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This Rural Black Community Is at War With a Private Railroad Company

The Georgia Public Service Commission is set to determine if a private company can take land from 18 property owners.

A railroad cuts through Ocmulgee Mounds National Park in Macon, Georgia, on February 2, 2022. This photo shows the railroad that cuts through the middle of the park and destroyed sacred sites when it was constructed. (Photo by Kevin D. Liles for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

SPARTA, Ga. — On a muggy and humid afternoon in mid-September, a frustrated Mark Smith stands in the kitchen of the home he and his wife, Janet Smith, built over 30 years ago on the 600 acres his grandfather acquired in 1926.

Just a few feet away, the home where Mark grew up still stands. It’s the place where he recalls countless conversations his parents had about the importance of education. He also remembers how his father farmed the land, not only to feed generations, but to pay for his six children’s education.

Mark’s grandfather did the same. He traded cotton for the land at the age of 32 in what was known as the old cotton plantation country in middle Georgia. In the Jim Crow South, this was “almost unheard of” for a Black man, Mark says. Following the men in his family, he also farmed to pay his three sons’ way through college.

Even as Sparta’s economy and population declined after World War I, the Smith family has been able to hold onto their land, despite an alarming rate of Black land loss over the years. Mark attributes it to never “owing the bank a penny” or selling the land.

This is why it’s “insulting” to learn that Benjamin Tarbutton III, president of the 130-year-old Sandersville Railroad Co., wants to take the land he inherited, which served as a route to higher education and generational wealth.

“All of us, we’ve struggled to keep this, not just financially, but people who have wanted our land before. My father earned his money to pay his way through,” Mark said. “He [Tarbutton] wants to take it for a little or nothing … and pass it on to his children when it should go to my children.”

Sandersville plans to construct a 4.5-mile rail spur that would connect the Hanson Quarry, a rock mine owned by Heidelberg Materials, to a main train line along the nearby highway. But, the company needs portions of property from 18 owners along Shoals Road, including the Smiths, to make it happen.

The proposed project would create 20 temporary construction jobs, a dozen permanent jobs averaging $90,000 a year in salary and benefits, and bring in over $1.5 million annually to Hancock County, where the median household income is nearly $34,000, Tarbutton said in an email. And if the proposal moves forward, local officials hope this could attract future businesses and improve economic growth.

But, some residents in the predominantly Black town of 2,000 have refused to sell because they simply don’t want to sell their land or fear the potential damage to their homes from the train. Some have already experienced cracks in their homes from the quarry, which causes loud “boom” noises and shakes their homes like an earthquake. Many others say they never received a notice from the railroad company and only found out about the project at a local community meeting last year.

What’s occurring in the small town of Sparta is the latest attempt to seize Black land for the benefit of economic development or highways like in rural South Carolina or Tennessee. One of the most common ways: eminent domain — a centuries-old practice that allows the government to seize private property for public use, despite the owner’s refusal to sell.

Earlier this year, Sandersville began this process after owners refused to sell their land. Bill Maurer, an attorney from the Institute for Justice, said it is an abuse of eminent domain because a railroad for private benefit does not fit the requirement.

Next week, a hearing officer with the Georgia Public Service Commission, the state regulatory agency over utilities, will hear testimony from all parties to determine whether the company can move forward. It is unclear when a decision will be handed down.

Economic Development at the Cost of Black Land

Janet and Mark Smith, who are both military veterans and newly retired educators, didn’t imagine they’d spend this phase of their lives fighting a railroad company. It began in April 2022 when they received a letter in the mail from Tarbutton.

On a recent afternoon in her home, Janet rummages through a clear bin of manila folders where she stores newspaper clippings, letters, maps, and other documents she’s collected. She pulls out the first letter, which mentions no compensation for their land. Attached to the letter is a property owner’s questionnaire. The couple told Capital B they ignored it, given the previous attempts by others to purchase their land.

But a few months later they were forced to take it seriously. Another letter came in late June 2022, informing the Smiths that railroad consultants may need to come onto the property to conduct a field survey related to the project because it has “the right to its power of eminent domain.” And that the railroad would ask the county’s sheriff office to be on site during this time.

They learned other property owners, including their white neighbors Don and Sally Garrett, received similar letters. They came together in opposition and immediately spoke out about their concerns for the project.

They feared their neighborhood may become the new Tybee Street, a community of abandoned and run-down houses in nearby Sandersville where the railroad headquarters are. The street is split down the middle by train tracks.

“Porches are falling down. The windows are broken out, but they’re trying to keep it up. They have nowhere to go,” Mark said at his kitchen table. “That’s one of the things, when they do people like this, where do you go when you’re already doing the best you can right here? He [Tarbutton] doesn’t care. That’s apparent.”

This birthed the No Railroad In Our Community Coalition, which is led by Janet and Mark. For the past year and a half, the couple has canvassed the town to check on yard signs emblazoned with “NO RAILROAD IN OUR COMMUNITY.” Janet consistently checks emails and sits on Zoom calls with attorneys. The Institute for Justice represents property owners, while the Southern Poverty Law Center represents residents who are not in the pathway of the tracks but will be affected by the train.

Additionally, the couple attends monthly board of commissioner meetings, collects signatures for their petition, and organizes prayer rallies at the local courthouse every second Saturday of the month. Janet also writes monthly articles in the Sparta Ishmaelite newspaper to keep the community updated of their fight. She even mentions she had been attacked by a dog for trying to collect signatures at a local event.

The outrage sort of paid off. The railroad company changed the train route, which excluded the area right behind the homes of the Smiths, according to a July 2022 letter. However, it still included part of the Smiths’ family property, which Mark’s brother owns.

The fight for the rest of the Shoals Road community continued.

After failing to come to a resolution, attorneys on behalf of Sandersville Railroad filed a petition in March with the Georgia Public Service Commission. And while eminent domain requires for property owners to receive just compensation, landowners say the company has not offered to compensate them. In an email response to Capital B, Tarbutton said all owners “received market-based offers for their land using an independent appraisal firm that advised the Georgia Department of Transportation on its recent land acquisitions in the area.”

He also told Capital B the company “stands ready to discuss our outstanding offers with all property owners, but several refused to talk with us once they received our initial offers.”

But, the Smiths, along with other residents, say it’s been difficult to have a conversation with Tarbutton, referencing a community meeting his company hosted last year where residents barely had a chance to speak.

Their fight is almost reminiscent of Amanda America Dickson, a formerly enslaved biracial woman from Sparta who became one of the wealthiest women — and the most wealthy Black woman — of the 19th century. Her father, David Dickson, a white plantation owner and lead planter in Georgia, left the majority of his estate to Amanda in his will. After his death, she inherited money, the Dickson plantation, and over 17,000 acres of land in Hancock and Washington counties.

This caused a legal contest with David’s white family members. The Hancock County Superior Court ruled in favor of Amanda in 1885. The family appealed that decision to the Georgia Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court’s decision in 1887.

Similar to Amanda America Dickson’s fight, in present-day Sparta, Black landowners hope the state commission rules in their favor as they’ve been fighting on their own.

Sparta City Council members have been mute on this particular issue, except for R. Allen Haywood, mayor and executive director of the Sparta Hancock Development Authority. In a phone call with Capital B, Haywood, who won his reelection bid this month, said “it’s not personal” and he will testify before the Public Service Commission about the economic development opportunities the railroad will bring.

In the years since cotton was king, Haywood said, Sparta has struggled to attract new businesses and combat population loss. Today, citizens have to travel 25 miles or more for a hospital visit, Walmart, restaurants, and employment opportunities.

“The town is basically dried up,” said Haywood, who moved to Sparta nearly 40 years ago.

Tarbutton argues the project will drive economic development in Hancock County, according to filings with the Georgia Public Service Commission. The proposed railroad would operate one train daily at 20 miles per hour, which would reduce the number of trucks on the road per day, according to Tarbutton’s Sept. 28 pre-filed rebuttal testimony to the commission. There are five companies that plan to use the spur: Heidelberg Materials, Pittman Construction, Southern Chips, Revive Milling and Veal Farms Transload. The train will haul aggregates, wood chips, liquid asphalt, and various agricultural products.

However, Gary Hunter, CEO of Railroad Industries Inc., a full-time transportation consulting practice, said in a pre-filed expert testimony to the commission that there’s no evidence provided that the route going through the properties is the “most efficient” or will minimize environmental impacts.

“In my expert opinion, the project is not economically feasible,” Hunter said. “The biggest issue with constructing this 4.5-mile new railroad at this time, including taking any adverse actions on property owners, is that feasibility, and therefore public need, has not been proven.”

Like Tarbutton, Haywood suspects there could be opportunities for a truck stop, fast food restaurant, grocery store, and a warehouse, especially given the construction of a new bypass beginning on Shoals Road.

“We got people on one side that say, ‘Hey, we need jobs.’ Then, you try to explain that I can’t create jobs when I got nothing to offer,” Haywood said. “You got local citizens and residences that are going to be affected and they’re concerned about their properties. … You really can’t balance it. What you have to do is look at the opportunities, and then go from there and see what you can do.”

But, those potential opportunities come at cost: the seizure of Black land.

Fears of the Unknown

Over three mostly rainy days in September, Janet Smith made her usual rounds to several residents’ homes to pass out flyers and update them on the upcoming public hearing. Most of them don’t “do the phone,” she said, or in other words, respond to texts, emails, or understand how to use the internet — if they have it all.

One of her first stops: Para and Aldophus Collins, a married couple who live a few doors down. While their home won’t be directly in the path of the train, it would be very close behind their home. Para moved from Atlanta to Sparta almost 50 years ago for the “peace and quiet.” She didn’t expect this in her husband’s hometown, she said. Adding a train with the already boisterous sounds from the asphalt plant and rock quarry would be too much, she added.

“It’s just really disturbing. Think about somebody coming in and just shaking up the whole neighborhood,” she said, sitting on her couch. “I just don’t understand why they all of a sudden want to come through. They have that quarry down there, and it’s enough dealing with the trucks [hauling asphalt from the plant] and they have that old diesel smell.”

Adolphus added that this plan is simply “a grasp for money” and part of a trend to bring questionable private developments in cash-strapped Black neighborhoods that don’t have the means to fight back. He also mentioned the move would harm the environment and health of residents in their 70s like them.

“I’m not crying and flustering about the property value and stuff, but I don’t like the dust particles and the dirt,” Adolphus said. “All of this is quality of life, and you think it’s just a poor neighborhood … but if you allow someone to park a train with all that noise, it becomes a train stop neighborhood.”

Down the street from the Collins family is Kenneth Clayton, a military veteran who lives across the street from the rock quarry. The proposed train route would be 100 feet from his home, he said, and he fears it will cause more damage to his home and negatively affect his mental health. He’s already had to make constant repairs to his home because of the rock quarry.

“I’m a Desert Storm war veteran, and that’s why we’re telling them no. I can’t have no train down here bothering me, not with my PTSD, I’ll never get no rest,” he told Capital B. “I’m at the epicenter of the whole thang, and I’m praying it doesn’t go forward.”

After retiring in 2015, Elizabeth Scott returned home to Sparta for peace and affordability. If permitted, the rail spur would be a “football field away” from Scott’s backyard near the memorial she’s built for her late son. She’s worried about air and noise pollutants. She said there should be more laws or regulations to protect vulnerable communities against corporations trying to take Black land.

After each visit, Janet reassures everyone that she, and Mark, are not giving up, and asks for their support at the upcoming hearing. She promises once all of this is over, hopefully, they will go back to their normal lives. Instead of stopping by to discuss the case, they could hang out and watch a football game. Or schedule a trip to eat crab legs in Atlanta. At the very least, get some rest.

“While this has been an absolute nightmare I cannot wake up from … God has blessed us,” Janet said. “I have to pray, so I don’t holler and cry.”

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