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Outside of Atlanta, Black families are buying land to create a safe haven

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Just under 9,000 people live in Wilkinson County. Two hours southeast of Atlanta, it's one of those places - almost that cliche of small-town America.

TIARA THOMAS: All of us pretty much know each other around here. So, you know, we...

FADEL: I noticed that. I feel like everybody's saying hello and hugging, and (laughter)...

THOMAS: Oh, yeah, we are - we know everybody. Everybody know each other. It's just like - everybody hugging. Everybody hollering.

FADEL: Everybody hugging. Everybody hollering. That's Tiara Thomas, taking a break outside the only gas station in the county seat, Irwinton. It's where she works, and it's one of the few places in town to gather, other than the dollar store across the street. At the gas pump, people catch up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's good to see you, Miss Joanne.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hey, bud.

FADEL: Wilkinson County is also the place that Ashley Scott's family and 18 other Black families - they live in the metro Atlanta area - chose to buy a plot of land to eventually build a new city, the city of Freedom. The land lies a few miles away, just outside the town of Toomsboro.

ASHLEY SCOTT: I came down to Toomsboro after the whole unrest and the pandemic and George Floyd being murdered and Ahmaud Arbery being murdered and then feeling really just like, where do we go from here? - and kind of depressed in a way, to the point where I actually was even seeing a Black psychologist.

FADEL: Scott and I walk up the hill of the about 97 acres the families purchased last year. She and a close friend from church, Renee Walters, were feeling that same sense of depression and urgency, both professional Black women raising Black children in a country where it can be really dangerous to be a Black person.

So when Walters saw online that a whole town was for sale outside of Atlanta, Scott, a real estate agent, went to check it out. Turns out the town of Toomsboro was not for sale, but hundreds of acres of land was. And so they bought some. The vision - a safe haven for Black families.

SCOTT: It's really a act of rebellion, (laughter) for lack of a better word...

FADEL: An act of rebellion.

SCOTT: ...To say that we can choose and self-determine for ourselves the kinds of communities we deserve and desire and choose elected officials and people who are connected to the community from the ground up from the very beginning. There's nothing here.

FADEL: Nothing here - a fresh start. The families co-founded and created the Freedom Georgia Initiative. From the clearing at the top of the hill, for miles, all you see are shades of green.

SCOTT: We're looking over some valleys, hills and tree ridges. It's very green and full of life because of the creek that goes through.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That's a spot. Now, that's a spot.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That's like...

FADEL: It's a Saturday. A few of the families play music and sing along as they clean out a 40-foot storage container where they store supplies for camping and events.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Singing) I'm searching for a real love.

FADEL: Amber Payne sweeps the empty container clean before they start putting things back.

AMBER PAYNE: I envision a future for Black people - not just us, but for Black people - like, just to be a model and then just to change the whole country kind of.

FADEL: After Payne's done, her husband checks the ATVs, and we stand by the bonfire in the clearing where the families plan to build forever homes. We look out at the land below where she hopes to see a future city of Freedom. The plan is to farm the land, build a ranch, shops, recreation and healing centers, multi-family homes. They want to bring employment to this county that's about 36% Black and 57% white and where nearly a fifth of people live in poverty. They also want to become a food source for the county and welcome other Black people from around the country to visit or live and heal from racial trauma.

So when you hear Freedom, Ga., what does that mean to you?

SCOTT: A place to be free. Like, I don't - I just envision Black people, a Black town, just living. Like, living the best possible lives that we can get (laughter).

FADEL: Yeah.

Since that first purchase, the initiative has bought 404 more acres that they'll develop in phases. They have 11 plots of land for sale for other Black people and organizations that want to be part of Freedom. And they need a lot of money to make Freedom a reality. They're fundraising and partnering with Black organizations to get there.

Now, historically, Black communities have been destroyed by racist policies - redlining, racial covenants, highways built to isolate and cut them off from resources. And the idea of building a safe haven for economic empowerment, it's not new - from Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Okla., destroyed by a white mob in the Tulsa massacre to Soul City in North Carolina, a city built for African Americans with support from the Nixon administration that ultimately failed, and now Freedom. Its founders want to learn from past successes and failures.

To figure out how to be profitable as farmers and ranchers, they're consulting with a well-known Black farmer in Georgia.

WAYNE SWANSON: My name is Wayne Swanson. I am the owner-operator of Swanson Family Farm.

FADEL: We meet at a rest stop an hour from the land. Swanson comes from a long line of landowning Black farmers. With the Freedom Georgia Initiative...

SWANSON: I'm the ag guy. So what I'm doing is teaching them how to regenerate soil.

FADEL: The goal - turn a profit within five years while bringing jobs and investment to a mixed-race county that needs both.

SWANSON: We're just being honest. It's America. Not everyone is interested in going into a Black county and providing jobs and services. It's just - they're going to say the numbers aren't there when we're the biggest consumers of everything.

FADEL: He says if it works, it could be a blueprint for other rural counties with large Black communities, from Mississippi up to the Carolinas that have suffered from disinvestment.

SWANSON: If we now have the gravitas, if we now have the expertise, if we have the training, we can do it ourselves. And that does not mean we want to be isolationists. That doesn't mean that we don't partner well with other people. It just means it's time. That's where we saw success. We saw success in starting and operating on our own.

FADEL: That is the goal of the families he's consulting. And, yes, there were a few people in the county who raised concerns at city folks coming into rural Georgia with a project to build a Black city. Dennis Stroud is the county manager.

DENNIS STROUD: For a small town, that became a little hiccup because it sounded like separatism. And that's what we didn't want. But I think the more people understand about the initiative and what they're trying to achieve, I think that has been squashed a lot.

FADEL: What were some of the concerns at the beginning?

STROUD: Well, I think, just to name, it sounded like they were - the community was only being built for a certain demographic. And what we were looking for is to be incorporated into this county so that we can all grow. And I think once the group understood that and then once the county understood that this group is not coming in to be some sort of - just behind the walls by themselves, but they want to be members of this county. And I think once everybody understood that, everything went away.

FADEL: Now, he says, it's excitement.

SWANSON: This group has really came to us with some real positive ideas. So Wilkinson County actually has welcomed them here because we believe that they will increase the tax base here. And certainly, we want them. We want to grow this county.

FADEL: A larger tax base means more resources. Down the road from Stroud's office is that gas station in the center of town. Beverly Clark is a retired white schoolteacher.

BEVERLY CLARK: I think it's great. I think it will be wonderful. I really do. I mean, we need a decent grocery store in this county. And if that's what it takes, we'd love to have that town started.

FADEL: Willy Juhan Sr. is 82, also retired.

WILLY JUHAN: I think that's real nice (laughter). I do.

FADEL: But this isn't a county free from the racist history that defines the United States. Juhan still remembers when Black people like him were relegated to one side of town. And he remembers the lynching of Caleb Hill Jr. when he was 10. Some of his memories are different than historical records, but what isn't in dispute is that a Black man was put in the local jail and...

JUHAN: Sometime that night or day, they took him out of that jail and lynched him.

FADEL: The two white men charged never stood trial.

JUHAN: Ain't nobody talk about it, so you might want to keep it kind of quiet.

FADEL: That was more than 70 years ago. But we're chatting as the three white men who killed Ahmaud Arbery stand trial for his murder just three hours away. Juhan sees this as a modern-day lynching.

JUHAN: It hadn't changed that much from what happened. It's all changed the way they do it. It's like that guy took that shotgun and shot that Black guy. But he had no evidence that he'd done anything wrong. No evidence, nothing was stole. So he had to shoot him just because he was Black.

FADEL: And that's why Ashley Scott's family and the 18 others purchased this land.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEAVES RUSTLING)

FADEL: She takes me on a tour of the rest of the property and talks more about her dreams for Freedom - a bed and breakfast, pecan and blueberry farms, horse trails.

SCOTT: I feel like a pioneer (laughter). I very much feel like I'm helping to create and establish a place that will honor our ancestors and their tenacity to build a community for themselves when there were not places where they felt welcome and safe. And so when you feel that way, instead of bowing down and bowing out, I feel like we have to build something for ourselves and empower ourselves to have the spaces that we deserve.

FADEL: She says nobody else is going to build it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHARON VAN ETTEN SONG, "JUST LIKE BLOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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