CAGLE MOUNTAIN, Tenn. — The Jenkins family is like many of their neighbors in Sequatchie County: They’re retired; they served in the U.S. armed forces; they moved from out of state to the Sequatchie Valley to enjoy a quiet life.
But because of their differences, the Jenkinses say they feel they have become the target of racial terrorism since moving to Cagle Mountain in 2005 — they’re black, American-born Muslims from California who are new to the rural South, where blacks sometimes are still called “colored.”
Va’Lory Jenkins, 58, said she can’t understand why her family is drawing abuse from the community, most recently with vandals using what seems to be a sledgehammer to destroy their brick-based mailbox over the course of two nights.
But she said there also has been a note in their mailbox and shouted epithets from passers-by, both of which centered on the n-word.
“We relocated here from the Middle East back in 2004 after serving three years in the Middle East,” Jenkins said. “We happen to be black veterans, and both my husband and I happen to be American-born Muslims.
“These people in this mountain area up here seem to resent the fact that we’re minorities and don’t want us here,” she said. “But I will live any place my money can buy. That’s the American dream, and that’s what I’m doing.”
Sequatchie County Sheriff Ronnie Hitchcock, though, says the mailbox incident more likely was the random act of some local youths rather than a racially motivated act of violence aimed at the Jenkinses.
The Jenkins family's mailbox, where they live on Cagle Mountain in western Sequatchie County, has been the target of vandals for two weekends in a row. On Aug. 5, vandals knocked much of the top of the structure to pieces and this past weekend finished the job by knocking the heavy brick base over the pitching the metal strongbox it held into the woods.
Hitchcock said the Jenkinses have complained a number of times about someone using firearms near their house, trespassing, hunters, ATV riders and other activities the Jenkinses felt shouldn’t be happening in the Cagle Mountain community. He said others have complained about the Jenkins family.
“We have a file about an inch thick,” he said.
The file contains two police reports from 2007 in which Jenkins complained about trespassers riding ATVs across her property and people shooting fireworks nearby. It also contains letters from nearby residents and a person who went to the remote mountaintop area to photograph some property and encountered Jenkins.
Jenkins said the destruction of the mailbox property prompted her to call not only local law enforcement, but the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. TBI officials say the agency has not yet been asked by the district attorney to launch an investigation, a necessary step.
The first time her mailbox was targeted, on the night of July 30, the vandals took about half of it down, she said. When she called Sequatchie authorities about it, Jenkins said the responding deputy told her the incident was isolated.
She noted that there are four mailboxes standing side by side at the end of the private road where she and her husband live, but “only ours was destroyed.”
“It’s got to be racially motivated, because they don’t do it to anybody else,” she said. “They’ve pinpointed me and my family. There’s always a problem with the people up here. They’re vandalizing my mailbox. What’s the next thing they’re going to do? Vandalize my house? Or enter my property and do other damage?”
Over the weekend, the file at the sheriff’s office got a little thicker.
Sometime overnight Saturday, someone finished destroying the mailbox, Jenkins said Monday. What was left of the heavy brick structure was flipped over and the metal strong box that acted as the mailbox itself was tossed into the woods.
The other mailboxes were untouched.
Jenkins said she called authorities to file a report, but only one deputy was on duty and he said he would respond by noon. When she called again, he said he was too tied up with the World’s Longest Yard Sale to come, she said.
He gave Jenkins a report number and his badge number, and officials promised to have the report in paper form when the officer returned to duty Wednesday, she said.
Jenkins said she feels ignored.
Hitchcock said he simply doesn’t have the staff on weekends or any other day to keep someone in the area at all times. Sequatchie is staffed with eight road officers, three detectives, the sheriff, chief deputy and two school resource officers to handle an average of 300 calls a month, he said.
“I wish I had the luxury to put an officer in every district in the county,” he said Monday. “I have to fight to keep the eight deputies and three detectives I have.”
Hitchcock said several mailboxes were vandalized in various areas of the county over last weekend and the weekend of July 30 and there was nothing indicating that the damage to Jenkins’ mailbox was racially motivated. He said none of the other vandalism victims were black.
Hitchcock said the Jenkins family gets the same level of law enforcement provided to everyone.
“We’re going to protect her just like we’re supposed to do,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what race you are, what religion you are. We take an oath to uphold the law.”
HISTORY OF PROBLEMS
The family has had continuing problems with their neighbors since completing their home in 2005, Jenkins contends. The sheriff’s file also contains Jenkins’ complaints in 2007 about the department’s response when she reported that two youths were riding ATVs past the house “yelling ‘n——, n——.’”
The file does not contain a report, the sheriff says, because no youths or ATVs were found when officers searched the area.
In 2005, Jenkins said a note reading “Get out, n——” was stuffed into the family’s mailbox. She told TBI officials about the note, she said, but no investigation was launched.
But other letters in the sheriff’s file are directed at Jenkins.
In a 2006 letter from Kay M. Turner, a subcontractor for the developer of the land where Jenkins lives, Turner states that she was taking photographs of lots and talking to perspective buyers when Jenkins approached, armed with a long-barreled weapon and “yelling that we were trespassing and didn’t need to be there.”
“As she neared with the weapon now at her side, I took the picture you now have,” Turner states in the letter to the sheriff, which contained a photograph of Jenkins with a rifle at her side.
Jenkins responded to the development company in June 2008 with a letter saying that she would seek charges against any of the developer’s employees who trespassed on her property if they did not desist, warning that “they are playing a very dangerous game with me and my family. I don’t mind accommodating their interest with deadly resistance.”
Another neighbor, Robert Belcher, wrote a letter to the sheriff in 2007 describing an incident in which he was entertaining visitors at a bonfire and shooting fireworks on his property when the local constable and a deputy arrived to say there had been a complaint about people shooting and running around on ATVs. Belcher stated that his friends that year came in cars by the main road because in 2006 Jenkins allegedly fired a shot toward them “even though we were on the road and nowhere near her property.”
Another resident, Richard Patenaude, also alleged that on July 3, 2007, his family was shooting off fireworks when at least three gunshots were fired in his direction from the Jenkins property.
On Monday, Jenkins denied shooting at anyone over fireworks, and said she simply confronted people who were walking across her property, at least in the case of the salesperson who was taking photographs as she was target practicing with her rifle.
“I fired off a warning shot, and said, “Where are you going?’” Jenkins said Monday of the encounter with the photographer.
A NEIGHBOR’S VIEW
Denise Holder and her husband are the Jenkinses’ next-door neighbors. They have been both friendly and at odds with the Jenkinses over the years, but Holder and Jenkins talk frequently, both women said.
Holder, 48, said she believes the Jenkins family was targeted by the mailbox vandalism because Jenkins has made enemies in the community with aggressive behavior.
“I think it’s probably mainly racial and her making some people mad,” Holder said. “If you don’t have nothing nice to say, then don’t say nothing at all. She doesn’t do that.”
Holder said she hoped the vandals leave the Jenkinses alone so the community and the Jenkins family can calm down, and so the vandalism incidents don’t leave a black eye for the whole area.
“Cagle Mountain is not doing this. Sequatchie County isn’t doing this,” she said. “I’ve never heard anybody say they [the Jenkinses] weren’t welcome.”
Many people from other areas of the country are making their homes on Cagle Mountain, and they all should understand that longtime residents are resistant to change, Holder said.
“If they come to Cagle Mountain, people will accept them. But you don’t go in and try to change everybody’s way of life,” she said. “The people that live here didn’t change it for a reason. They like it.”
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...