A Path to Independence: Shirley Sherrod on Racial Justice and the Value of Land

An interview with civil rights trailblazer Shirley Sherrod, co-founder of the nation’s first community land trust
May 13, 2024 10:20 AM ET
Women standing and speaking at a podium
Shirley Sherrod, co-founder of New Communities, the country’s first collective land trust, creating a safe haven and a position of power for Black farmers removed from their land.

Growing up in rural Georgia, Shirley Sherrod never planned to stay in her native South. All that changed when her father, a farmer and a church deacon, was shot by a white farmer and died later that week. Sherrod was 17 at the time, about to graduate from high school.

“The thought occurred to me then, as I prayed and asked for help, that I could give up my dream of living my life in the North,” Sherrod said. “I could stay in the South and devote my life to working for change.”

Shirley Sherrod, 76, has spent the past half-century working for change. With her husband Charles Sherrod, a well-known civil rights leader, in 1969 she co-founded New Communities, Inc., the country’s first collective land trust, creating a safe haven and a position of power for Black farmers removed from their land. When the organization lost its land to foreclosure in the 1980s, Sherrod went to work for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, where she was tasked with helping Black farmers keep their land.

The Sherrods devoted their lives to advancing voting rights, solidarity, and wealth building through land ownership. But for a new generation of housing leaders like Devin Culbertson, their story is much more than a history lesson. It’s an urgent call to action.

“Movements must evolve and adapt to the current landscape and challenges. And the foundation of the Sherrods’ land ownership model remains more relevant than ever,“ said Culbertson, vice president of innovative finance at Grounded Solutions Network.

The legacy of the Sherrods’ work has spread far beyond the farmlands of southern Georgia, with the community land trust model gaining traction across the country, even in urban areas.

Together with his team at Grounded Solutions Network, Culbertson is building on that model with the support of a $3 million grant from the Housing Affordability Breakthrough Challenge led by Enterprise and the Wells Fargo Foundation. Their winning financing innovation, the Homes for the Future Fund, aims to promote homeownership and upward mobility in Black and brown communities, while keeping homes affordable in perpetuity. Culbertson likens the grant to venture capital, critical support that offers bold leaders flexible resources and a network of expertise to advance their solutions.

Culbertson recently spoke with Shirley Sherrod about the power and potential of the community land trust movement. Here are excerpts from their conversation.

Devon Culbertson: New Communities Inc. – the organization you founded in 1969 – is the starting place for the community land trust movement. What made you feel this was the right work to focus on?

Shirley Sherrod: Our work started with the Civil Rights Movement and organizing here in rural southwest Georgia. As we were helping people to exercise their rights, they would get kicked off the land owned by white people. "Our goal was to try to acquire land so that we would never lose it. And that's why we chose the community land trust model so that we would all own it together. No one person could mortgage anything so that we could lose it."

We were really trying to look at how to get this land and hold it forever, for everyone’s use.

DC: What has kept you focused on this movement over the years, given the headwinds you have faced? What has kept you there on a personal level?

SS: I did not intend to live my life on the farm, and I didn't intend to live my life in the South. Everything changed in one night – the night my father was murdered by a white farmer, who was not prosecuted, even though there were witnesses. I’m the oldest of six children and I was 17 and a senior in high school on that night. My mother was pregnant with my brother.

As the oldest, I needed to come up with a plan. I had no idea what I would do then – it unfolded through the years; initially, it was trying to integrate schools. Then it was trying to get the right to vote.

At a certain point, we were also looking at how the local county committee would target Black landowners. If they were trying to borrow money or get access to programs through USDA, they would be denied. The land was targeted, and Black landowners would end up losing it. Around 1910, Black farmers owned over 15 million acres and we’re down to less than 2 million acres now.

Through the years, marrying Charles Sherrod and getting deeply involved in the civil rights work and working with farmers, we realized that the only way to hold on to land was to own it together.

DC: Land meant so many things then and it means different things now – stability for families, source of political agency, the ability to vote, and economic opportunity. What did land mean to you and why did holding that land become so powerful?

SS: Land was a path to independence – as much as we could, as Black people, have independence in the Jim Crow era. Land meant having a path to getting an education. We have doctors and lawyers and so forth, because that base of land was purchased. And many of them didn't stay on the farm – I didn’t intend to stay there either.

At New Communities we didn't just work on acquiring land. We also made the decision that we would not operate in the normal way of a big boss and everybody working under that. We decided we would have committees – for example, there was a farm committee, there was also an education committee, a health committee, and an industry committee.

We looked to the land to help move us forward as we worked together. But we had that added layer of racism and discrimination to deal with. And that ultimately caused the failure of our project.

DC: That really resonates. We see situations where people go through foreclosure and become renters in their own homes. How do we use our understanding of how the deck can be stacked against us to better serve people?

SS: I've worked with farmers for years and had to convince them in the earlier years, it's no longer possible for you to work your farm without working with other farmers and forming cooperatives. At one point I helped a group of farmers learn how to raise seedless watermelons. The markets in the area were not open to us. So we connected with a group in Boston and we were shipping seedless watermelons from Georgia to Boston. People had to understand it's no longer possible for them to be on that little plot of land and not interact and work with other farmers.

DC: What do you see as lessons for creating broader economic benefit through this type of cooperation and solidarity?

SS: When people come together, truly committed to working with each other, the sky is the limit in terms of ideas and things they can do together to create their own jobs and income stream. A good example for us was in the 1990s, when Ben and Jerry’s wanted to do something to help with Black land loss. They said they would buy product from Black farmers to go in their ice cream. So, I organized farmers into a co-op that we called Southern Alternatives. We faced a lot of opposition because it was hard to find a white-owned sheller who would process our pecans for us. And in the end, Ben and Jerry's had to strong arm their major supplier to get them to do it.

When you are working together and people see you working together, opportunities surface. Even when folks look across town and feel that they don’t have the resources to get started – they can’t let that stop them.