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Last week, Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower issued a highly unusual appeal to residents of the small but majority-Black town of Mason, which occupies fewer than two square miles in rural west Tennessee. Mumpower stated, “In my opinion, it’s time for Mason to relinquish its charter.”
Mason is 60% Black and includes descendants of men, women, and children enslaved in the area before Emancipation. For more than a century the town was led by White elected officials. State comptrollers, responsible for financial oversight of local government, typically communicate directly with elected local leaders and not their constituents.
Comptroller Mumpower urged local residents to “encourage your local officials to do what’s necessary to allow Mason to thrive. There is no time to waste.” Speaking of timing, residents and city officials like Vice-Mayor Virginia Rivers said Mumpower’s appeal “completely blindsided” them.
Mumpower cites a 20-year history of fiscal mismanagement, including two major fraud investigations that resulted in criminal indictments and recurring delays in annual audits as the green-light needed for town upheaval. Between 2004 and 2016, Mason’s financials, under White leadership, were described as “un-auditable”. Yet, he had no appeals then.
While Vice-Mayor Rivers admits the modest town of Mason is in a “deep hole” after inheriting half a million dollars in debt, the current administration has made tangible financial recovery. So much so that Mason expects to be financially “caught up” by year’s end.
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Mason, located in the southeastern corner of Tipton County, lies just five miles from the future site of Blue Oval City, Ford Motor Company’s 4,100-acre electric truck and battery plant, landed by state officials last year with nearly $1 billion in taxpayer incentives. The operation is expected to generate 27,000 new jobs and $22 million annually in state taxes after its planned 2025 opening.
According to the Tennessee Lookout, “Mumpower’s letter has infuriated Mason’s part-time elected officials, who insist they have no intention of ceding their town’s 153-year-old charter – which would subsume the largely African-American, majority Democratic community under the governance of Tipton County, which is predominantly white and Republican.”
Black neighborhoods and communities have been bulldozed, polluted, and abandoned for decades. Supposed promises of prosperity by city officials and politicians usually result only in gentrification or intrusive businesses at the expense of the culture that existed before. Town leaders are accusing Mumpower and other state officials of trying to claim the land its Black community will soon financially benefit from with the Blue Oval City deal.
For more than a century the town of Mason was led by White elected officials. That changed in 2016, when fraud and mismanagement allegations led to the resignations of nearly all City Hall officials, all of whom were White. Mason’s current mayor, vice-mayor, and five of its six alderman are Black.
Lacking all self-awareness, somehow Comptroller Mumpower insists race is not a determining factor of his appeal while simultaneously questioning their capacity to run their town. “I’m not sure there’s a full understanding of operating a town,” Mumpower said.
“It’s because of the Black people that are in office,” said Virginia Rivers, who became Vice Mayor in 2021. “And it’s because of all the places in the world, Blue Oval could have selected, they selected here. There’s no way Mason won’t prosper and grow. And now they want to take it away from us.”
Mason is fighting back with the NAACP.
Town officials won’t cede their charter to the comptroller, and they plan to fight any effort to take over the city financially, according to Rivers. Gloria Sweetlove, president of the Tennessee State Conference NAACP, also offered her support and will provide whatever resources are deemed necessary.
Mumpower has offered an ultimatum. 1- Either city officials decide to rescind its charter, bringing Mason under the authority of the Tipton County government. 2. – The Comptroller’s office will take full financial control, overseeing the town’s budget with the authority to approve any expenditure of $100 or more.
If the second option is chosen, it would likely lead to budget and benefit cuts along with possible city government layoffs. Mumpower is equally prepared to act as he channels the former President Trump who once asked, “what the hell do they have to lose” when referring to Black voters. Similarly, Mumpower asked, “What are they holding onto?”
Mason’s past, their present town leadership structure, and future investments are certainly enough for residents to hold onto even in the face of modern colonization attempts.