Black farming community fights to get fair deal as state takes land for Ford plant roadways

Farmers near the new BlueOval City campus are excited by the project but say the state is offering them a fraction of what their land is worth

By: - April 3, 2023 6:00 am
Farmer and logger Marvin Sanderling and sons Matthew and Joseph are fighting the Tennessee Department of Transportation in an eminent domain fight. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Farmer and logger Marvin Sanderling and sons Matthew and Joseph are fighting the Tennessee Department of Transportation in an eminent domain fight. (Photo: John Partipilo)

HAYWOOD COUNTY, Tenn. – One year after Ford Motor Company broke ground on its future $5.6 billion electric truck plant, signs of economic prosperity are popping up nearly everywhere in rural west Tennessee.

At Suga’s Diner in Stanton, Tenn. (pop. 400), several miles down the road from the construction site, a nearly empty display of fruit pies and a carpet freshly muddied by work boots mark the end of the new lunchtime rush.

In windows all around the nearby Brownsville town square, businesses have tacked up “Welcome Y’all!” signs with the blue Ford logo, including one at a local real estate firm next to a listing for 70 acres of vacant land near Ford’s new BlueOval City campus. It’s on the market for $14.5 million  – an exorbitant jump in value from $10,000-per-acre asking prices several years ago.

And at local planning and zoning commissions, lengthy agendas list approval requests for Bed and Breakfasts, retail districts, sports bars and gas stations. Meanwhile, there’s not a hotel room to be had within a 30-mile radius. 

Marvin Sanderlin, a longtime local farmer with 400 acres, said he’d like to take advantage of the coming development, too.

But the state has taken him to court for 10 acres of his property. The land lies in the path of a planned roadway connecting the Ford plant to the interstate. The state’s offer? $37,500 — or $3,750 per acre.

“That’s unheard of,” Sanderlin said of the offer, which includes the purchase of two acres of farmland outright and compensation for another eight acres of his property that will become inaccessible with the new interchange. 

“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.”

Sanderlin is not alone in his legal fight with the state in this largely rural African-American farming region, where land being acquired by the Tennessee Department of Transportation has been in some families for generations.

‘They aren’t worried about this one little farmer’

The proposed new route winds through predominantly Black-owned properties in Tipton, Haywood and Fayette Counties, including Sanderlin’s land in Haywood County. 

Many of the families being taken to court knew each other before; those that didn’t have met in community meetings, some organized with the help of local NAACP leaders.

According to the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the state needs 35 separate tracts for the road project. It already owns four and is pursuing the other tracts either through purchase or eminent domain, in order to construct a series of road connections and widenings that will link the 4,100-acre BlueOval Ford campus to the new Exit 39 off I-40 to accommodate throngs of workers and truck traffic.

Thus far, the state has taken possession of 15 tracts — two through court proceedings, Nichole Lawrence, a spokesperson said. Of the remaining 20 tracks, Lawrence said the state is in negotiation with property owners. It’s unclear how many land owners the state is taking legal action against. In Haywood County alone, court records show, the state has filed seven actions seeking to take property for the new interchange.

Graphic showing the path of TDOT’s new highway connection Blue Oval City to Interstate 40.

Sanderlin, 72, has hired an attorney. He has no problem with the Ford plant or the roadway, he said. For the sake of his four children and grandchildren, he welcomes development to the area. 

Like other families who spoke to the Tennessee Lookout about eminent domain actions initiated against them, Sanderlin drew a direct line from the state’s current efforts to take his land to the struggles in every preceding generation of his family to hold onto what they owned.

“It’s not the first time we’ve had to fight,” Sanderlin said. His great-great grandmother, an enslaved woman, successfully sued for the rights of her children to inherit a portion of their slave-owning father’s estate, an extraordinary undertaking that is still memorialized in Memphis-area Black history accounts today. 

His parents were sharecroppers in New Hope, Tenn. when they bought their land in 1945, relying on a loan from a local white undertaker, Sanderlin said. According to family lore, when his parents paid off the loan, the undertaker resisted handing over the deed — he assumed he could collect the loan and interest payments then repossess the land from a Black family, Sanderlin said. 

During Sanderlin’s own lifetime, while he amassed 400 acres of farmland and established his a timber business, it was not without pushback, he said. Sanderlin said he spent years speaking out against discrimination Black farmers endured in accessing federal farm loan programs.

“They’re giving a $6 billion company access, but they aren’t worried about this one little farmer,” he said. “We’re giving up land, but we’re going to get less out of this deal than anybody, and we’re impacted the most.”

The eight-acres of property that will become inaccessible to Sanderlin once the roadway comes through is currently planted with loblolly pine trees, an investment in timber that Sanderlin said he planned harvest in order to fund his retirement.

‘Largest investment in state history’

The Ford plant is expected to employ 6,000 workers at the plant and indirectly add more than 25,000 jobs to local communities. The state has pledged nearly $1 billion in taxpayer incentives — including funding for infrastructure that includes the I-40 interchange — in order to lure Ford’s investment to the area. 

Late last month, Gov. Bill Lee made a public appearance at a celebration event on the six-square-mile construction site to mark the one-year anniversary of breaking ground.

“With the single largest investment in state history, this historic project brings thousands of jobs and new opportunities for Tennessee families to thrive,” Lee said. 

Ray Jones, a retired school teacher who now directs the Boys & Girls Club of Brownsville, said he welcomed the Ford plant, but feels his family is being treated unfairly. Jones was served with an eminent domain lawsuit in February, seeking acquisition of an acre of land for $8,165, court records show. 

The new interchange being planned will run straight over a natural mineral spring that has been continuously bubbling on an acre of land passed  down in the Jones family since its discovery nearly 100 years ago.

Outside the building containing the Jones family mineral springs in 1930, from right to left: Wesley Jones, Jr., Mark Jones (Wesley's son), Benjamin Jones (Wesley's son)<br /> Wesley's nephews (Daniel &amp; Willie Taylor),<br /> unknown. Photo: Courtesy of Ray Jones.
Outside the building containing the Jones family mineral springs in 1930, from right to left: Wesley Jones, Jr., Mark Jones (Wesley’s son), Benjamin Jones (Wesley’s son)
Wesley’s nephews (Daniel & Willie Taylor),
unknown. Photo: Courtesy of Ray Jones.

“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.”

“My whole beef?  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,” he said. Jones said he does not blame Ford; the beef, he said, is with TDOT.

Jones, a longtime acquaintance of Sanderlin, has yet to hire an attorney. He received a 90-day extension in court last month in order to obtain one. He said wants the judge and the state to understand that the spring is a rare natural resource his family has had the honor of stewarding.

In the spring’s heyday in the 1950’s and 60’s, word of the silty water’s healing properties drew visitors from around the country, newspaper clippings kept by the Jones family show. Visitors would pay a quarter to fill up a jug; doctors provided testimonials of the water’s healing properties on their patients.

A digitized copy of a 1930 analysis by the State Division of Geology certified the spring as having high concentrations of minerals. It described the property as the “Farm of Wesley Jones (‘colored’).”  

That the spring, and its surrounding land, was ever acquired by Ray Jones’ great-grandfather, Wesley Jones, holds special meaning to the Jones family, Ray Jones said.

“He had 80 acres of land back in the 1930’s,” Jones said. “For a Black man, that was something.”

‘We don’t want to make that progress off us’

Rosa Whitmore, 82, lives in a ranch-style house built on land that adjoins Ray Jones’. Both properties lie about two miles from the BlueOval campus.

Late last summer, she noticed red stakes stuck in the ground in the property she owns across the street, Whitmore she didn’t learn of the state’s plans to take control of her land until months later. In February, Whitmore was served with a condemnation lawsuit seeking nearly two acres of land, after rejecting the state’s $8,000 offer.

The land being sought currently lies fallow. But when Whitmore was a child, she and her ten siblings worked at young ages to harvest cotton, corn, sorghum and peas in order to be able to pay off her parents’ mortgage.

“Oh my Lord, it has hurt me to my heart for this to happen after we worked so hard at a time when we didn’t even have the vote,” said Whitmore, a retired nurse. “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.

Adjacent property in community of Fredonia, where she lives, was on the market for $10,000 several years ago. The $8,000 offer for nearly two acres grossly undervalues the property’s current worth, she said.

“I understand there’s going to be changes. But we don’t want to make that progress off us. If you’re going to make progress in this Black community, then let us see some advantage out of it,” Whitmore said. “There’s nothing we can do with $8,000 except be mad.”

Rosa Whitmore at her home, built on the land where her grandparents picked cotton. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rosa Whitmore at her home, built on the land where her grandparents picked cotton. (Photo: John Partipilo)

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.