The former home of Summerhill and Peoplestown legend Mattie King Ansley Jackson, who died two years ago at the age of 98, is like a museum now — full of pictures and memories that put a smile on the face of her adoring daughter, Sheryl Calhoun.
Calhoun inherited the house in 2020, the year her mother, affectionately known as “The Mayor of Summerhill,” passed away.
“I would sit out here all night long,” Calhoun recalled, standing on her late mother’s porch. “I’d just get my pillow and a blanket on the swing, watch movies until people are gettin’ up and goin’ to work, all night long because it’s comfortable to be out here.”
She gestures toward a memorial banner hanging down from the roof. On it is a picture of her mom carrying an Olympic torch during the 1996 Olympics Games in Atlanta. Another photo shows Jackson posing with her “buddy,” former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. A gold metal plaque honoring Jackson for her 50 years of service to the city is bolted to a brick column.
“If you go to City Hall, they got one of her pictures there,” Calhoun said. “My mom’s done a lot.”
Calhoun and her loved ones have been packing up the house since she and her neighbors — Tanya Washington Hicks, Bertha Darden, and her husband, Robert Darden — reluctantly agreed to sell their Peoplestown homes to the city of Atlanta for a combined total of more than $5.3 million following a years-long eminent domain dispute.
The large settlement figure will be used to pay expensive attorney fees and taxes, as well as court and engineering costs before the families use what’s left to purchase new houses. They’re not sure if they can find comparable homes in similar neighborhoods of the city that they can afford.
How we got here
The issue came to a head in 2012 after heavy rains left multiple properties in Peoplestown flooded. Since then, Atlanta officials have been using eminent domain to force the sale of local homes to address flooding concerns. The number of houses on the block has gone from 27 in 2012 to just four this year.
Mayor Andre Dickens is the third mayor that Calhoun, the Dardens, and the other remaining Peoplestown families have dealt with. The past two mayors met with them at City Hall. Some political observers say Darden’s emotional confrontation with former Mayor Kasim Reed could be one reason behind the latter’s coming in third place during the last mayoral election. Dickens visited the Dardens in January, promising to resolve the issue in his first 100 days in office.
After that deadline passed, residents were left unsure where they stood in the process, leaving them in legal limbo, battling lawsuits and eviction hearings. Eventually, the city plans to demolish the families’ homes to make room for a park that includes a retention pond designed to address neighborhood flooding concerns that the residents still say aren’t justified.
Lawyers working on behalf of Washington Hicks and the Dardens have presented engineering evidence in court showing the city didn’t need their homes to address the flooding issue. But in August, after years of fighting, the families agreed to sell their homes.
Thirty years of memories
Bertha and Robert Darden raised four children in their Peoplestown home, where the couple have lived for more than 30 years. She recalled hosting family reunions and listening to her two youngest grandsons run back and forth through the hallways.
“It was like a track for them,” Bertha Darden said. “They cried [when] they had to leave and go home. And they was only supposed to stay two or three weeks. We kept them the whole summer.”
Finding a comparable new house in Atlanta has been a challenge for the Dardens, who envisioned living out their golden years in Peoplestown.
“The housing market has gone up,” Bertha Darden said. “Houses in this neighborhood has tripled compared to what we would want to buy a house back in this neighborhood. It is really frustrating, but some way, somehow we’re going to make good on what we need to do.”
Washington Hicks, a Georgia State University law professor, said she and her spouse are having similar trouble with their Nov. 30 deadline date approaching rapidly.
“We are actively looking for housing in a very dynamic housing market,” she said. “I’m in the middle of my semester. My son is in school. My husband is working. It’s stressful.”
Before the year ends, the contents of the Jackson house will be removed, something its late owner spent nearly a decade fighting to avoid before passing away. Her daughter has been struggling to accept things as they are while mourning the loss of her husband, who was fatally shot by police in March.
“Had it not been for that incident in my life, I promise you I would have continued to fight,” Calhoun said. “My mom started this fight with Tanya and Ms. Darden. I promised her that I was not going to lose her home. In a way, I feel that I didn’t hold that promise to her because the home is gone. But my mom is gone. So I feel that I did everything [I could] as a daughter while she was alive.”
Calhoun and the Dardens plan to move out of their Peoplestown homes in December. They expect the city to take control of both properties by the end of the year. Peoplestown resident Dwayne Adgar, who reached his own settlement deal with the city earlier this year, declined to comment on his future plans.
During an Oct. 10 neighborhood visit from Capital B Atlanta, the three other families expressed sadness that they weren’t able to keep their homes the way Dickens said they could on the campaign trail nearly a year ago.
“I have spent this year listening to Peoplestown residents, working directly with the most-impacted families, and charting a course that will allow us to move forward in a way that is in line with our values and fulfills our obligation to alleviate the challenges that have plagued Peoplestown,” Dickens said in August after announcing the city had reached deals with the residents. “I know these families wanted to stay in their homes, and I am grateful for the sacrifice they are making for the larger community and our city.”
At the advice of their attorneys, the Peoplestown families have avoided speaking to the media since an eminent domain eviction hearing was postponed in June, fearing their words may negatively impact their negotiations with the city.
“I’m grateful for the respect that Mayor Dickens showed us, particularly in comparison to the previous two mayors,” Washington Hicks said. “However, this fight has always been about us staying in our homes. And so we are disappointed that we don’t get to stay. And we are grieving.”
What’s in a name?
The legacy residents hope the city will consider naming the new park after Mattie Jackson.
It’s unclear how that process will shake out. Calhoun said Dickens initially “didn’t see a problem” with the future park being named after her mother, but she said her attorney informed her later that the matter would be voted on by the Neighborhood Planning Unit before a formal decision is reached.
Calhoun said Dickens told her he would advocate for the park to be named after Jackson. The mayor’s office has suggested that the NPU vote is a formality.
“Discussions are ongoing; however, the process of naming the park after Ms. Mattie Jackson is moving forward,” a spokesperson for the mayor said via text message, declining to comment further.
NPU-V includes Peoplestown. Chairperson Stephanie Flowers wasn’t aware of the future park-naming discussions when Capital B Atlanta contacted her for this story. She said the Peoplestown eminent-domain saga has been a subject of disagreement during past NPU meetings.
“Everybody has their own opinion about the whole situation,” Flowers said. “People could say they think that other people are more worthy of having the park named after them. I just can’t say. I don’t know.”
Columbus Ward Jr. is the leader of the Peoplestown Revitalization Corporation, a community development organization created to engage and empower long-term residents of the neighborhood. He voiced his support for naming the park after Jackson.
“That’s a good idea,” he said. “I know we need to do something to honor Ms. Jackson. I don’t have no problem with it.”
Donald Shockey is the president of the Peoplestown Neighborhood Association, one of several such groups tasked with telling NPU-V what the local community wants.
Shockey said the association’s members haven’t discussed the naming of the future park, but he is “1,000% certain” the neighborhood’s newer residents would defer to the older ones on choosing a name.
“They’re the ones who should decide the name, and I think it’s completely fitting if they’ve agreed that Mattie Jackson is the one to be honored,” Shockey said. “It’s a fantastic idea and I think the neighborhood will support that 1,000%.
When the neighborhood’s new park is built, which could take years, Calhoun and her neighbors hope blessing the greenspace with Jackson’s namesake will preserve the storied matriarch’s legacy and ensure the historically Black Peoplestown and Summerhill neighborhoods aren’t forgotten.
“People were here who built legacies and families,” Washington Hicks said. “If there’s nothing to mark that we were here, it’s as if it never happened.”