Navigating the Winds of Change
The mission of New Communities is to become a thriving organization that is a global model for community empowerment.
New Communities, Inc. began as a visionary farming community whose primary goal was to address the problem of displacement and employment suffered by Blacks in the rural South who were active in Movement. It was a community that ultimately emerged as the nation’s first community land trust and largest Black-owned landholding in the U.S. Its 1969 founding included SNCC’s first field secretary, Rev. Charles Sherrod, who became its president. In November 1961, eight years before, the Surry, Virginia native became a key figure in Southwest Georgia, kick-starting what became known as the Albany Movement of 1961-’62. Beaten and jailed many times, Sherrod’s leadership inspired thousands to join a movement committed to challenging the status quo and dismantling Jim Crow segregation. However, one aspect of his work he found deeply troubling and a source of guilt. He was urging Blacks to stand up, register to vote and desegregate the schools, on the one hand, while on the other hand, their activism often came at the price of losing their homes and jobs.
By January 1970, the nonprofit, that included Sherrod’s wife, Shirley, borrowed the $1 million-plus needed, coming into possession of 3000 acres of farmland and over 2000 of woodland. With an eye toward building two planned communities, ten families lived on it, raising corn, peanuts, watermelon, soybeans, hay and beef. For roughly 15 years, the nonprofit held title. But crushing debt to repay loans, years of drought, and discriminatory lending by the federal government prompted Prudential Insurance, the first lien holder, to foreclose on the property by 1985.
Still, despite the loss, Sherrod and Shirley refused to dissolve the nonprofit. They were not alone in losing the property. Land loss was a major issue for Black farmers. In 1999, New Communities joined a class action lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture for discriminatory practices against Black farmers. Ten years later, in 2009, New Communities received word of its own $12 million dollar settlement. Two years later, in 2011, New Communities’ board located and purchased the 1638-acre Cypress Pond Plantation outside of Albany, where it has resumed and continues its important work today. Cypress Pond Plantation was once owned by the largest slaveholder in Georgia who owned nine plantations but held the largest number of slaves at this site.
The reason New Communities remains important and relevant has everything to do with numbers that speak for themselves. In 1911, Black farmers owned more than 15 million acres of land. As of 2017, that acreage is now down to 4 million, according to agriculture census numbers. As part of the Sherrod Institute, New Communities at Cypress Pond has positioned itself as a center for research and training. We host farm field days and workshops to both educate veteran Black farmers in regenerative agriculture and attract a new generation to farming.
New Communities at Cypress Pond is home to a 200-acre pecan grove and a pick-your-own muscadine vineyard, not far from an 85-acre pond with cabins for rent. From its campus, it conducts multiple demonstration projects, like growing flatland rice that requires less water, fertilizer and seed. We associate with a network of successful Black farmers, exploiting their insights and expertise on niche farming like sheepherding and beekeeping. We partner with faculty at Florida A&M, Tuskegee, North Carolina A & T and Fort Valley State universities on the science of growing alternatives to row crops, such as truffles and satsuma oranges. Additionally, the Institute’s agriculture specialists log hundreds of miles to train and make site visits with Black farmers throughout its 14-county region. Meanwhile, New Communities, which was an outgrowth of the Movement, continues its social justice work. We sponsor a network of human rights commissions whose get-out-the-vote work, for example, proved critical to victories in a number of recent elections.
Finally, the Sherrod Institute is in the midst of developing a former retail space that stands to be transformative. In a community rocked hard by COVID 19, this former grocery store will serve as home to a health clinic, business incubator and farmers’ market – to address sickness and poverty and improve market access for Black farmers. In this way, New Communities, cofounded by a SNCC alumnus, continues to be a change agent for good envisioned more than half a century ago.