How a Black Farming Community Found Justice

Black families in the South are doing important work to continue the legacy of Black farming communities.

Debbie Weingarten, YES! Magazine | 7/22/2019, 1:25 p.m.
Black families in the South are doing important work to continue the legacy of Black farming communities.
Erma Young-Wilburn and Lawton Wilburn, her husband, farm land near Warwick, Georgia Photo by Mike Kane for Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice News

Shirley Sherrod co-founded New Communities, a Black farming community in rural Georgia. But at one time, she wanted to leave farming far behind.

As a teenager, Sherrod dreamed of leaving the South. Her mind traveled North—away from the White sheriff, known as “The Gator,” who ruthlessly and violently patrolled the area’s Black residents. Away from her family’s farm and the backbreaking days spent picking cotton. Away from the segregated schools.

“My goal was to try to get as far away from that whole system and as far away from the farm as I could,” she says.

But in March 1965, her senior year of high school, Sherrod’s father was shot by a White farmer during a disagreement over wandering cows. He lingered in the hospital for 10 days before he died. On the night of his passing, Sherrod prayed.

“I was trying to find an answer, and the thought just came to me,” she says. “You can give up your dream of living in the North to stay in the South—and devote your life to working for change.”

And so, she stayed. After graduating, Sherrod became deeply involved in civil rights organizing. A few years later, her mother became the first Black elected official in the county. Sherrod’s younger sisters, along with 15 other Black students, integrated the schools.

And one day in 1965, the Rev. Charles Sherrod, an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, knocked on Shirley’s door during a canvassing route.

Shirley and Charles married the next year.

Charles Sherrod’s work for SNCC was known as the Southwest Georgia Project. But after disagreeing with new director Stokely Carmichael, who maintained that SNCC was not a place for White allies, the Sherrods incorporated the Southwest Georgia Project as an independent community education organization, which remains active today.

In the 1960s, a group of Georgia organizers that included Shirley and Charles Sherrod began to talk about creating a community. Black families were increasingly being evicted by White landlords for participating in civil rights organizing or registering to vote.

In 1969, the organizers purchased 5,735 acres in Lee County, Georgia, and established New Communities Inc., an intentional community with a goal of full self-sufficiency. The concept was based on the traditional Israeli kibbutz, a communal settlement often centered around a farm operation.

At the time, New Communities was the largest tract of Black-owned land in the United States and the country’s first community land trust — described by the organizers as “a nonprofit organization to hold land in perpetual trust for the permanent use of rural communities.”

With assistance from consultants and a planning grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity, the group planned to build 500 family homes, a railroad track, health and educational systems and a farm operation.

But White farmers soon began to protest and complain to officials about their new Black neighbors. They shot their guns at buildings where New Communities members were working or meeting. Eventually, the governor vetoed all federal money for the project.