A historic black community is in the path of the state’s new economic development megasite. The concern in Fredonia is that the economically challenged residents there will ultimately lose their homes and their tight-knit community to whatever the megasite brings to this West Tennessee countryside.
By Clint Brewer
FREDONIA, Tenn. – Tucked away off a bumpy country road several hundred feet from Interstate 40 is a forgotten piece of Tennessee’s African American history.
This small community’s name dates back to “the slave days,” say its oldest residents, many into their late 70s and 80s.
It is a collection of small frame and brick homes, family cemeteries freshly decorated for the fall, churches and muddy gravel driveways. Sleeping dogs, potted plants and rocking chairs line the front porches. The occasional junked car or tire swings dot the yards.
Most of these family homes back up to sprawling soybean and cotton fields once either owned or worked by black Fredonia families. Much wealthier and mostly white landowners from the cities now own those fields cut into swaths by the hundreds of acres.
It is a quiet place, say Fredonia’s residents, and one they willingly offer has always been a working class, black community. It is a corner of the world where seemingly everyone is related to each other in some way or another. It is a place where the simplicity of country life is embraced, but where a fierce loyalty and pride is also felt about living there. Settling in Fredonia, its residents say, is a sign of personal progress for black families from the two counties this historical but informal community straddles – Haywood and Fayette Counties.
Now, the residents of Fredonia are caught up in the battle between the elected leaders, politicos and self-appointed activists of both of these counties and in the halls of power in state government.
Looking at the map of the newly approved Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Megasite for economic development slated for Haywood County, Fredonia is cleaved in two at the county line by the megasite land plat. The nearest interstate exit is in Fayette County at State Highway 222, which borders Fredonia. Using either Highway 222 or actually entering Fredonia itself on Thorpe Road and then turning on to Fredonia Road are clear routes from Interstate 40 to the megasite.
The megasite is planned for Haywood County, but some Fredonia residents on both sides of the county line are questioning why they have not been contacted by anyone at any governmental level – TVA, state or local – about the project. The $10,600 an acre buyout given to much larger neighboring landowners in the 3,800 acres megasite plat is something Fredonia residents only heard about in the news.
The worry is not that Fredonia’s residents will miss out on the land buyouts being offered, which total over $40 million for the project. Most interviewed by Tennessee Watchdog said they wouldn’t even consider the offer for their small residential home places.
The real concern in Fredonia is that the economically challenged residents there will ultimately lose their homes and their tight-knit community to whatever the megasite brings to this West Tennessee countryside – whether that is through industry and development ruining their country lifestyle or possibly the government taking their land through eminent domain as an infrastructure plan is developed to feed the new industrial interests.
No one in Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration contacted by Tennessee Watchdog would say the concerns of Fredonia residents are unfounded though they did dismiss them as either “premature” or “speculation.”
Why This Neighborhood?
Lawrence Randle is perhaps an unlikely community organizer. At 57-years-old, Randle is a disabled former construction worker, but one that finds his beat-up cell phone ringing quite a bit these days. He talks to callers in an easy tone, laughing and holding the phone with an arm that sports a stark, 18-inch scar – a reminder of his recent open heart surgery.
Though an avowed Democrat, Randle has been working with the political forces in Republican dominated Fayette County to fight the megasite. Randle has been to the public hearings in both Haywood and Fayette Counties involving the site, and thought when his Fayette County Commission voted 16-0 to pass a resolution opposing the project the fight was won.
So, Randle was somewhat surprised when he heard from organizers in Fayette County – mainly activist and occasional GOP operative Gary Bullwinkel – that the megasite was still moving forward.
As Randle rambles through Fredonia in his Ford Explorer that boasts over 220,000 miles, he talks about his concerns for the community where he grew up. At a minimum, he worries that the simple country life his family has always lived will be disrupted. His deepest concern, though, is that their land – broken into small two to eight acre tracts per household – might simply be taken from them by the state to accommodate the megasite. It is a common fear among the dozen or so Fredonia residents interviewed by Tennessee Watchdog.
“I’ve been here for 40-years,” Randle said. “Why did they pick this neighborhood? That land behind my house – that is involved. That land across the street from my house – that is involved. With (eminent domain), they do what they want to do.”
Randle insists that the there would be no way, even with state buyouts, for the residents of Fredonia to find a way to afford country living again. Modern day land prices, Randle observes, are much higher than what many of these families paid 50 to 75 years ago or longer.
“I’m on disability. My mother is up into her 70s. We have a lot of old people, and if they lose their homes they don’t have anywhere to go. They don’t have anywhere to go. This isn’t a place where people just jump up and move. Most of these people have lived here their whole life. If I wanted to live in the city then I would try to buy in the city. But I like the country. These people out here, where else are they going to get land?”
Compounding the concerns over the megasite is what Randle and others insist is a lack of communication with Fredonia residents on the project from government at every level. The land options and buyouts the residents of Fredonia have heard about seem illusory. What kind of industry that might land on the megasite seems unclear to them though Randle and others have read the newspapers and been to their local hearings on the issue.
“They haven’t been offered nothing,” Randle said of the smaller Fredonia residential dwellers. “Ain’t nobody been by to talk to them or nothing.”
Randle and others in Fredonia note that there is not consensus in the community about the project, saying there are those in the area in favor of the megasite.
“Somebody want this and some of them don’t,” says Willine Randle, 75, and Lawrance Randle’s mother. “You have some that want to sell.
Yet, the man who some refer to as the “Mayor of Fredonia” – an unofficial title, insists Cecil Giles – said many Fredonia residents on the Haywood County side of the line are for the project.
“I’m definitely for it,” said Giles, 57 and a funeral director for 34 years. “Our unemployment rate here is close to 20%, and it is probably higher in Fredonia. I think it is a good avenue for us to grow jobs.”
“These people in Fayette County, I think they have been misinformed,” Giles continues. “Mr. Bullwinkel is not a resident of Fredonia and never has been. I think he handpicked people to be on his side.”
Still, some Haywood County residents of Fredonia insist there are a few on their side of the county line against the megasite project.
“Nobody I’ve talked to wants to sell, said Gale Harwell, 53, who lives in the Haywood County portion of Fredonia. “I was born and raised here. When I die, I hope I’m buried right here. I don’t want to leave my home. I think what the government is doing is just plain wrong. You can write this down, the government is f***ing up.”
The lack of agreement on the project in Fredonia is an issue Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration – the driving force behind the megasite – seized upon in answering the concerns of the Randles and other Fredonia residents. When told by Tennessee Watchdog a reporter was working on a story about the concerns of Fredonia residents, administration officials responded aggressively.
“To say you plan to ‘look at these residents’ concerns’ as if there is unanimity in the Fredonia community against the megasite calls into question the objectivity of your report and raises questions about your motives,” said Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development Mark Drury in an email to Tennessee Watchdog
‘To me it is more about race.’
Since most Fredonia residents have lived here their entire lives, they seem to be confident in their perspective on race relations in Fayette and talk of it openly.
Older residents into their late 70s and 80s talk of how much they have seen the country change after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and then recently President Barack Obama’s election as the first black American president. The prevailing sentiment, though, is that Fayette County is a place where blacks and whites have gotten along for decades.
Annie Humphreys, 77, sits on her front porch in Fayette County facing Thorpe Road, the main thoroughfare into Fredonia off Highway 222. She looks out across the road at the endless soybean fields, noting which ones have traded hands over the years between “whites” and “colored” owners. Humphreys has 13 grandkids and 13 great grandkids. She has never lived anywhere but Fredonia.
Too her, the reasons Fredonia was chosen as the partial site for this massive new development are simple.
“I guess they’ve got more power,” she says of state and local government officials. “I guess they just do what they want. …Mostly its because the people in here are mainly black people. I think people (in Fredonia) thinks that what it is. In general, right through in here is nothing but colored people. ”
“An old lady here told me, and she is dead and gone, she said Fredonia got its name from back in the slave days,” Lawrence Randle adds. “…The way I see it, they come to the poor neighborhood because they know the people don’t have the money to fight back. To me it is more about race. I asked when I went to the meetings why they had to come to our neighborhood, why they had to come to the black neighborhood.”
Wendell Randle, 52, is a truck driver and Lawrence’s brother. He said Fredonia’s proximity to Interstate 40 and the lower economic ability of its residents makes the situation attractive to the powers in state and Haywood County governments.
“I think they feel this area is black and they don’t have the money to stop something as soon as it gets started,” he said. “They looked and saw black folks, and then saw there was a benefit because of the interstate. They don’t care about the people that live here.”
Bredesen administration officials in the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (TECD) appeared to dismiss questions about the use of eminent domain in Fredonia and the megasite. Yet, neither officials with TECD nor those with the Tennessee Department of Transportation would rule out Fredonia’s roads – specifically Thorpe Road and Fredonia Road – being needed to provide access to the megasite.
When asked what were the plans for transportation ingress and egress to the newly approved megasite – noting the closest Interstate exit off 40 is Highway 222, and the quickest way to get to the megasite from there may be from Thorpe Road to Fredonia Road – Drury called the concern “premature.”
“Now that the funding has been approved by both the General Assembly and the State Building Commission, site development and engineering design work can begin on the megasite,” Drury stated. “To speculate that there are limited options for ingress and egress to the site is both incorrect and premature.
When asked if there has been any consideration by ECD that eminent domain measures or right of way purchases beyond the megasite land acquisition might be needed to widen roads – Highway 222, Fredonia Road, Thorpe Road – to accommodate industrial truck traffic, Drury directed the issue to TDOT but continued to call it a “premature question.
A TDOT spokesperson said her department was considering what improvements could be made to the Highway 222/Interstate 40 interchange as part of the project.
“It is too early to speculate what onsite road improvements would be made,” TDOT Spokesperson Julie Oaks said. “We just received approval to move forward with site development and engineering design. We are looking at what improvements could be made to the interchange at I-40 and Highway 222.
“It is too early to know that and I’m not going to speculate on it,” Oaks added on the issue of using eminent domain to widen roads in Fredonia. “On state highway projects TDOT follows a federally approved Right of Way appraisal and acquisition process. The department works very hard with all home and land owners to negotiate a successful purchase of right of way, and in fact, we are successful in that effort at least 80% of the time.”
Some Hard Feelings
In much of the reporting on the battle over the megasite, the issue has been posited as a local partisan fight, and to some extent it has been just that.
For years, Fayette County has been sending Republicans to the Tennessee General Assembly while Haywood County – the physical location of the megasite – has remained under Democratic political control. Bredesen is also a Democrat as are many of the appointees in his administration.
Seemingly at the center of this standoff has been self styled “grassroots organizer” and occasional local GOP political operative Bullwinkel. A resident of Fayette County since 1967, Bullwinkel is far from a professional politico since he works full-time as a data analyst for an insurance company. He has, though, volunteered in a number of hard-fought GOP campaigns, including the effort to elect State Sen. Delores Gresham (R-Somerville). He is also a former employee of the state Republican Party in Massachusetts.
A Bredesen administration official singled out Bullwinkel in responses to Tennessee Watchdog’s questions about the megasite a road infrastructure.
“In the State Building Commission hearing on Tuesday, Haywood County Mayor Franklin Smith testified that as recently as Sunday, September 27, Gary Bullwinkel was telling Fredonia residents that this project would require a four lane highway to be built through the center of the Fredonia community,” Drury stated. “Mr. Bullwinkel has not yet divulged on what evidence he’s basing that conclusion, but there are no plans for such construction associated with this project.”
“I hope you’ll also mention in your report that Mr. Bullwinkel has already filed one lawsuit against Haywood County seeking to stop this project, only to have a judge dismiss it because Bullwinkel was unable to provide evidence of an adverse impact against residents of the Fredonia community,” Drury added.
Bullwinkel said that his concerns about state plans for Fayette County and the surrounding areas date back to when West Tennessee was in the running for a Toyota automotive manufacturing plant in 2006.
“We’re both kind of green type people,” Bullwinkel said of himself and his wife. “I just don’t want a megasite for the urban sprawl aspects and particularly not an auto plant.”
Bullwinkel admits to walking what he called a “fine line” in how he presents the facts as an activist within the cause to fight the megasite. Bullwinkel said he did create and distribute a handbill stating concerns over a “chemical plant” coming to the Haywood County megasite. Bullwinkel pointed to the semi-conductor plant scheduled for another TVA megasite in Clarksville that will produce silicon based products as his jumping off point for the flier.
The effort seemed to work, as most of the Fredonia residents interviewed by Tennessee Watchdog expressed fears that a chemical plant would land on the mega site. To date, the megasite has been identified only with the Bredesen administration’s efforts to recruit green jobs to the state and a nearby 20 acres solar farm.
The megasite has made strange bedfellows politically in Fayette and Haywood Counties. Lawrence Randle notes that he always votes for Democrats, but adds, “It seems like the Republicans who are being more helpful to us here.”
The Next Step
The State Building Commission last month approved over $40 million to buy land for the Haywood County megasite, but Fayette County activists say they are not through.
Bullwinkel said a federal civil rights lawsuit might be in the offing, citing potential violations of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as they pertain to the National Environmental Policy Act. Fredonia residents also expressed their willingness to be litigants in a suit to stop the site.
The concerns were already voiced in advance by one of the state’s foremost environmental activism groups, the Tennessee Clean Water Network in a September 20 op-ed in the Tennessean.
“Due to federal funding guidelines, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is required to be followed,” wrote Renee Victoria Hoyos of the TCNW. “This act says that you must scope out the project before making any concrete plans, that you must consider alternatives, including the ‘no build’ alternative, and that the community must be informed of the project and allowed to comment on it. In our view, NEPA was not followed correctly. It is being done after, not before decision-making. All alternatives were not considered in a public process. It appears that all the decisions have been made about the megasite and the Solar Initiative, and now we are going through the NEPA process to bless what was already decided behind closed doors. This was never the intent of NEPA.
“We know for a fact that one portion of the community was kept out of the loop until the land deals were made: the small, largely black community of Fredonia. They were not told about this project by the state or TVA. They were not given the same opportunity as other landowners to sell their property at three times the current value. They were not told in advance that now they will have both a solar-array farm and a megasite across the road from their church. This is also an environmental justice issue. People of color are once again left to bear the brunt of environmental degradation, this time under the guise of sustainability.
Drury noted that in the last five years of the megasite process, not Title VI complaints have been filed with TECD concerning the project.