New Communities formed in Southwest Georgia
In June 1968, former SNCC Southwest Georgia project director Charles Sherrod and six others traveled to Israel to study their kibbutz (land trust) system. When the group returned, they convened a meeting in Atlanta with representatives from a dozen civil rights organizations with the intention of establishing cooperative farming and homestead leases in the American South. By 1969, New Communities, Inc., the largest Black-owned farm cooperative in the United States, was founded. Participant Mtamanika Youngblood explained, “The idea behind New Communities was to take civil rights one step further into economic independence and economic rights, using agriculture as an economic base.”
In Southwest Georgia, Charles Sherrod had become a legend as a SNCC field secretary. Searching for a way to help sharecroppers and tenant farmers who were systematically forced off their land when they attempted to register to vote, he concluded that collectively owned and farmed land would make individual laborers less likely to be subjected to economic and political disenfranchisement. In his words, “with land, a man holds in his hand the mechanism to control his destiny.”
Once New Communities was incorporated, board members were selected to oversee the day to day operations. Slater King, a movement activist and owner of a successful real estate and insurance brokerage firm in downtown Albany, was elected president; Fay Bennett was elected secretary; Leonard Smith was elected treasurer; and Father Albert J. McKnight, the director of the Southern Cooperative Development Fund, was elected vice president.
King’s expertise and contacts as a real estate agent enabled the group to find and purchase 5,735 acres located in Lee County, just north of Albany, using a $50,000 grant provided by the National Sharecroppers Fund. In the early 1960s the county had been the site of one of SNCC’s earliest voter registration organizing efforts. Despite the grant, New Communities was still faced with raising over $1 million before their six-month option expired. The entire process was almost derailed one month later, however, when King was killed in an automobile accident. Charles Sherrod was asked to assume the presidency of New Communities.
The cooperative managed to close on the land on January 9, 1970, coming into possession of 3,000 acres of farmland and over 2,000 acres of woodland, which at the time was the largest tract of land owned by African Americans. For the next 15 years, most of New Communities profits came from raising and selling a variety of agricultural products. Farmers cultivated corn, peanuts, soybeans, watermelons, hay, and beef.
New Communities faced many challenges that handicapped its growth and expansion. Georgia governor Lester Maddox, long hostile to civil rights, blocked development funds. They also faced blatant discrimination from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the end, the economic risks of farming, the crushing debt on their land, years of drought, and discriminatory lending by the Farmers Home Administration made it difficult for New Communities to hang onto its land. They were forced to sell 1,300 acres in the early 1980s. A few years later, the rest was lost to foreclosure.
Even though the land was lost, New Communities, Inc. did not dissolve. The corporation remained in existence for years. In 1999, Black farmers in the South won a $375 million settlement from the United States Department of Agriculture, resolving a class action suit that had charged USDA with racial bias. New Communities, Inc. filed a claim, alleging that discriminatory lending by the Georgia office of USDA’s Farmers Home Administration had contributed to the failure of the cooperative’s agricultural business and the loss of its land.
In July 2009, after a decade of battling the USDA, New Communities was awarded $12 million. It was the largest of thousands of compensation awards from the USDA. Following the suit, the board began searching for farmland to buy in the Albany area. On June 29, 2011, NCI purchased the 1600-acre Cypress Pond Plantation, forging a new chapter in the still-unfolding tale of New Communities.
Shirley Sherrod, “At Work in the Fields,” The Courage to Hope: How I Stood Up to the Politics of Fear (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012), 83-86.
Letter from Dr. Lawrence H. Mamiya to President Barack Obama nominating Charles and Shirley Sherrod for the Presidential Medal for Freedom, December 30, 2010, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website, Tougaloo College.
“The Backstory: Historical Background for the Events Featured in Arc of Justice,” Educational Resources, Arc of Justice website.