5 Decades Later, New Communities Land Trust Still Helps Black Farmers October marks the 50th anniversary of a pioneering effort to provide a safe haven for black farmers evicted from their land as punishment for participating in the civil rights movement.
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5 Decades Later, New Communities Land Trust Still Helps Black Farmers

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5 Decades Later, New Communities Land Trust Still Helps Black Farmers

5 Decades Later, New Communities Land Trust Still Helps Black Farmers

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In Albany, Ga., a pioneering community land trust is celebrating its 50th anniversary this week. New Communities' land trust was created as a safe haven for black farmers during the civil rights movement. And today, it's helping rural black landowners profit from farming.

NPR's Debbie Elliott has the story.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Just outside Albany, New Communities co-founder Shirley Sherrod stands on a dock overlooking a tranquil pond, moss-draped cypress trees reflecting on the water.

SHIRLEY SHERROD: They're resilient. Whether you're in a drought or whether you in a flood, they last. And that's the way we feel we are - we will last.

ELLIOTT: They're part of a 1,600-acre plantation once owned by one of Georgia's largest slave holders.

SHERROD: It went from a bad beginning, which was slavery, to descendants of slaves.

ELLIOTT: Sherrod's name might be familiar. She was Georgia state director for the USDA in the Obama administration but resigned in controversy when Breitbart News edited one of her speeches to misconstrue her remarks as racist.

Out on the farm, Sherrod drives to a grove of satsumas, a type of mandarin.

SHERROD: The trees are full of oranges. They're green right now.

ELLIOTT: You don't find many African American farmers growing satsumas in southwest Georgia, Sherrod says. The land trust is trying to show that it is a profitable crop and find other ways to add value to local farms. On the other side of the farm, workers are vacuuming up the early pecan harvest.

SHERROD: So what machines do you have out here now?

ELLIOTT: The property includes cottages and a fully restored antebellum home used for retreats.

SHERROD: We look at this as a place where we can also try to heal.

ELLIOTT: The plantation is the modern iteration of a cooperative farm the New Communities' land trust first established in the 1960s, when Shirley Sherrod and her husband, Charles, were organizing for the civil rights movement.

SHERROD: We would encounter people who were being asked to move off the land owned by white farmers if they participated in the movement or tried to exercise their rights in any way.

ELLIOTT: So a group of activists went to Israel to study a kibbutz as a model for providing jobs and homes for displaced families. The idea was shared stewardship of the land. The nonprofit trust borrowed money to purchase a nearly 6,000-acre tract where they grow peanuts, corn, soybeans and vegetable crops.

They also raised pigs and built a smokehouse to sell cured meats from a roadside stand to make money. About 10 families had long-term renewable leases for houses on the land, and dozens of others worked there.

BUMMI ANDERSON: It really gave me a sense of I can do anything.

ELLIOTT: Bummi Anderson and her twin sister, Femi, now 47, grew up as part of New Communities. Their parents ran the onsite print shop. Femi Anderson says they learned to be self-reliant using the farm and associated businesses to sustain one another.

FEMI ANDERSON: You had people who farmed the land. You had people who did, you know, administrative stuff, people who did different things. And I think that's what made it more of a community.

ELLIOTT: The sisters remain involved in the land trust. They say having a stake in the land stuck with them. Bummi Anderson.

B ANDERSON: You know, you're talking about land for African Americans - for anybody. Land is power.


B ANDERSON: Land is equity. Land is...

F ANDERSON: It's wealth.

B ANDERSON: ...It's wealth.

ELLIOTT: In rural Doles, Ga., Erma Young-Wilburn shows me a century-old wooden farmhouse that's starting to fall in.

ERMA YOUNG-WILBURN: This is the Battle house. This is the - originally the Battle farm.

ELLIOTT: The house once belonged to J.N. Battle (ph), a former slave known for amassing a large amount of land after the Civil War.

YOUNG-WILBURN: And this is the last 70 acres of it. And we are holding on because we want it to continue to be the legacy of a black-owned land.

ELLIOTT: In 1910, black farmers owned more than 15 million acres of land. In 2017, that number was down to 4 million according to the agriculture census. The Lawtons (ph) are produce farmers. They get technical assistance from the New Communities' land trust to improve their irrigation and build a cold storage facility. She was part of the original farm collective 50 years ago.

LAWTON: It was empowering. It was unifying.

ELLIOTT: A registered nurse by profession, Lawton says there's an independence in farming. And that's something she thinks New Communities can pass down to new generations.

LAWTON: Knowing that, as black people, we - the way we survived coming out of slavery was our attachment to the land and knowing how to make that land work for us and produce and protect us, you know, from starvation and stuff.

ELLIOTT: New Communities' land trust was almost a failed experiment. They were hit by drought but could not get an emergency loan from the Farmers Home Administration until it was too late to avoid foreclosure. They lost the farm in 1985. But the story didn't end there because decades later, the trust won a $12 million settlement in the federal government's deal to compensate black farmers for discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

New Communities used the money to buy the plantation it operates today. Back at the farm, Decton Hylton tends to the honeybees. He lights some pine straw in a smoker to keep them calm.

DECTON HYLTON: This is a new comb that they have just built. And they're going to be storing honey inside of these cells.

ELLIOTT: Hilton is an agronomist and serves as a technical advisor to New Communities. He's encouraging farmers in southwest Georgia to take up beekeeping and look for other ways to increase the moneymaking potential of their property. He's also trying to stem land loss by encouraging younger generations to keep their family farms.

HYLTON: Because it's been - they have been learning from a long time that agriculture is in relation to slavery. And I'm showing them, no, we were doing farming long before slavery.

ELLIOTT: Hylton says New Communities' land trust can play a part in making farming an economic engine for rural development. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Albany, Ga.


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