It was 1926 and Jim Crow reigned in the American South when James Blaine Smith managed something rare for a Black man in the middle of Georgia: He acquired 600 acres of land. The descendant of enslaved people, Smith was a poor farmer living in a shack just outside a city called Sparta. But he had big dreams for the tract he had been leasing for years, driving a mule to plow its fertile rows and grow cotton.
Eventually, 97 years ago, Smith amassed enough to trade his harvest for the land.
The company the hard-working farmer founded on the property in Hancock County – Smith Produce – became a success, first selling cotton, then peas, butterbeans and corn. Over the years, white men would try to take his land, but Smith held on, becoming the proud patriarch of a prosperous family.
As the family grew, the land was divided among its members. Some lived on their acreage. Some moved away, joined the Army, came back. Still, for almost a century, those 600 acres of rich furrows, pine trees and still ponds have remained Smith family plots, and Smiths have lived on them quietly, staying close to their deeply rooted community of mostly Black families, their church called St. Galilee and the graveyard where their loved ones are buried.
So when Mark Smith, the grandson of James Blaine Smith, answered his door to a white man on a hot day last summer, the visit was unexpected.
Though the visitor, Donald Garrett, lives with his wife, Sally, just down the road on about 90 acres he inherited from his great-grandfather, the two families had never known each other. Garrett brought a gift. And he brought a question.
“He asks my husband, ‘Did you see the letter?’” said Janet Smith, Mark Smith’s wife. “He says, ‘You need to read that, because a railroad guy named Ben Tarbutton is getting ready to run a train through your backyard.’”
Life for the Smith and Garrett families – and for the predominantly Black community whose properties stand in the way of the Sandersville Railroad Company’s plan to construct a 4.5-mile rail line – has not been quiet since. Distressed that what they have built over generations could be taken against their will, they have galvanized in opposition to the plan. The dispute is exposing long-existing fault lines in Hancock County, one of the richest in Georgia when cotton was king and now one of the poorest. Like many towns in the county, Sparta remains deeply segregated, with white families seeded throughout local political and business leadership, and Black families making up a majority of residents living below the poverty line.
Threat of eminent domain
Owned by local businessman Benjamin J. Tarbutton III, the Sandersville Railroad Company plans to construct a rail spur, a separate track that is connected to the main rail line. A rail spur provides access from the main line to an industrial or commercial area, where it dead ends. In the Sandersville Railroad Company’s case, the rail spur would connect a local gravel and sand quarry to the CSX rail tracks that run along a state highway nearby. Currently, the quarry relies on trucks to ship its gravel.
The railroad company asserts it has the right to force landowners to sell the portions of their properties needed for the project. If they refuse, the company is threatening to seize the land by taking advantage of Georgia’s eminent domain law, designed in the 19th century at a time when the expansion of railways was almost always deemed a public good. Since then, the law has been updated to provide more protection to landowners.
With deep political connections in Hancock County, where Sparta is the county seat (Tarbutton’s grandfather was mayor of nearby Sandersville in the 1940s and 1950s, and the Tarbutton family has owned the railroad company for 132 years), Tarbutton has publicly projected confidence that he will break ground on the project this year.
The railway would enable Hanson Quarry, recently acquired by major North American gravel supplier Heidelberg Materials, to move heavy payloads to market faster and easier than it can on trucks. The railroad company says the spur will generate 12 jobs and millions of dollars in annual revenue. But it has mustered little evidence to back its claim that the county will reap economic benefits. What is certain is that the rail line would cross, and in many cases divide, property owned by Black families for generations.
Attorneys with the Southern Poverty Law Center who are consulting with property owners say the railroad company would have to overcome significant legal hurdles to be granted the right to build on the properties.
While in many states eminent domain can only be used by government agencies, such as a transportation department seeking to widen a road, Georgia’s eminent domain law can in some cases be invoked by private railroad companies. The law dates to a time when railroad expansion was often the only way to move goods and people across long distances. But the company would need to demonstrate it is developing the land for public use. While the company has insisted that the project would bring economic development to the county, Georgia law explicitly excludes economic development from permissible public use.
‘An American tradition’
If the railroad company does move to proceed with taking the land, its eminent domain petition would be decided initially by a hearing officer with the Georgia Public Service Commission. If property owners or the railroad disagree with the decision, they can appeal and seek reconsideration from the full commission. If the railroad is successful, it can file a condemnation action in Superior Court.
Meanwhile, SPLC attorneys say there is no way to stop the company from employing a variety of tactics, letters among them, to convince property owners they should sell.
“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?” said Jamie Rush, senior staff attorney with the SPLC’s Economic Justice Project, which is working across the South to preserve and increase generational wealth in Black and Brown communities by helping people keep their property.
“Does the railroad think if they tried to go through a predominantly white section of town, they would have encountered too much pushback? Is it because the railroad believes it can intimidate this community with these letters? These are the questions we are asking.”
Jessica Lynn Stewart, an assistant professor of African American studies at Emory University in Atlanta who researches the political economy of race, says the answer is all too well known.
“It feels familiar, this story,” Stewart said. “Beginning with the construction of railroads in the 19th century, and then of highways in the 20th, there tends to be a dark side to how transportation projects are pursued in the name of economic development, and usually that dark side has to do with exploitation of marginalized people.
“The displacement of people of color in the name of economic development is an American tradition.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has spoken out about the racism built into U.S. infrastructure, and has launched a pilot program aimed at reconnecting communities divided by road projects.
‘Heartbreak in their eyes’
In the months since the letters first began arriving in Sparta, the Smiths and the Garretts have forged an unexpected friendship, partnering to rally homeowners who would be affected by the construction of the rail line. In addition to the eight properties the railway would slice through, the proposed line would run by many others. Most are modest homes close to the quarry where residents – largely retired Black men and women living on fixed incomes, others making meager wages working in factories or cleaning houses – already are subject to noise, dust and debris from mining. Some homeowners have already seen damage to their foundations from existing quarry operations.
“I reckon we so small, they just figure they gonna take it,” said Bennie Clayton, 75, whose home is adjacent to the quarry.
Joel Reed, another property owner, said, “They’re just trying to push it over on us. 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.”
So far, the property owners have held firm. While the cost of retaining private attorneys to explore their legal options is too steep for most, they have tried to publicize what they see as a critical threat to their community. They ordered 150 signs emblazoned “NO RAILROAD IN OUR COMMUNITY,” and homeowners put them in yards up and down Shoals and Maggie Reynolds roads, where the line would cut through backyard after backyard. They gather once a month for prayer rallies outside the courthouse. They have reached out to local political leaders and media.
“I do feel that things like the quarry, the railroad, all of this seems to fall on small, mostly Black communities,” said Sally Garrett. “Now, I don’t know if it’s racial or just the fact that [the railroad company] knows they’re not going to fight it. But the people this falls on, well, they’re mostly Black and poor.
“I have met my neighbors, and I have seen the heartbreak in some of their eyes and their voices when they talk about this. It’s heartbreaking, to be honest with you … a lot of them, all they have is their homes.”
The pressure mounts
The railroad company has yet to purchase any of the properties. It has yet to receive the permits it would need to move forward or to formally petition for eminent domain.
But the letters keep coming.
One property owner has received nine letters since April. The latest, signed by Tarbutton and dated Feb. 13, read: “Since we were not able to reach a settlement with you regarding SSR’s acquisition of the portion of the Property required for the Project, by copy of this letter I am requesting our attorneys proceed with the filing of a proceeding to acquire that portion of the Property by condemnation.”
“We have no other alternative but to acquire the necessary property through condemnation,” reads a letter received by another homeowner the same day.
In home after home, the letters sit in piles. The signs stand sentry outside. And the exhausting fight goes on. After overcoming so much, generation after generation, to keep their land, the homeowners say it is dispiriting to find their whole history threatened for the profits of wealthy corporations.
For elderly people living in the homes by the quarry, their views of stands of pines would be replaced by a stone berm and railroad tracks.
For the treasured Smith Family Pond, where family baptisms were held, the train tracks would cut through a stand of pine trees behind it.
For the Garretts, their property would be split in half by 4 acres of train tracks the family would have to cross to get from one section of their land to another.
As they gird for the next phase of their fight, the community that would be impacted by the railroad company’s plans, old friends and new, are resolved not to be railroaded into losing their land and their heritage.
“This land means everything to us,” Mark Smith 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.”
Picture at top: The Sandersville Railroad Company is seeking to construct a 4.5-mile rail line in Sparta, Georgia, and asserts that it has the right to force landowners to sell the portions of their properties needed for the project. (Credit: iStock Photo)