Shirley Sherrod is a name you may recognize. In 2010 she was wrongly fired from her position as the Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the USDA after a portion of a speech she made was taken grossly out of context and used against her. The true and full story of Shirley Sherrod, way beyond this one event, is one of justice, autonomy, and love for the land. She believed that rural development in the South and land ownership access for Black folks was of the utmost importance for working towards social change.
When Shirley was a teenager, her father was murdered by a white farmer over a livestock dispute. The white farmer was never held accountable. This event motivated her to give up her dreams of moving up North and to stay in the South and work towards progress for Black farmers and for equity. Black farmers often worked on land owned by white folks and during the Civil Rights Movement were being unfairly forced off that land when the landowners found out that these Black farmers were involved in the movement for racial justice. Shirley Sherrod was a key founder of New Communities, the cooperative farm meant to serve as an alternative option for these farmers. New Communities was a farm where everyone would share stewardship of the land. It was to have an independent education system, healthcare system, and housing, strongly rooted in community and cooperative practices, meant to provide autonomy to the folks involved.
They were able to purchase 5,735 acres of land and secured a planning grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity. They designed their systems for the community, over 500 families were ready to get involved. Towards the end of the planning, the Governor or Georgia, Lester Maddox, vetoed the grant awarded to New Communities from the Office of Economic Opportunity. This was the start to a fifteen-year fight to hold onto the land, which was eventually lost to foreclosure at the hands of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1985. New Communities were able to file a claim in the Pigford versus Glickman lawsuit in 1999 and ten years after that, won, and received a large settlement. Listen to this podcast to learn more about Shirley Sherrod’s story and hear from the land steward herself!