Residents of Sparta, Georgia are fighting to prevent a railroad company from seizing their land for an environmentally damaging project that would displace citizens in a majority Black community.
In the town of 1,300, one-third live in poverty, and 70 percent of the population is Black, according to the United States Census. About one hundred miles from Atlanta, Sparta is near a quarry that residents have said causes debris and dust pollution, as well as unrelenting noise.
Through eminent domain, the Sandersville Railroad Company seeks to connect Hanson Quarry to a main train line, expanding mining at the facility. The tracks would run through the homes of eight families, and would sit close to many homes belonging to retired Black residents.
Some residents in Sparta are direct descendants of James Blaine Smith, an African American farmer who against all odds bought 600 acres of land in the Jim Crow south. He began Smith Produce, a successful farming business that he passed down to his children. Throughout Blaine Smith's life, he fought off efforts from white men to take the land.
Historic policies of inequality such as slavery, segregation, and redlining have long prevented Black families from accumulating wealth over generations. Mark Smith, grandson of Blaine Smith, told the Southern Poverty Law Center that despite his grandfather's work, his family still faces losing their home.
“This land means everything to us,” he said. “My great grandfather came from nothing and he was able to get this land. Then he passed it down to my grandfather. They fought so hard to keep it, and now here we are trying to hold onto it.”
Sandersville filed a petition last month with the Georgia public service commission to begin the eminent domain process, with owner Ben Tarbutton saying "the chosen route is the most efficient and least impactful route," via The Guardian. The company has denied the route was chosen based on “race, color, creed, poverty level or any related factors.”
While eminent domain typically can only be invoked by the government, a Georgia law dating back to the period of rail development also allows private rail companies to enact the policy. Residents report receiving dozens of letters over the past several months signed by Tarbutton himself, demanding they sell or settle, or warning them that they will invoke eminent domain.
Eminent domain may be invoked when a project is deemed beneficial to the public, but local property owner Joel Reed told the SPLC that none of the profits from either Hanson Quarry nor Sandersville will make their way back to the community.
“They’re just trying to push it over on us," he said. "They say it’s gonna benefit the county, but the way I see it, the gravel is gonna be for resale, and the county is not gonna get tax money off it. The only body that’s gonna benefit is Mr. Tarbutton and the man that owns that quarry out there.”
Senior attorney for the SPLC Jamie Rush, who is advising the community, also said that the Sandersville project is more likely to harm residents than help them, and that while "the company claims it will provide public benefits" through job opportunities, it "really seems like a project to generate profits to the detriment of the Sparta residents."
“These are older people, they are retired, they don’t really have the means to litigate against a railroad company with seemingly unlimited resources, and so this really pushes the question of, why did the railroad company choose this route?” Rush said. “Does the railroad think if they tried to go through a predominantly white section of town, they would have encountered too much pushback?"
Janet Smith, a retired school teacher, has been organizing petitions and rallies under her “no railroad in our community” coalition while the railroad's case is reviewed in court. She said via The Guardian that "there is no compromise" for Sparta residents.
“Our community is already like a dumping ground, so we’re going to fight this to the end. There is no compromise,” she said. "They didn’t expect us to push back because we’re poor and Black. But this property is all that we’ve got to leave to our sons."
Smith added: “We have enough burdens. This is environmental injustice.”
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