Shirley Sherrod named Georgia Director of Rural Development
Shirley Sherrod (2nd from r) receiving Harold Gaines Award during her graduation celebration for earning a master’s degree from Antioch University, at the RDLN Assembly in Cherokee country In Oklahoma, with Rose Sanders (r), Harold Gaines sister,who became Shirley’s attorney on the minority farmers law suit, Joyce Gaines, Harold’s wife, Kenyatta, his son, and Gus Townes (l), Harold’s friend, National Rural Fellows Graduate, now with the Montgomery Transportation Coalition in Alabama.
RDLN Graduate and Board Vice Chair Shirley Sherrod was appointed Georgia Director for Rural Development by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on July 25. Only days earlier, she learned that New Communities, a group she founded with her husband and other families (see below) has won a thirteen million dollar settlement in the minority farmers law suit Pigford vs Vilsack.
In announcing the appointment of Shirley and other new officials, Secretary Vilsack said that "These individuals will be important advocates on behalf of rural communities in states throughout the country and help administer the valuable programs and services provided by the USDA that can enhance their economic success."
Shirley is a graduate in the first group of RDLN Leaders and serves as Vice Chair of our Board of Directors. She earned her master's degree from Antioch through RDLN, has helped orient every group of RDLN participants, and has taken leadership in many other ways. She serves as Georgia lead for both the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund and the Southern Rural Black Women's Initiative (SRBWI).
Minority Farm Settlement
We have wonderful news regarding the case of New Communities, Inc., the land trust that Shirley and Charles Sherrod established, with other black farm families in the 1960's. At the time, with holdings of almost 6,000 acres, this was the largest tract of black-owned land in the country. Now with a cash award of historic proportions, the group will be able to begin again.
In 1969, New Communities received a planning grant from OEO and was encouraged to expect substantial funding for implementation, but Governor Maddox would not permit further funds for the group to come into the state.
Nevertheless, New Communities built up farming operations to help retain the land. They had highway frontage where they had a farmers market to sell their crops. They raised hogs and sold the processed meat in a smokehouse they built on the highway. Their sugar cane mill on the highway also attracted customers. New Communities was ahead of the times in raising eight acres of Muscatine grapes, which are now widely grown in the area. They also farmed 1,500 acres of row crops, including corn, peanuts and soybeans.
Over the years, USDA refused to provide loans for farming or irrigation and would not allow New Communities to restructure its loans. Gradually, the group had to fight just to hold on to the land and finally had to wind down operations.
In 1985, as the land was being lost, Shirley entered the RDLN program. Previously, she had worked behind the scenes, but as she participated in RDLN, she began to realize her capacity as an up-front leader. She invited the Federation of Southern Cooperatives to sponsor her in the RDLN program, earned her master's degree with a thesis that continues to provide a blueprint for her ongoing work with black farmers and others, helped orient all succeeding groups of RDLN Leaders, and became vice chair of RDLN's Board of Directors. As you all know, Shirley is Georgia Lead for both the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund and the Southern Rural Black Women's Initiative. She has also chaired the board of the Farmers Legal Action Group, which has been active in the minority farmers law suit, along with the Federation and other groups. FSC and SRBWI hosted RDLN's National Network Assembly in 2006, during which Network members had a chance to immerse themselves in Civil Rights history, with the guidance of Shirley and Charles (the first field director of SNCC), Albany singers and others, and to visit the economic development projects that have grown out of that Civil Rights history.
The cash award acknowledges racial discrimination on the part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the years 1981-85. (President Reagan abolished the USDA Office of Civil Rights when he became President in 1981.) New Communities is due to receive approximately $13 million ($8,247,560 for loss of land and $4,241,602 for loss of income; plus $150,000 each to Shirley and Charles for pain and suffering). There may also be an unspecified amount in forgiveness of debt. This is the largest award so far in the minority farmers law suit (Pigford vs Vilsack).
The attorney for New Communities has been Rose Sanders of Chestnut Sanders and Sanders, sister of National Rural Fellows graduate the late Harold Gaines, and Advisor for RDLN Leaders Lillie Fields and Rose Hill.
No one can compensate those involved with New Communities for the difficult history they experienced. The award covers only a few of the years in question. Nevertheless, with these funds, New Communities will be able to start work again -- forty years later -- to realize the promise of their original dream, reconnect with the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, and meet the challenge of the needs and opportunities of the current historical moment.
Shirley Sherrod (Center) with Charles Sherrod, RDLN Board Member The Honorable Dr. Unita Blackwell (l), RDLN Graduate Cynthia Ellis of Belize, Central America (2nd from right), and RDLN President Starry Krueger at the Charles Sherrod Civil Rights Park in Albany, Georgia during RDLN's National Network Assembly in 2006.