In this essay, based on a talk delivered to the 2018 fellowship class of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) at Penn Center in St. Helena Island, South Carolina last month, Dr. Shirley Sherrod discusses the struggle in the South for civil rights and the land—and the rise and fall and rebirth of New Communities, the country’s first community land trust.
Sherrod, a civil rights activist for over a half-century, is also a former USDA Rural Development director for the state of Georgia. In 1969, she and her husband, Charles Sherrod, help found New Communities. In 1999, they joined the class action plaintiffs in the lawsuit Pigford v. Glickman. In 2010, Sherrod was wrongfully dismissed from USDA. In 2012, with Catherine Whitney, she authored a biography of her life, The Courage to Hope: How I Stood Up to the Politics of Fear.
Growing Up in Baker County, Georgia
I grew up in a community of all Black people and all land owners. Picking cotton. We lived in southwest Georgia in Baker County. The county seat was Newton. The sheriff, a Mr. Screws, lynched a relative of mine. That murder happened on January 29, 1943. A white federal grand jury convicted him of depriving Bob Hall (his name was actually Robert Hall) of his civil rights—not of murder. No one in Georgia was going to try him on that charge. The sheriff appealed his conviction all the way to the US Supreme Court, where his conviction was overturned. You see, according to the Supreme Court, in order to convict Mr. Screws of denying Mr. Hall of his civil rights, you had to prove that, as he was murdering Mr. Hall, he was thinking of depriving Bob of his civil rights. [Ed. note: Mr. Claude Screws, after being acquitted, would later be elected to serve in the Georgia State Senate].
Growing up in Baker County, all I wanted was out. Away from the farm and out of the system. My parents had girls. They kept having girls—five girls while trying to have a boy. We all had boys’ nicknames. I was Bill. In high school, my dad convinced my mother to try to have a boy one more time. My father didn’t live to see my younger brother’s birth. He was murdered by a white farmer who was never prosecuted even though there were witnesses on March 25, 1965.
It was then that I made a commitment to stay in the South to work for change. As the oldest, I felt I had to do something. My mother was seven months pregnant.
My daddy tried to teach us to shoot a gun one day, and when he put the gun in my hand, all I could do is cry. So, I could not think of getting a gun to kill the man who killed my father. Guns were not for me. But I gave up my dream of leaving the South and decided that I would live my life dedicated to making the South change. This was in March 1965; I graduated high school in June. Prior to my father’s death we had decided we would not give him our father’s name. But once he was born, we decided he would be Hosea Miller, Jr.
The sheriff in Baker County was known as the Gator, and he ruled his county. He had a speed trap set up; in 1967, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution estimated his take on the road to be $150,000. He killed a number of Black people. He just ruled everyone.
Among the largest landowners were some of the wealthiest people in Georgia. Robert Woodruff, who was chair of Coca-Cola, had 33,000 acres (51.5 square miles). The Pineland plantation, which was owned by the Mellons, had 25,000 acres (39 square miles). There were all of these rich people living outside of the area but owning land there—allowing the Gator to do what he wanted to do.
A Lifelong Partnership
We started the civil rights movement in our rural Georgia community with the help of Charles Sherrod and others from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I got deeply involved in that effort. At one point during that summer, we went to Washington to testify at a hearing about conditions in Baker County. Our caravan left from a mass meeting in the county. Our normal route would have taken us north from the church, but to avoid the Gator, we went south into another county then traveled north to get to Washington. After hearing about the hearings, the Gator said if he had known, we would not have made it to Washington.
Soon afterward, I married Charles Sherrod, who was one of the founding members of SNCC and SNCC’s first Field Secretary. Then my civil rights work stretched, not just in Baker County but throughout southwest Georgia.
Building a New Community
People would be kicked off the land owned by white farmers. We could have a mass meeting and the family would show up. Now we had to find a place for them to live and work. It was then that this whole idea of trying to create a community to buy land surfaced. During the summer of 1968, my husband and seven others went to Israel to study the kibbutz. Kids were raised communally in the kibbutz. That is not going to work in the south. But we used the information gathered to create New Communities Inc., the first community land trust in the US. That was 1969.
We were able to put an option on 5,735 acres—6,000 more or less. We had a one-year option. During that time, Nixon was president. The US Office of Economic Opportunity was still operating and we received a planning grant to plan this community. We had a one-year planning grant. We had two-and-a-half miles of frontage on US Highway 19. A railroad that went through with a spur on the land. We had to hire a consultant firm—McClary & Associates—that was friendly with the Nixon administration. That is what you had to do. We didn’t play the game with the Ford Foundation and that is why we didn’t get any money from them.
And we had charrettes. Being so young at the time, I didn’t think people would fight you when you were trying to build. But the shots would come at some of the buildings with us in them at times.
The political people started working to make sure no other money would come to us. That plan called for three villages, with residents having long-term renewable leases.
No one ever asked about the things we put together to work with each other. The big house. It was a three-bedroom ranch house. To us, it was a big house. They assumed my husband and I would live in that house. No way. We would work together on the farm. When the year was up, Lester Maddox was the governor of Georgia. He vetoed all federal money coming into the state for our project. Effectively, he was trying to kill us.
But we were not giving up easily. We faced foreclosure for a couple of years, but finally got some better financing in 1973. We were farming 2,000 acres of it. We had cattle. We had a farmer’s market on Highway US 19. We did cured meats. We built an old-fashioned smokehouse. We had sugar cane and a syrup making operation. We had a huge greenhouse too, where we were growing plants and eight acres of muscadine grapes, right on Highway 19.
We would have problems with liquid fertilizer—they didn’t deliver what we purchased. Extension was so racist. They could have helped us prove what happened, but they wouldn’t lift a finger. This forced us to pull a sample from every truck to have it analyzed. We hired a person who had worked as an extension agent—back when you had separate extension agents—black extension agents who could only work with Black farmers. He had so much knowledge.
We couldn’t build the houses. The whole goal back then was to have a long-term renewable lease. One of the ways we would lose land is that people would mortgage land for consumer goods, such as TVs. They would be told by white people that you don’t want to do that—nothing would be yours (meaning the long-term renewable leases). We were battling with all of that—working with people. We had 500 families that wanted to move in, but because everything was blocked, we couldn’t build the houses.
We had committees that dealt with each part of the farm. Industry committees: making decisions of where industry would be located and of course those villages. The farm committee could operate. The others couldn’t operate because of lack of resources. The farm committee met every Monday night. You could always question anything at the farm committee meetings on Monday nights. Of course, the farm manager didn’t always like it.
In 1976, we had a drought. This was followed by a second year of drought in 1977. We ended up having to look to disaster programs. Our farm manager and Charles went to the Farmers Home Administration office to try to get an application. The county supervisor said, “You will get a loan here over my own dead body.”
By then, however, Jimmy Carter was president, so we contacted the national office of Farmers Home. They sent three people to go with us to get an application. But they should have stayed to help us through the process. We got the application, but then the big fight started.
It took three years with continued droughts. With the size of operation that we had, it was too long to go. And then, if you needed $500,000, you could only get $200,000. If you needed irrigation, that is denied. You applied in December for operating loans and, if you got it at all, it was the next June or July. We experienced every one of the tactics used to disadvantage black farmers.
We later learned that nearby Senah Plantation, they got a loan. Rich guys were getting the loans that were denied to us. We didn’t know that at the time.
With Farmers Home, we had to give them a lien on all available assets. Once they got that lien, they could pull their tricks to make sure you were not successful and then engineer foreclosure.
We lost everything in 1985. We had assets of almost $5 million. They allowed a rich guy in Atlanta named Williams to buy it at $1 million and let him borrow $950,000 of that million. He dug holes and pushed all of our building into them and got rid of every trace of us.
At that point, I started working with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (Federation), organizing cooperatives in southwest Georgia. I realized early on that on your own, you’re not going to make it. You have to work cooperatively.
The first cooperative I organized was in Baker County, my home county. The farmers wanted to start a feeder-pig project and in order to receive hogs from the Heifer Project, they had to agree to start training. They insisted that they knew how to raise hogs and did not need training. The hogs arrived and the initial hogs went to three different farms. The very next day, a representative from the Heifer Project came to tout the farms to see where the hogs were placed. At each farm, the conditions were awful. The Heifer Project representative pulled me aside to say there were some serious problems. I said to him—let me tell you what is wrong here. I said give me a chance. I tried calling a University of Georgia extension agent. He wouldn’t even talk to me. I grew up on a farm and had helped my father with raising hogs and I had received lot of training from our farm manager at New Communities from the farm manager we had. I started teaching the course, and at the end of the first class the farmers said, “You know how to raise hogs.” I didn’t have any more trouble. That was the first co-op I organized.
The second one was in Brooks, in Thomas County, on the Florida/Georgia state line. There is a state farmers’ market there that is an auction market. Black farmers were not treated fairly at the market. If their produce was purchased, they got much less than white farmers received. They knew this because they sometimes got white guys to sell the same produce for them and got a better price. Larry O’Neal, one of the farmers, was growing 20 acres of turnip greens. He let the white farmer pay him $1 a box—for all of the boxes he sold because buyers wouldn’t buy directly from him.
So, we started organizing the co-op. No black farmer had been able to get a stall with refrigeration at the state farmers’ market. Tommy Ervin, who would serve 42 years as agriculture secretary in Georgia—finally got one of the black farmers a stall with the farmers’ market.
Another guy arranged to make some sales in Atlanta for the co-op. The co-op eventually worked with Red Tomato to Boston to grow and sell seedless watermelons. The co-op shipped seedless watermelon from Boston, Georgia to Boston, Massachusetts.
I also organized some pecan growers to sell to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. As we tried to locate a company to contract processing for the group, everyone turned us down. Everywhere we went, they would say, “Tell you what we will do. We will buy the pecans from black farmers. We will sell them to Ben and Jerry’s and they can say they have pecans from Black farmers in their ice cream.”
We paid market price plus a premium price. Each year, we would negotiate the premium of 25-30 cents. We advise farmers to save half of that premium to acquire their own processing plant in 1997.
Working cooperatively is the way these guys have to work. They don’t want to take care of the business of the co-op. They just want to grow. But they get taken advantage of as a result.
Suing the Government
All of the work that we were doing at the Federation from Texas to North Carolina, it wasn’t stopping the trend of black land loss. The main culprit was US Department of Agriculture. At one point, the US Commission of Civil Rights said if trends continued, by 2000 there would be no black owned land.
We did a test case we did early on prior to Pigford that actually set the stage for the Pigford case. Then Pigford happened. The government offered to settle and finally the decision was made to settle. There were two classes: Class A required less documentation for a farmer to get debt written off and be paid $50,000. The lawyers made it sound so easy. Too many fell for that. But it didn’t work that way. What happened in the end, they made it so difficult: the settlement was supposed to include on top of the $50,000 settlement, $12,500 to cover the tax bill, but it turned out that $12,500 was taxable too.
To prove discrimination in Class A, you had to find a similarly situated white farmer who got a loan for which you were denied. Farmers didn’t know the details of white farmers’ operations and this became a hindrance to having a successful claim. For the lawyers: it was easy for them to do class A. They tried to push everyone into A.
With Class B, you had to have more evidence of discrimination, but you had your day in court. There were nearly 23,000 cases in class A, but only 180 in class B.
I was working on these cases for the Federation helping farmers with identifying information and lawyers needed to file a claim. You had only six months to file a claim, and farmers had to depend on organizations like the Federation to hear about the lawsuit and to get help with locating a lawyer dealing with the case—and they needed help with locating the information the lawyers needed.
To file a claim, you had to have experienced discrimination between 1981 and 1996. I was driving from Alabama to Albany where I live after working with farmers during the day when suddenly the light bulb went off in my head. We were farming during that time! I almost forgot our loss at New Communities. We did file before the deadline date of October 13, 1999.
Nothing comes easy. We had a hearing in 2002—the lawyer for the US Justice Dept. seemed so stupid; two years later she was arrested in California because they had discovered she was not a lawyer. But a decade after we filed, on July 8, 2009, we received a call from our lawyer that said we had won.
I wasn’t sure, however, what “winning” meant. I asked our attorney cautiously, “Is it at least a million dollars?”
“No, it is $12 million,” she said.
Building a New Community Again
We started immediately planning. We were looking for more land to try to continue with the dream. We couldn’t get 6,000 acres and we didn’t want to be in Lee County. In those days, it was 70 percent black, now it is 15 percent black and only one or two black farmers are left. The county line now goes to the city limits of Albany. Albany itself is 77 percent black. But whites still try to control everything that happens there.
One of the young guys who grew up on the 6,000 acres now works at FedEx. He told us about a place that was on the market. When the previous owner died in 2008, they put it on the market for $21 million. When we looked at it, they had dropped it to $6.9 million.
“Just put an offer on it,” we were advised. My husband who was part of the group looking at the place said, “ask if they will take $5 million.” The next day they said they would take $5 million.
So, we got busy. On the property was an antebellum house with 13,000 square feet. The previous owner had put $3 million into restoring and adding an addition on the Antebellum house. There are cabins, a lake. It’s a prime piece of property. Property line comes up to the city limit.
We were also looking at another property, so we hired a consultant to assist us with the decision. He told us, you have to get Cypress Pond plantation because of all of the improvements. There are 24 wells. We mapped 17. There are cabins and a lake. We were advised that we could get it for less than $5 million and make them include the equipment. We offered $3.5 million and finally got everything, including the equipment, for $4.5 million.
We did not know the history of that place. We knew it was called Plantation. Called Cypress Pond Plantation. We learned that it was once owned by the largest slaveholder and wealthiest man in state of Georgia. He had nine plantations and held the largest number of salves at that planation. On one day, December 29, 1859, after his and his son’s death they sold 150 slaves.
What are we doing now? We have done some major planning. The land had three distinct areas—a wooded area, a farming area, and the area around the house. We are doing production agriculture. We are also using it as a place to train. We are using it to grow pecans, muscadine grapes, vegetables, oranges, and longleaf pines. We are going to add beehives and honey. Bring that knowledge to farmers in the area. There are no plans to grow cotton: those cotton-picking machines are very expensive. We are looking to develop the food hub. There is a new administrator at the local hospital who is looking to partner with us.
There is so much going on. We are still organizing farmers. Still doing lots of training, especially with women. We developed a worker-owned sewing co-op. We’ve developed other organizations with a commercial kitchen. We are getting one up and running in Mississippi. That work has been so rewarding. Every year, I try to take a group to the UN to the annual Commission on the Status of Women meeting. It has been so educational.
A celebration honoring the 50-year history of New Communities land trust will take place in Albany, Georgia from October 2nd through October 5th of this year. For further details, see: https://www.nci50thanniversary.com.