Peoplestown community activist Bertha Darden — a former homeowner whose years-long eminent domain battle against the city of Atlanta gained international media attention — has died. Her passing on Monday came about a year after she reluctantly sold her house to the city, a three-bedroom bungalow where she had lived with her family for more than three decades.
Darden was 68. Her family requested that her cause of death not be publicly disclosed.
A devout Christian, Darden became an advocate for the rights of Black homeowners during her legal battle with Atlanta government officials, which started in 2016. The outspoken leader was often heard singing and leading chants during protests and marches in support of Peoplestown homeowners, said Deborah Scott, CEO of Georgia STAND-UP, a social justice nonprofit that worked with the Peoplestown families.
Darden’s activism was recognized bythe Black Women’s Roundtable, an empowerment program created by the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, which gave her a Sistar Leadership award last year.
“She was clear about what her assignment was,” said Scott, who nominated Darden for the award. “She was the heart and the soul of the movement for Peoplestown.”
The city of Atlanta started acquiring homes in the historically Black Peoplestown neighborhood in 2012 to address flooding concerns after heavy rains damaged multiple properties there. The number of houses on Darden’s former block dropped from 27 in 2012 to just four last year.
For years, Darden and the other remaining homeowners resisted city officials’ attempts to acquire their houses. They said engineers hired by their attorneys proved that the city didn’t need their properties to address the flooding threat.
The Peoplestown saga became a narrative symbol for the gentrification issues many Black city residents face. Areas surrounding Peoplestown have seen an influx of white residents since the 2008 mortgage crisis.
The decade-long legal battle took a toll on the families in Peoplestown. The city gave the Dardens a December deadline to move out of the home where they had raised their four children. Darden became ill around the same time, according to her former neighbor Tanya Washington Hicks.
The Dardens then began living with their son David and his wife at the younger couple’s home in Albany, Georgia, Washington Hicks said.
“She was clearly ill, but my understanding was she was on the mend,” Washington Hicks said of Bertha Darden. “I did not know her illness was life-threatening.”
To settle separate eminent domain lawsuits filed against them by the city, the former Peoplestown homeowners — including the Dardens and Washington Hicks — reluctantly agreed about a year ago to sell their homes for an estimated $5.3 million combined.
Sheryl Calhoun, daughter of the late and revered Atlanta activist Mattie Ansley Jackson, was also part of that settlement, begrudgingly agreeing to sell the home she had inherited after her mother died in 2020. Calhoun said she was pressured by city officials despite an agreement between her mom and former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed that had allowed her to stay in her mom’s home.
Washington Hicks, who in December moved into a home in southwest Cascade, said the families’ Peoplestown homes were demolished earlier this year. City officials declined to confirm the fate of the properties.
In a written statement, Mayor Andre Dickens called Darden “candid, fair, and a woman of her word.”
Dickens helped negotiate the city’s settlement with Darden and the other remaining Peoplestown homeowners after telling reporters on the campaign trail that they could keep their homes.
“I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of an Atlanta leader,” Dickens said in the emailed statement. “Mrs. Bertha Darden was a trusted and unifying voice for the Peoplestown community and a source of inspiration for many.”
Neighbors described Darden as a funny, energetic, and kind woman who was extremely passionate about her relationship with God.
Washington Hicks recalled seeing her give a “riveting testimony” about her struggles and her enduring Christian faith at the Hillside International Truth Center, a local church, in February.
“Her name in my phone was ‘Praise the Lord,’ because that was how she answered the phone,” Washington Hicks recalled. “She praised the Lord. She trusted in the Lord. He ordered her steps. She was just a loving, God-expressing woman, no matter what the circumstances were.”
A clip of Darden confronting Reed for allegedly breaking his word about letting her and her husband keep their Peoplestown home made headlines in late 2021 during Reed’s failed effort to become mayor once again.
Calhoun credited Darden with sinking Reed’s bid.
“She’s one to be reckoned with,” Calhoun said of Darden. “You would not want to get her stirred up. The only thing she needed was a little spark.”
Scott, the CEO of Georgia STAND-UP, said she’s not sure if Darden alone turned the tide in Atlanta’s last mayoral race, but said she did give voice to Black women struggling to keep their homes in the city.
“She was able to articulate what she was feeling, and it represented Black women in Atlanta who have lost their homes because basically it was unaffordable,” Scott said.
Darden’s funeral is set for Aug. 26 at 11 a.m. at Bethesda Cathedral in Decatur, according to a flyer provided by her neighbors.
Dickens is scheduled to attend, according to his office.
Atlanta officials have confirmed plans to build a park with a retention pond where the Peoplestown homes used to be. The Peoplestown families have been advocating for that park to be named in Jackson’s honor.
Washington Hicks said she now wants the park to honor Bertha Darden as well.
“It could be a statue. It could be a building. It could be some part of the park named for her,” Washington Hicks said. “It definitely needs to be a significant recognition of the resiliency and strength and love for her community in that space, because that’s what she was fighting for.”
Capital B is a nonprofit news organization dedicated to uncovering important stories — like this one — about how Black people experience America today. As more and more important information disappears behind paywalls, it’s crucial that we keep our journalism accessible and free for all. But we can’t publish pieces like this without your help. If you support our mission, please consider becoming a member by making a tax-deductible donation. Thank you!