’t agree with our point of view,” he told CJ.

Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal.