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As the state of Tennessee uses eminent domain to take over land to connect a new multi-billon dollar Ford plant to the interstate, Black farmers say the government is offering them a fraction of what their land is worth.
A year ago, Ford Motor Company broke ground on a $5.6 billion electric truck plant in a rural region of Tennessee full of African American farmers, according to Tennessee Lookout. While the investment has brought economic prosperity to the area, Tennessee government officials have moved to threaten Black towns and financially bulldoze over land that has been in Black families for generations.
Now, the Tennessee Department of Transportation is attempting to use eminent domain to take over Black farmers’ land while offering them a fraction of what their land is worth.
“It’s not the first time we’ve had to fight,” Marvin Sanderlin, a longtime farmer in Haywood County with 400 acres of land told Tennessee Lookout.
The recent developments come a year after a Tennessee Comptroller told Black residents of Mason to remove their Black elected officials from office. It also comes during the fallout over Tennessee House Republicans expelling two members of the Tennessee Three after the lawmakers protested for gun safety legislation on the House floor.
Black farmers fight for fair deal in state land grab
Marvin Sanderlin is no stranger to fighting against the state to maintain ownership of his land. Local accounts highlight how his great-great grandmother, an enslaved woman, successfully sued to ensure her children inherited a portion of land from their slave-owning father.
The state has taken Sanderlin to court for 10 acres of his property as it lies in the path of the planned roadway that would connect the Ford plant to the interstate.
Sanderlin says the state is offering him only $3,750 per acre.
“That’s unheard of,” Sanderlin said. “You can’t buy no land here for $3,500 an acre. You can’t buy a swamp here for $3,500” Sanderlin said. “I told them this is the biggest ripoff there is. They want your land, but they don’t want you to participate in the wealth.”
The proposed construction would run through Black-owned land in Tipton, Haywood and Fayette Counties.
Some Black farmers and land owners have joined together and, along with the NAACP, plan to fight back.
The fight comes as Black farmers around the nation continue to criticize the Biden Administration for its failure to secure targeted investment for them in the federal farm bill, despite Black farmers suffering long-time discrimination in federal funding.
Investment on the backs of Black farmers?
The Ford plant is expected to add 6,000 direct jobs and nearly 25,000 indirect jobs to the region.
“With the single largest investment in state history, this historic project brings thousands of jobs and new opportunities for Tennessee families to thrive,” Gov. Bill Lee said last month.
Yet Black farmers who own land along the proposed roadway’s path say the economic prosperity arriving in the region shouldn’t come at the cost of their land.
Ray Jones is a retired school teacher who runs the Boys and Girls Club of Brownsville. The state is offering him just over $8,000 for an acre of his land.
“It’s been our heritage,” Jones said. The land’s deed notes the land cannot be sold, he said. “It’s been passed down for 100 years. And now they want to run right through it,” Jones said.
Jones said he supports the Ford investment, but he blames TDOT for their attempt to hustle him off his land.
“All the people are benefiting from BlueOval and that’s good. We are 100% in support of BlueOval. Make sure you quote me on that. But then you want to take my spring and give me pennies on it? It’s an unreasonable situation,” Jones said.
Rosa Whitmore, 82, owns a home that was built on land where her grandparents picked cotton. She says the state didn’t inform her of their interest in her land until late last month. They’re also offering her just $8,000 per acre.
“I worked with my own two hands up at 6 a.m. going to work in the field under the hot sun. That’s what we had to do to own this land,” Whitmore said.