Press "Enter" to skip to content

Georgia Slavery Descendants Fight to Keep Land in Their Family

Georgia slavery descendants fight to keep land in their family

By William R. Maurer and Betsy Sanz

Georgia farmers James and Helen Smith cherished their land in Sparta, Georgia, about 100 miles east of Atlanta. The property, which the family acquired in the 1920s, was part of a former cotton plantation where Helen’s mother was born a slave

The Smiths vowed never to give the land back. They farmed it, raised their children on it, and passed it to their heirs with an admonition: Keep it in the family.

Blaine and Diane Smith take the charge seriously. So do their cousins, Marvin and Pat Smith. Both couples own portions of the original family farm. They have no intention of selling.

Sandersville Railroad has different plans for their land, however. The private train company wants to lay track through several parcels, including the Smith properties, to bring rail service to a rock quarry.

Normally, when private companies want someone’s property, they can only get it if the owner is willing to sell. But Sandersville wants to seize the land by force using a government tool called eminent domain. Because Sandersville is a private railroad company, it would need approval from the Georgia Public Service Commission to pull off the maneuver.

Eminent domain cases are often complex, but two underlying principles apply: Governments must provide just compensation, and takings must serve legitimate public uses.

Sometimes this means taking property from one private owner and giving it to another. Electricity and water companies, for example, might need land to lay powerlines and pipelines to benefit thousands of people. Rail systems like MARTA also function as utilities when they provide transportation services to all members of the public at rates set by the government.

These are examples of possible public uses.

Sandersville is attempting something else. It wants to use eminent domain to serve one of its clients, and by extension serve itself. But increasing profit for private industry is not a public use. The Supreme Court of Georgia weighed in as far back as 1917: Railroads “cannot exercise the power of eminent domain to acquire private property to serve a mere private use.”

In March 2023 Sandersville formally petitioned the Georgia Public Service Commission to bless its land grab. First, Sandersville plans to target Sparta landowners Don and Sally Garrett. Then, it will turn its sights on the Garretts’ neighbors, including the Smiths.

have asked to intervene in the  proceedings to stop the attempted land seizures. Our public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice, represents them.

The dispute highlights a troubling trend that has continued nationwide for as long as the Smiths have owned their land. Targets of eminent domain are rarely wealthy or influential. Usually, governments and privileged private entities wield this power against people with limited income and resources. They take from the have-nots and give to the haves in reverse Robin Hood fashion.

Minority neighborhoods suffer disproportionately. This was apparent during urban renewal disasters from the late 1940s to the 1970s. “Victimizing the Vulnerable,” a 2007 Institute for Justice report, provides more recent examples.

A turning point came in 2005 following Kelo v. City of New London, recognized by legal scholars as one of the worst U.S. Supreme Court decisions of all time. The 5-4 majority in this case held that governments could use eminent domain to take private land and give it to another private party for private economic development.

Georgia and 46 other states pushed back, strengthening their protections against eminent domain abuse with new laws, constitutional amendments and court decisions. The reforms helped. But, as this case demonstrates, eminent domain for private gain continues.

In some places, the reforms merely drove the abuse underground. Governments delegate their eminent domain powers to private actors to build things that look like public uses, such as roads or utilities, but often the real purpose is to benefit a specific favored private business.

If Sandersville gets its way, Georgia will be guilty of this gamesmanship in Sparta. The Smith family already has endured injustices going back generations. Their land is an integral part of their journey to prosperity. A private railroad company should not be allowed to take it.

William R. Maurer is managing attorney of the Washington state office of the Institute for Justice in Seattle. Betsy Sanz is a litigation fellow at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.

BlaineDianeSmith-1.jpg MarvinPatSmith-0.jpg

Last updated on May 26, 2023

Translate »
Verified by MonsterInsights