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Tennessee Wants to Take Land From Black Residents to Benefit a Ford Plant

Eminent domain has long been used by the state to take land from Black communities for less than what it’s worth.

A sign stands in front of Serramonte Ford on April 28, 2015 in Colma, California

When retired nurse Rosa Whitmore-Miller left New York City after 40 years for the peace of her hometown of Stanton, Tennessee, she never expected she’d have to fight to keep the land her family worked hard to cultivate.

“It wasn’t just handed to us, like some people inherit. We had to go out there and struggle and work for little [to] no money because they weren’t paying that much money for bales of cotton,” she says. “It was hard labor.”

Whitmore-Miller’s family bought their property in 1958, and she and her 10 siblings worked on the farm to pay off the property in Haywood County.

She returned in 2004, and nearly 20 years later, the 82-year-old is among several Black landowners in Haywood, Tipton, and Fayette counties who now fear the seizure of their property will reduce their chances at generational wealth and obliterate the land that has been in their families for decades. Since 2021, residents have received letters that the Tennessee Department of Transportation is seeking 31 tracts to construct a series of road connections. The roads will support the Ford Motor Co.’s BlueOval City, a $5.6 million battery and vehicle manufacturing campus.

The officials are using eminent domain, a centuries-old practice that allows the government to take private property to convert to public use — as long as the owner is justly compensated, which is determined by an appraisal of the property’s fair market value. But according to some landowners and legal experts, Black communities aren’t experiencing “just” and “fair” processes and say there needs to be more accountability to stop government abuse of eminent domain.

While state officials tout job creation and economic growth from the new facility, Black landowners and farmers say what the state is offering is not enough.

Whitmore-Miller says the state’s initial offer of $8,000, which she declined, wasn’t “just” at all.

“One little small payment and they’re finished with you, but in years and years to come, they’re gonna be making so much money off of your property,” she says. “We didn’t buy this land for a highway. You need to pay me to make me feel good about it, not give me something that I’m gonna be miserable and sad about for the rest of my life.”

A spokesperson from the state Transportation Department said in a statement to Capital B that negotiations are ongoing, and they cannot offer any comments on tracts involved in pending litigation.

Displaced and Pushed Out

Ten miles away from Whitmore-Miller’s property, Marvin Sanderlin, his wife, Laura, and four children are also in a battle with the state to keep their land.

In the early 2000s, the Sanderlins bought their first tracts of land, and today have amassed hundreds of acres in Stanton. When farming “got bad” years ago, the pair adjusted by planting loblolly pine trees to establish a timber business, he says.

Now, the Transportation Department is taking him to court for 10 acres of his property, which includes about 2 acres of farmland (where the pine trees are planted) and 8 acres that will become inaccessible because of the road construction. The letter Sanderlin received from the state said his land appraisal would be in the range of $3,500 to $10,000 an acre. The offer ended at $3,500. He has retained a lawyer.

“This is about the rich getting richer and the poor gonna get poorer,” the 68-year-old tells Capital B. “These laws are put on the books to keep poor people from sharing in any kind of wealth, and it ain’t right.”

If the plan goes through to build a road on his land, Sanderlin will lose his pine tree farm.

A Longtime Practice

For decades, racial violence, restrictive laws, lynchings, interstate highway systems, and discrimination by financial institutions have contributed to Black land loss, ultimately destroying wealth creation for many generations.

“While the children and grandchildren of white landowners reaped the benefits of ready access to capital — education, homeownership, and entrepreneurial safety nets — the children and grandchildren of dispossessed Black landowners faced the perils of migrating to inner-city ghettos — crime, poverty, and instability,” according to a paper published in the American Bar Association in January.

Legal experts say the abuse of eminent domain is a tactic that also plays a role in land loss. Generally, private land acquisition for public use includes roads and bridges or public utilities such as water supply. This prevented private developers from taking advantage of the law.

But, over the years, several court rulings broadened the scope of eminent domain to change public use to public benefit, meaning the government could transfer the property to a private party for a redevelopment plan.

One of the most widely cited cases, experts say, is Kelo v. City of New London, where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the government taking private property to facilitate a private development for economic benefits — similar to the Ford plant in Haywood County — is considered to be a public use.

“It’s not just for roads or schools or public utilities that the government can take property for. They can take it if the government believes that Ford could put your property to better economic use than the current owner, which is kind of crazy,” says Keenya Justice, an eminent domain attorney licensed in North Carolina, Georgia, and the District of Columbia.

After the Kelo decision, 44 states passed new laws to alleviate the abuse of the practice for private use. However, legal experts say some of the laws fell short.

Still, Black people have been pushed out of their communities.

In neighborhoods such as Poppleton in west Baltimore, plagued by government neglect and disinvestment, government officials brokered a deal in 2005 with a New York-based developer to redevelop the neighborhood by selling 500 properties to build more than 1,600 new homes. Their course of action: eminent domain. Before the development started, officials began taking the land, offering low amounts for homes.

The project promised to build housing for residents affected by the development, so that they wouldn’t be removed from their community. anneke dunbar-gronke, an attorney from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law who is representing the residents, says it has yet to happen. The attorney says the revitalization effort, which was first introduced in 1975, didn’t factor in the displacement of residents, especially those who aren’t homeowners.

“She was living in that home of many, many years, paying rent that she could afford, and then she was living in her car with her children for a period of time, and she had a really hard time finding another place,” dunbar-gronke says. “There’s the human impact of eminent domain … and a deep community harm.”

A recent complaint filed by the Lawyers’ Committee on behalf of the residents alleges the mayor and City Council violated the federal Fair Housing Act by discriminating against residents.

The laws around eminent domain vary in each state, said Eric Taylor, an eminent domain attorney based in Florida. In his state, the governmental entity must submit a petition for the court’s approval for the seizure of land. They also have to pay for the property owner’s attorney fees. In Tennessee, where Whitmore-Miller lives, such fees are not recoverable.

Refusing to Back Down

Outside of Tennessee, rural Black residents in Georgia are speaking out against the efforts of eminent domain.

Situated in a predominantly Black community of elders, the Sandersville Road Co. plans to construct a rail spur to existing train tracks that run along a nearby state highway to transport gravel and quarry. The company plans to use eminent domain to acquire several parcels of land to force landowners to sell their properties. So far, only one family is going through the process of eminent domain, said Jamie Rush, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

For residents here, the rail spur poses a risk of environmental harm, Rush said, partly because of the quarries and rocks.

“They’re presenting it as the solution for putting the train, but if you’ve ever lived near a train, or you’ve ever ridden on a train or been near a train, it’s not the same as trucks driving by,” Rush said. “It’s an environmental concern because of all of the noise, the pollution, the vibrations of a train ride. All of those things affect your property value. If you live in New York City, where there may be trains, you can expect that, but this is a very rural, quiet area.”

In the 1920s, Thomas Livsey Sr.’s father bought 100 acres of land from a plantation in Snellville. Since 2017, Gwinnett County has bought 4.5 acres of land from the Livsey family to develop a historic park. The county planned to purchase 10 more acres, which includes four apartments. After the family decided they didn’t want to sell, the government planned to use eminent domain, which received backlash from the community.

Originally set to pass a resolution on April 25 to use eminent domain, the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners decided against the proposal on April 7 and instead plan to work with the Livsey family “to reach a decision about the future use of the 10 acres in question.”

Back in Tennessee, Whitmore-Miller is still weighing her options on what to do with her farmland.

Currently, she rents it out to a local farmer. In the future, she could deed her brother the property or build a house for generations to come. To her, the possibilities are endless because it is her family’s land. But no one asked her about her plans for the land. Instead, the Tennessee Department of Transportation told her its plans for it.

“They didn’t come and ask me anything like, ‘Do you plan to build a house for your children or your grandchildren?’ I never know when one of them might decide, ‘Well, my great-grandmother has property in Tennessee. Maybe I want to live on the farm one day,’” Whitmore-Miller said.

Some of her land adjoins properties with two of her nieces and a neighbor, Ray Jones, a retired educator who works for the Boys & Girls Club in Brownsville, about 13 miles away. On his 1-acre lot lies a mineral spring his family acquired in 1930. Two months ago, Jones was served with an eminent domain lawsuit, seeking $8,165 for an acre of land, according to Tennessee Lookout.

While he isn’t opposed to the “tremendous opportunity” the Ford plant would bring, Jones is opposed to the destruction of his family’s mineral spring in the process, he tells Capital B. His brother Kenneth Jones who lives in Nashville, said they planned to pass down the mineral spring to their children.

“It just destroyed our dreams and our hopes,” he says.

Ray Jones declined to share whether they have retained legal counsel.

Whitmore-Miller says her community — and other Black communities — aren’t backing down.

“They just counted us out, that we would accept this small sum of money that they were gonna give us. I told them, ‘This is 2023. This isn’t what they did back in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s. This isn’t like that now,’” she says. “We have a voice. We can speak for what we have worked for. This is not slavery anymore.”

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