A conversation with Shirley Sherrod

A conversation with Shirley Sherrod

February 29, 2024


Ellen Sabina

Interviewed by Ellen Sabina

This story is from the 2023 maine farms journal - for more stories like this, visit our journal page to learn how you can access our full journal digital archive.

Shirley Sherrod is a national civil rights figure, advocate, and global thought leader in agriculture policy and its impact on Black farmers and the Black community. She currently sits on the Biden Administration’s USDA Equity Commission, studying systemic racism within the Department. A media contributor on race and agriculture, she serves as an important voice in protecting the interest of Black farmers, improving their access to capital and markets, and advocating for policy changes to stem the tide of Black land loss.

In March 2023, Ms. Sherrod traveled to Maine to deliver the keynote at MFT’s Northeast Convening of Farmland Access Practitioners, an intimate gathering of individuals and organizations engaged in farmland access work in the Northeast to discuss the trends and evolutions in this work and to connect and build relationships with new land access organizations that have emerged in recent years in response to land justice needs in our region.

In her keynote address, Ms. Sherrod shared the story of New Communities, Inc., which she helped to establish in 1969 as a farm collective on nearly 6,000 acres in southwestern Georgia in response to rampant and devastating land loss among African-American farmers. Recognized as the first modern land trust in the United States, New Communities was founded as an independent, community-run structure to buy, hold, and lease land in perpetuity, based on the belief that a system of land ownership that is designed to prevent loss of land is necessary for realizing political and economic security.

Sherrod’s experience designing a land trust model to secure land access with her community is ripe with lessons for MFT as we reexamine and reconfigure our farmland protection work to prioritize equitable access to land for all farmers. As we think about MFT’s role in helping to grow power for Maine farming communities, we look to Ms. Sherrod’s deep experience organizing farmers and rural communities to gain access to land, resources, and markets. Ellen Sabina, MFT’s Director of Farmer Engagement, met with Ms. Sherrod on Zoom in June to share more of Ms. Sherrod’s story and work on land access, social justice, and organizing with the broader MFT community.

Ellen Sabina: Can you start with a little bit about how you originally got involved with the Civil Rights Movement, and why you devoted so much of your life and energy to organizing around that?

Shirley Sherrod: I grew up in a community that even to this day is called Hawkinstown. It's called Hawkinstown because my grandmother's maiden name is Hawkins. I'm not sure when my great-grandparents arrived in Baker County, but I do know they registered to vote in July 1867. So, I know they were there then. My family decided to buy land, which meant working together to help each family unit. My grandmother had about 12 sisters and brothers, and my grandmother and grandfather ended up with about 14. But the goal was to have each family unit owning their own land. We never actually added up to see how much it was, but probably somewhere between 4 or 3 thousand acres that all of the family-owned. So, I grew up in an area where I was surrounded by family that owned farmland. And so, we farmed. It was hard work. I picked cotton, and did all of the other work on the farm. In the early years, we didn't have an electric water pump. So, that meant actually pumping the water for all of the animals, and household use. Looking back, it was a good upbringing. But during those years, I can tell you, all I thought of it was that it was hard work, and I wanted to get away from it.

The farm was here in Southwest Georgia, in Baker County, probably one of the worst counties around in terms of civil rights, due to sheriffs that we had, who actually ruled everyone and everything. My goal was to get as far away from the farm because of the hard work on the farm, and as far away from Baker County as I could. But things changed on March 15th of 1965, my senior year in high school. My father was murdered by a white farmer who was not prosecuted, because an all-white grand jury refused to indict him, even though there were three witnesses to what happened. So, I made a commitment on the night of my father's death to stay in the South, and to devote my life to working for change. In June of ‘65, the people from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) led by Charles Sherrod, the individual I would marry later, came to help us start the Baker County Movement. My work with civil rights started that summer, and continued all of these years.

ES: How does your childhood relate to how your work developed, and how you think about the connection between access to land and social justice?

SS: Looking back, I realize I did not have a real appreciation for what we had. I know that we were surrounded by plantations, some really big plantations. One, Ichauway Plantation, was like 33,000 acres, and another plantation about 25,000 acres. And there were many more. And so, I didn't appreciate the fact that we could be a little more independent, as much as any Black person could be, because we were landowners. It meant something. Landowners played a major role in helping to move civil rights forward, not only in Baker County, but other counties where the Movement had started. I think back to the Civil Rights Movement. As people were going to jail, it was the landowners who could get them out. So, as a young child, all I saw was work. But looking back, I realize what land ownership meant during those days, and what it means even today.

ES: Land access and ownership were central to the New Communities project. How did the idea for New Communities come to be?

SS: After marrying Charles Sherrod, I ended up working in the Civil Rights Movement in many of the counties in Southwest Georgia. One of the things that was constantly happening was that people, who lived on land owned by white landowners or plantation owners, would be kicked off the land for participating in the Movement. It happened whether you were trying to register to vote or are trying to get your children to enroll in formerly all-white schools. These people would have to leave their homes, because of their activism. So, we came up with this crazy idea of building our own community. During the summer of '68, eight individuals traveled to Israel to learn about the kibbutz. They came back after their two-week visit and lots of discussions happened. That’s when we made the decision to go forward with creating New Communities, which became the nation’s first community land trust.

We got our hands on 5,735 acres of land. Our goal was to make sure we didn't lose the land. That was the driving force behind making it a land trust. The idea of the community land trust meant that people could get a long-term renewable lease on the land. So, that meant you could own your home, but the land it sat on was held separately and, thus, was less vulnerable to being seized or taken away.

ES: Thinking about that time in history, this was such new idea and new territory you were navigating.

SS: Yes, it was definitely new. And we had a lot of people who were against it. They would tell Black people who were considering supporting the land trust concept, ‘you won't own anything there simply because you get a lease on the land.' So, we spent a lot of time just trying to help people understand what it meant. And really also working with our folks on how we work together and with each other. So, to that end, we decided we wouldn't adopt a traditional organizational structure where you had a leader. Instead, we worked through committees. So, we had a farm committee, a health committee, an education committee, an industry committee. And, each of those committees was charged with developing the work going forward in this community.

ES: What was the role of farming at New Communities?

SS: Farming was a major part of it. In the end, it became the one thing that we could lean on more than anything else, because there was lots of opposition to the work we were doing. At the state level, there were efforts to try to make sure we were not successful at holding onto this land. We got a planning grant from the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity to plan the community. And OEO had promised some major funding at the end of the planning phase, which took a year. But by then the opposition to what we were doing had reached all the way up to Lester Maddox, who was then governor of Georgia. Maddox vetoed any funds coming into the state to our project. So, we were left then with a one-year option on the property. We didn't have the money to pay for it all. So, given that we had never had our hands on this much land, we decide we were going to fight to hold onto it. Historically speaking, agriculture was one of the main things we did as Black people, and that's why farming became such a major part of the project.

ES: What did farming look like there? What were you growing?

SS: In those days and even today, Black farmers have been punished because they could have the same amount of land or close to it, but a white farmer would get more of an acreage allotment from the USDA, and thus, more income from their farm. So, for example, when we bought the New Communities project, there was a 325-acre peanut allotment that was very valuable. It meant whatever you grew on that allotment, the government had to buy it at a support price. In our case, we grew peanuts, corn, soybeans, and sorghum. We didn’t grow cotton. We had eight acres of muscadine grapes, a herd of cattle and hogs, that could be slaughtered, inspected and brought back to the farm to be cured into ham and sausage. There was a greenhouse, two and a half miles of highway frontage on U.S. Highway 19 and a railroad line with a spur that came onto the property. That spur was great, because we could order fertilizer, for example. It was vital because we had problems with local suppliers, especially when we ordered liquid fertilizer. We wouldn't know until the crop was up and growing that what we ordered wasn't what we got. So, we began pulling a sample of the liquid fertilizer for every delivery we received. It’s why having that railroad spur was valuable in that we could order in bulk, get it cheaper, and avoid local suppliers.

ES: Eventually, New Communities ended up stopping for a while. Can you talk about why that happened?

SS: Well, we were on a roll there for a while. Really farming, expanding the farming operation, paying the land debts, and so forth. We didn’t have enough money to implement a lot of the other plans that were made for New Communities. But holding onto the land was important to us. But then, we ran into drought, followed by a second year of drought. Because of it, we made the decision to go to Farmers Home Administration (a now-terminated government agency housed at the USDA) to try to get an emergency loan like all the other farmers were getting. But when our farm manager and my husband went to the office, which was in Dawson, Georgia, the county supervisor told them, “You’ll get a loan here over my dead body.” That put us into a three-year fight just to try to get an emergency loan. But with continued drought and the size of operation that we had, it was something we couldn't totally overcome. By the time we were finally approved for a loan, it wasn't the amount we needed. It was much less, plus you had to give them a lien on all available assets. That's how Black farmers have lost land over the years. Once the Farmers Home Administration would get a lien on your assets, then they could delay loans or not make loans at all. They could do things to make sure you were not successful with your farming project. And that's exactly what happened to us. They engineered the foreclosure of Prudential, which held our first mortgage. They made sure we didn't pay them. The foreclosure on the New Communities' property happened in 1985. We lost everything. We had assets worth almost $5 million, and they allowed someone out of Atlanta to buy it for $1 million. We later saw the evidence that they actually let the new owner borrow $950,000 of that, so he only put up front $50,000. Then, he proceeded to dig holes and push all of our buildings over into them, before breaking up the land into tracts and selling it.

ES: That must've been so hard for your community to come through that experience. How did it impact you, and ultimately influence your work?

SS: As I said, I had made that commitment back in 1965, to stay in the South and devote my life to working for change. Finding a place where I could continue that work was something I needed to do. I ended up with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. Their main office was in Atlanta, and they didn't have a real presence outside of that, especially here in the farming area of Georgia. So, I served as Georgia director for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which gave me the opportunity then to use a lot of what I learned growing up on the farm and those years with New Communities. This job positioned me to help farmers, initially here in Southwest Georgia and eventually throughout the South. I focused on Black land ownership issues, helping develop markets where Black farmers were shut out due to racism and trying to find alternatives. For example, we connected with the group Red Tomato near Boston, and actually had farmers here in South Georgia growing seedless watermelons for Boston, Massachusetts. We also talked with Ben of Ben and Jerry's about Black land loss. They wanted to purchase a product grown by Black farmers to go into their ice cream. So, I organized pecan growers to actually work together to sell pecans to Ben and Jerry's. And even still, there’s so much racism everywhere. We couldn't even find a sheller that would work with us. In the end, Ben and Jerry's had to get their major supplier to shell our pecans. We kept running into roadblocks when it came to trying to help our farmers increase their income on the farm. We have to always look for alternatives. And so, that became my work: organizing cooperatives here in Southwest Georgia to get around some of the racism Black farmers were experiencing.

ES: Can you talk about connecting farmers with each other to work together? How has it benefited them?

SS: I saw early on that, because of the racism, there is just no way you can continue to just work your plot, and not work with others to survive. It became necessary for Black farmers to work together. Otherwise, they would each just get picked off. If they eventually got a loan with Farmers Home, and some white person wanted their land, the white person would end up with it because Farmers Home would make sure the Black farmer couldn't get loans to survive. To get around that, I needed to try to get our farmers to see that by working together, they could each survive. Just trying to do it on their own was too difficult, especially with all of the barriers put in place for them. I organized my first co-operative in 1987, and that was the Flint River Farmers Co-op, located in Baker County, where I was born.

ES: Your work with New Communities and The Southwest Georgia Project continues. Can you talk a little bit about what it looks like today?

SS: So, we lost the land in ’85, but we didn't stop the work, especially through the Southwest Georgia Project, and we didn't give up on having New Communities re-emerge. We just knew there would be a day when the chance to start again would present itself.

The Southwest Georgia Project works with farmers in a 14-county area, helping them access programs through the USDA. So, we do lots of workshops through the Southwest Georgia Project, such as assisting farmers in their applications to get approved for high tunnels to extend their growing season, or wells, to irrigate their crop or whatever. The organization also continued its civil rights work from time to time. For example, there might be something happening in a community around education and the Southwest Georgia Project will go in and assist with whatever will be helpful.

Through my work with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, we realized Black land ownership was a major issue. We were losing more farmers and more land. And the discrimination at USDA was directly responsible for a lot of it. So, a lawsuit was necessary. We had discussed this many times and made the decision to try to go forward with it. Mind you, there was a lawsuit before the Pigford case. But keep in mind, that the work that was done on that earlier lawsuit set the stage for the big case that was Pigford vs. Glickman in 1997. Once that suit was filed, there was eventually some indication that the government would be willing to settle. That settlement called for two classes of claimants. The first was a farmer filing a Class A claim who, if successful, would receive $50,000, $12,500 toward payment of his taxes on his land and would get priority for USDA programs. The one hurdle that stood in the way of this being an effective solution is that a Black farmer had to find a similarly situated white farmer who received the loans the Black farmer was denied. So, that meant knowing the business of white farmers.

Then, there was Class B, which you could file if you had more evidence of the discrimination. With that, you get your day in court. Still, you also had to find a similarly situated white farmer who received loans you were denied. There was a 6-month window by which you could submit a claim. And our organization, the Federation, and some others, were busy trying to get the word out about the lawsuit and provide lawyers the information needed to file a claim.

We were about three months into this process. I had been over in Alabama working with farmers there and on my way home that night when the light bulb went off. The thing was you had to have experienced discrimination between 1981 and 1996. “Oh, my goodness, we were farming at New Communities in 1981. New Communities can file a claim in the lawsuit!” So, we did that before the deadline of October 13, 1999, and had our day in court on July 30, 2002.

If you had been sitting in the courtroom that day, you would have left it like, ‘We did it!’ We felt like we had won, but we got a letter saying we had been denied. The judge had put a monitor in place so that farmers who were denied could decide to appeal the decision. Of course, we appealed the decision. It took four years for them to go through all of the records to determine what would happen with our case. In 2006, we actually received a letter, documenting all of the things that had been done to us. And when I look at it and read it to this day, it makes me want to cry because it really documents the discrimination that we experienced.

Remember, we filed in 1999. And then, we didn't hear anything from October 2006 until the night of July 8, 2009, when we received a call from our lawyers, saying we had won. One of them asked me, “Do you want to guess how much?” I said, “Is it at least $1 million?” She said, “No, it was $12 million.” So, that really gave us the opportunity to pull everyone together again and work on finding more land and continue with the dream that we had from 1962. New Communities ended up purchasing a former slave plantation, 1,638 acres of land that was once owned by the largest slave owner and the wealthiest man in Georgia. Back in the 1800s, he owned about nine or ten plantations and about a thousand slaves. We started planning right away.

Production agriculture is one thing. We also had a vision for it to be a research and training facility for young farmers. It’s why we have a lot of training going on out there. The Southwest Georgia Project staff is out in the counties, working with farmers and bringing them in for workshops on growing pecans, rice and a lot of different crops. We've also recently partnered with the land-grant institutions that are nearby, like Florida A&M University out of Tallahassee, Tuskegee University and Fort Valley State University. With their faculty and scientists, we have all these research projects underway onsite.

Meanwhile, because of the civil rights history, and the history of the plantation, there's so much more we can do. When we first purchased it, we had what we called the blessing of the land ceremonies, and we brought together every ethnic group, starting with the Lower Creek Indians, to do a blessing in their cultures.

ES: You characterize the work of Southwest Georgia Project and New Communities as fitting into three buckets: Food, Farming, and Human Rights. It seems like those have really been the throughlines of your work. Why do you see those three things as so integral to your vision for the future?

SS: The fact is, land is important. Being able to produce the food you need in the way it should be produced is important. I can look back to my grandparents and how their land ownership and farm helped to educate members of my family, who are now doctors and lawyers and so forth.

The human rights issue is integral. I think of so many communities that we still work in—I was out in Clay County, Georgia, for example, talking to people in the community there and the issues they face. They didn't have any food for the children during the summer, because no one picked up the summer feeding program, which was important to those kids being able to eat. And there are just so many issues out there like that, where folks don't have the information. Also, the internet in those communities isn’t there or isn't strong, or is too expensive. As a result, people are still suffering, as they have through the years. So, it is important to get out there and work with them to help them make the changes they want to see.

Our work brings all of that together, too. I should note that there’s another project we have here we call ‘The Table of Southwest Georgia’. We were given an old Winn-Dixie grocery store building and roughly four acres of land here in the city of Albany. There will be an aggregation site at the rear of the store, so that farmers who grow produce, can bring it in, properly handle and process it and sell it locally, as well as outside of the area. To make it happen, we’ve partnered with a Community Development Financial Institution, who will be working with business owners to make loans. We’ll have as well a commercial kitchen for food truck owners and so forth. We additionally partnered with the hospital, which doesn’t have a presence currently in that part of town. And that's an area where the largest number of COVID deaths occurred. So, The Table will be home to a health institute, meaning the hospital can work with people before they get sick. In short, it’s a major project that we're developing that's really turned out to be about a $15 million project, and we’re getting close, but are struggling right now to find the last $2 to $3 million to make this really happen.

ES: Wow, that sounds like a really amazing project. And maybe that's part of the answer to my final question, which is, as you look to the future, what ideas or projects are you most excited about or giving you hope?

SS: Yes, of course, The Table project is one of them, because it helps to bring the city and rural together. You know, the school lunch projects have been great. But if, as a Black farmer, you don't have a facility to properly handle the produce and get it to the school systems in the way that they need it, then you can't participate in those markets. So, that's one exciting, transformative part about The Table project. It will allow more small farmers to grow and participate in the marketplace.

At New Communities, I’m excited to not only train young farmers, but to be able to do more about our history. When you take that property, and look at the fact that it was once in the hands of slave owners, and now it's in the hands of the descendants of slaves—there's so much you can teach to our people about where we've been, where we are, and where we need to be going.

I've been at this work for a long, long time. It's exciting even now, 58 years later, to have the opportunity to still be trying to make a difference. And now, there are so many different ways we can make a difference, mainly because we have that land base to work from.

Today, New Communities at Cypress Pond, as it’s known, serves as headquarters to The Sherrod Institute, and its affiliates, The Southwest Georgia Project, New Communities Land Trust, and The Charles Sherrod Community Development Corporation. Other affiliates include ‘The Table of Southwest Georgia’ and WUTU 88.3 FM. Together, with Sherrod serving at the helm, these divisions carry out the near-60-year-old mission to move Black farmers toward education, access, and economic independence. Learn more at sherrodinstitute.org

Captions for photos in carousel below:

1.) Shirley M. Sherrod peers from the porch of the antebellum mansion at Cypress Pond, which was once home to the largest and wealthiest enslaver in the state of Georgia. (Photo courtesy of W.K. Kellogg Foundation )

2.) Rev. Charles Sherrod (4th from left) and his wife, Shirley (7th from left) hold a meeting with New Communities' staff members in the 1970s. (Photo courtesy of The Sherrod Institute)

3.) Shirley M. Sherrod announces the conversion of a former grocery store into The Table of Southwest Georgia, a hub connecting underserved farmers and area residents with business, agricultural, and health services. (Photo by Clennon L. King | AugustineMonica Films).

4.) Shon and Chiquita Holsey are among the farmers who receive training and guidance from agricultural specialists at The Sherrod Institute. (Photo by Clennon L. King | AugustineMonica Films).

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