Meet the Woman Empowering Black Farmers to Fight Against Land Loss
Shirley Sherrod has spent most of her 73 years working to improve life for Black farmers in the corner of Georgia where she was born. Her life has been threatened, her land taken from her. Yet her persistence has never wavered. She still pursues innovative ways to fight African American land loss and provide farmers with the tools they need to succeed. "If there's something she can do, she's going to do it," says George Hall, Jr., a farmer in Albany, Georgia, who Sherrod assisted with everything from training and technical support to advice on navigating the financial and bureaucratic aspects of land ownership.
The disappearance of Black-owned farmland has been relentless and well documented. In 1910, Black farmers owned 14 million acres of U.S. farmland. By the end of the century, that acreage had fallen by 90%. Banks and the USDA refused to issue loans to Black farmers to cover crop losses and buy new equipment. Predatory lawmakers and white landowners blocked access to markets, passed discriminatory regulations-and hoovered up land.
Sherrod pledged to devote her life to combating racial discrimination in Georgia at the age of 17, after a white neighbor murdered her father, never to be charged. In the '60s, that meant organizing Black voters and dismantling Jim Crow laws as part of the Southwest Georgia Project that she and her husband, Charles, founded. In 1969, the young couple and a group of fellow civil rights leaders purchased 5,735 acres near Albany. Inspired by Israeli kibbutzim, their farm, New Communities, became the country's first land trust-a collectively owned and managed property where Black folks could safely, independently and profitably live and produce food. Its founding made it the largest African American-owned farm in the U.S.
Around 100 people joined them in cultivating the property and raising hogs. But when drought struck the area in the late 1970s, the USDA denied New Communities the same loans it ladled out to white neighbors, and the trust was forced off its land. The loss gutted her, yet she forged on, continuing to help Black farmers access resources and funds through the Southwest Georgia Project and as a director of rural development for the USDA. Only after advising dozens of farmers to join a massive class-action lawsuit over the agency's racist practices did Shirley and Charles realize they were eligible, too; the 2009 settlement they received allowed them to rebuild New Communities. "We didn't lose the dream," she says.
In 2011, the Sherrods purchased 1,600 acres that had been part of one of Georgia's largest slaveholder estates, including rich farmland, forests, lakeside cabins and a mansion, and are using the site to hold trainings for young farmers. They've also planted satsumas and 200 acres of pecan trees, which Sherrod plans to grow into a regional farm cooperative. Collective ownership of land, mutual training and support, working together to establish economic security-those are still key to reversing land loss for Black farmers. "This is how we're trying to bring young farmers into the area," she says. Sherrod has seen it time and time again in her community: organization and hope are powerful gifts to share. "You can spark ideas in people," she says. "And they'll work to make it happen."
This article first appeared in EatingWell, July/August 2021.