Gwinnett backs off eminent domain plan for ‘Promised Land’

The Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners on Friday backed off a plan to acquire 10 acres of historic land from the Livsey family through eminent domain.

The board had planned to take up a resolution April 25 to exercise eminent domain, the government’s power to forcibly acquire private land for public purposes. The proposal was met with swift backlash from the Livsey family and members of the community surrounding “The Promised Land,” a former slave-worked plantation at Gwinnett’s southern tip that Thomas Livsey Sr. played an instrumental role in transforming into a thriving Black community.

“We appreciate and understand the reactions brought forth by members of the Livsey family and the community regarding the legal notice of the potential use of eminent domain by the county to acquire properties owned by Thomas Livsey Sr. and his wife,” the board said in a statement. “We want to emphasize that while no decision has been made, we are not in favor of any legal process that hinders the legacy or wishes of the Livsey family.”

In their statement, commissioners said they would work with Thomas Livsey Sr., 92, and his family to reach a decision about the future use of the 10 acres in question.

“We need time to regroup, but we are delighted with that information right now,” said Sheryl Livsey, 66, daughter of Thomas Livsey Sr. and his wife, Dorethia. “It’s going to be a great Easter.”

The county last week notified the Livsey family of plans to take the property for its appraised value of $710,000.

“I just can’t even imagine them even considering to take the land of our people,” Sheryl Livsey told the AJC in an interview before the board’s announcement. “There are not very many African-Americans that have the legacy that we have, and that have been able to hold on to their land, as my father has.”

Thomas Sr.’s father bought 100 acres of the former plantation in the 1920s, an especially notable achievement for a Black man in the South at the time.

Gwinnett County plans to develop the land into a park to highlight the area’s history. The county since 2017 has bought about 4.5 acres from the Livsey family through negotiations for $462,000, said District 2 Commissioner Ben Ku, who represents the area. The purchases include a former plantation house the county plans to turn into a museum.

The county has been negotiating with the family since 2019 for two remaining properties required for the park, but talks have been difficult, Ku said. The properties include 7.7 acres encompassing Lake Sheryl, which Thomas Livsey Sr. created about 50 years ago and named for his daughter. Another 2.7-acre property contains four apartments, Ku said.

The lake property was recently appraised at $250,000 and the apartment property at $460,000, Ku said.

“They don’t want to sell the land at any price,” Sheryl Livsey said of her parents. She declined to make them available for an interview, saying the family was unified in its position and she was acting as a spokesperson for the family.

Dorethia Livsey is now 86. She and Thomas Livsey Sr. had five children, three of whom are surviving, said Sheryl Livsey.

Thomas Livsey Sr. and Dorethia live on Anderson Livsey Lane, across Lee Road from the old plantation house and proposed park site. Some of the family, including Sheryl Livsey, live on the eastern shore of Lake Sheryl, with the lake in their backyard.

Sheryl Livsey said her nephew, Chad, had asked the county not to negotiate further with her father without involving more of the family, citing Thomas Livsey Sr.’s age and health.

Plans for the 10 acres include a trail around the lake, an orchard or vegetable garden, an event pavilion with a restroom and an interpretive pasture area, according to a 2018 concept from Lawrenceville-based Lose Design.

Outbuildings — including a barn, shop, stable, brick kiln, gin house and syrup mill — would be recreated there using information from historical texts, according to the plan. Pathways through the site would be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The lake might need to be modified for stormwater management, the plan says.

“If we want to do the grand vision of that park, we need the lake property as part of that,” Ku said. “I know that the neighbors have had a lot of questions about the restoration of the house. Part of the reason that has been held up is we’re trying to figure out if we’re going to be able to go ahead and do the park project or not, because that has always been part of the larger park plan.”

Irish immigrant and slaveholder Thomas Maguire fell in love with the area in the early 1800s and named it “The Promised Land.” He eventually came to own 1,000 acres in the shadow of Stone Mountain, with the Yellow River running through it.

The name took on a different meaning about 100 years later, when descendants of slaves started buying up some of the land. The Livsey family grew cotton, corn and fruit trees and made syrup there.

Under segregation, The Promised Land contained the only school for Black children between DeKalb County and Lawrenceville.

In the 1930s, Thomas Anderson, the son of slaves, and his wife opened the first Black-owned grocery store in the area at The Promised Land. Thomas Livsey Sr. ended up building 14 homes and businesses including a barbershop, gas station, car wash, laundromat and restaurant.

County officials said five years ago that plans to present the history of the site would focus predominantly on the Livsey era. Family and friends call the area “Livseyville” and refer to Thomas Livsey Sr. as the mayor.

“It’s not about money,” Sheryl Livsey said. “It’s about our heritage.”

Our Reporting

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Wednesday that the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners would consider a resolution to acquire some of the historic ‘Promised Land’ property from Thomas Livsey Sr. and Dorethia Livsey through eminent domain. After the family voiced its opposition to the AJC, other media outlets and social media, the board changed course Friday, saying it would not consider the resolution this month and would instead work with the Livsey family to determine the property’s future.