Interview with Charles Sherrod

Charles Sherrod

Conducted by John Emmeus Davis (1981) 

This interview first appeared in print in 1982 in The Community Land Trust Handbook (Institute for Community Economics, Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press).  It was reprinted in 2010 in The Community Land Trust Handbook (J.E. Davis, ed., Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy).  It is reproduced here with permission of Equity Trust, Inc.

QUESTION: You were associated with the early civil rights movement. Would you talk a little bit about the evolution of your thinking— of how you went from working for civil rights to this interest in land and the founding of New Communities?

CHARLES SHERROD: I guess the thing that prompted me to think in terms of self- sustaining capacity more than anything else was knocking on doors all over the country— whether it was in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, or in Virginia where I was born. I was hearing people say the same thing time and time again. “What you going to do if I’m kicked out of my house? You young people are talking a good talk— this is a good thing you’re doing— but I live on this man’s land, and what am I going to do if they take my job, take my house? What am I going to do with my children?”

This was when I was organizing in the field and that was a resounding echo in my mind for years and years, a question that I was never able to answer: Who shoulders responsibility when it happens? It wasn’t as if it was a hollow question, because right there before my eyes every year were examples of people getting kicked out of their houses, people losing their jobs and all security, contracts dishonored, children not being able to eat. So what could I do? There they were. And there I was— with my commitment, but no power; my love, but no bread. And with all my tenacity and strength of mind, I couldn’t employ nobody. So years of that— on dusty roads, thinking and talking, riding through and looking at people’s homes on plantations, getting kicked off plantations myself, periling other people’s houses and sustenance myself, just being on their plantation. The only solution that one could come to would be that we have to own land ourselves.

Most of these people have gone to every known agency possible. FmHA [Farmers Home Administration] wasn’t giving any housing loans— only for white people. The Federal Land Bank people weren’t about to give any— they were controlled by the white farmers. The ASCS [Agricultural Stabilization Conservation Service] committees were all controlled by the white farmers, who were the same people who were part of the establishment which gave birth to the Ku Klux Klan. So we didn’t look to the existing structures of government, or government programs. We didn’t look to any of those programs for aid for our people to get land, or to reclaim land. Of course at the same time a lot of our people had land, but they had it heavily mortgaged. Knowing farming and knowing nothing else to do but farming, they continued to do what they knew— at the same time wondering why they were failing every year. Of course we all knew the reason was the structures that helped farmers stay farmers weren’t geared to help small farmers to stay farmers, or to hold land, or to reclaim land.

Actually, during the same time, black and white farmers were losing their land. But my knowledge was of the black farmers, the small black farmers principally, losing their land. It wasn’t just crop failure or a failure to get financing that was the cause— it was a calculated attempt to take land from these farmers. In many cases, we found people paying taxes on people’s land and trying to gain land by adverse possession, and other methods: getting people that can’t read and write to put their X here and there, and taking that land; getting people to become involved in some get- rich- quick scheme, and losing land that way.

Through the years we have documented many of these instances where well-known figures have taken land from our people. Those instances are what led us to think in terms of how we could sustain ourselves, sustain people who were being kicked off their plantations. In our area there are large numbers of plantations. Absentee landlords in Michigan, New York, California; large companies that own large tracts of land; and now there’s a big influx of foreign landownership.

QUESTION: Why were people kicked off the plantation?

CHARLES SHERROD: Well, technology for the most part. Large machines. Monster tractors come into our area and do 500 acres a day. So no need for small tractors and tractor drivers to work. The big cultivators and pesticides and herbicides we have— there’s no need for pulling weeds and that sort of hand cultivation.

Long- Range Goals and Present Needs

QUESTION: What were your plans when you founded New Communities? What were the founding principles of the organization?

CHARLES SHERROD: One, to hold land. Two, to become self-sustaining, to have this land as a base from which we can allow small farmers some stability of their market. For production. For information. For transportation facilities. The economics of buying together, for example, to bring down the price of seed, fertilizer, and these other things that people need to farm with. Utilization of a large tractor by a larger number of farmers to accelerate the efficiency of the farm unit. These kinds of ideas we had in mind.

QUESTION: Have these changed over the course of time?

CHARLES SHERROD: No, they’re still here with us. Meanwhile, the overriding priority is holding on to this large piece of land. And nobody’s come to our aid to help us to finance this land in such a way that we can put part of the money that we make into promotion and development of the land. We haven’t been able to do any development. We haven’t been able to pay any consultants to do any planning. We can’t get the fellows in government to help us. We can’t get grants— I don’t know where we’d get the grants from now to do planning and development. We got the people, we got contacts all over south Georgia, people who’d be willing to live on this land, people who’d be willing to hook up with our kind of idea—’cause it’s good economics to them. We got the facilities here that a good number of farmers could use. But we are pressured to talk about survival and holding on to the land.

Maybe our children will be talking about how they want to develop or divide the land or how they want to lease it— this part for farming, that part for industry, that part for something else. That sort of thing may be done by our children. But unless someone comes out of the woodwork it looks like we’re going to be dealing with holding on to it and paying for it.

QUESTION: If someone did come out of the woodwork— if you had the money—what kind of housing would you like to see built?

CHARLES SHERROD: We’ve always wanted to build a large number of houses all at once, not one at a time. Part of the reason for not building just one here and there is that we were scared we’d put the stuff in the wrong place. But if we have some feeling that we’re going to put houses in the same general area and if we get a big grant from somewhere, or some big financing to do a wastewater facility, then we could do 15 or 20 houses. Those kinds of things are not easily financed by an organization like ours. We have to get some help on that.

QUESTION: But you’re thinking now of trying to build a house or two every year?

CHARLES SHERROD: Yeah, we gradually build that up, then we’ll go after a large lump of money to tie them all together with one water source, one line for sewage, and one line for wastewater. We have those kinds of things in mind. But we still want to go into a planned housing development. We don’t want to have it be just out here, out there, and out there.

QUESTION: You’ve had to sell 1,348 of your original 5,735 acres. What forced you to sell it?

CHARLES SHERROD: We had to sell it to hold on to what we had. We had an annual debt service of $203,000 and we were making about $100,000 clear on our farming, which was our only income. We had to raise the rest of the money every year. Some years I’d have to raise the total million dollars to refinance. Now we have to raise a debt service of about $150,000.

QUESTION: Who did you sell the land to?

CHARLES SHERROD: Private buyers. We held off as long as we could. People who were financing us were understanding— they thought they had our interest at heart— but they were also forcing us to sell so that they could get part of their money. They saw a great business opportunity to sell for $600 an acre land that we bought for $250 an acre. But we weren’t interested in making money off the land in that way. We wanted to hold on to it. What people could have done, they could have cleared 1,348 acres for us. We could have clear- cut it, given them all the money for the trees and so forth. On top of that, in the next four years, we could have brought the land in production up to a sufficient level to satisfy them.

The Community and the Farm

QUESTION: Are any people living on the land now?

CHARLES SHERROD: Just a few houses, five houses. The people aren’t leasing, not legally. People who live on the land don’t have to pay rent. They keep the houses up. The houses were already here.

QUESTION: And the people are also part of the labor force for New Communities?

CHARLES SHERROD: Yeah, for the most part. Everybody’s not. Somebody’s husband may be working and the wife not, or the wife may be working and the husband not. If you want to be part of New Communities, you can be. If you don’t choose to be then you don’t have to be, even though you’re on the land.

QUESTION: Are you employing people from outside communities?

CHARLES SHERROD: Everywhere. There’s no such thing as outside to us. We’re not an inside community as such. We are a community, but we are not a concrete community.

QUESTION: How many people actually receive a wage from New Communities?

CHARLES SHERROD: About 14— that’s full- time. In the summer we might have 25 or 30, kids, adults. When the grapes ripen there might be 20 or 30 people just at that.

QUESTION: How are your farm operations organized? How are decisions made on a day- by- day basis?

CHARLES SHERROD: It is a controversy among us as to whether or not we should have a farm manager with all the powers that a traditional farm manager has. So far, our creative approach has won out. We have a meeting with the farm committee and decide how many acres of this we’re going to plant. Then the staff gets together as a team during the week, apart from the farm committee, and speaks to the specifics for the week. Then, on Monday, when you’re ready to go at it, our team leader— that’s Sam Young— has the last word; he’ll tell you to do this and you to do that. It may be what we said in the meeting and it may not be because, for instance, if it rains and we forgot to say in the meeting that if it rains we’ll do such and such a thing, it may be different.

QUESTION: With your need to get as much value out of the land as possible in order to retire the debt, have you been forced to do things to the land or do farming in a way that you’d prefer not to?

CHARLES SHERROD: Well, there’s not many other ways we can do farming. It’s true, though, we wouldn’t be planting certain crops right behind one another. We are forced, for example, to plant soybeans behind soybeans over and over— just because we have to make as much money as we can. We can’t rotate with corn because corn is just too expensive a crop. We don’t plant any more corn than we have to feed our hogs.

QUESTION: You have a pretty sophisticated farming operation going here— a couple of hundred head of cattle, a few hundred hogs, 800 acres of soybeans, corn, grapes. Where do you get the technical know- how to put it all together?

CHARLES SHERROD: When we started out I didn’t even know the difference between grass and hay. But we’ve learned. We’ve had people come in that knew about farming and technology. But in the long run it’s cheaper to home- grow technology. You know you’re going to need expertise; you know you’re going to need it from now on. If you are an organization that plans to exist from now on, then you need to home- grow that expertise as much as possible, not rely on people outside. They say you’ve got to get a surveyor; then your architect’s got to come in and he says you got to do this. A lot of that is just bull- jive. You can’t tell me that with all the blue- prints they’ve drawn up in this country, with all the kinds of buildings, you’ve got to pay somebody when all you’ve got to do is change this and add something here and put it up yourself. If you home- grow these guys, you can save that money a hundred times as you need that expertise again and again.

QUESTION: But it sounds like someone like Sam Young already had some skills when he came to you.

CHARLES SHERROD: He grew up on a farm. His father was a farmer and his father was a farmer. So he knows farming. And his whole family was in the movement. So he started working with us, all through the 1960s. He was on my staff , and when we went into the New Communities project he just worked with it. He also prints. He went to school in printing, two years. He’s real smart.

Did I ever tell you about Boll Weevil? This guy was over in Calhoun County. I was invited over there to help with school desegregation. I kept hearing every day about Boll Weevil, Boll Weevil. He’d been working for this white lady, working on her farm. We hired him. We found out he’d never been to school, but he could fix diesel motors, special equipment motors, transmissions, alternators, anything. Boll Weevil! He’s got about 36 or 35 children, got about 13 living with him now. I think the first house we’re going to build is going to be for him. He’s got a large family. He lives in that block house there now.

Then there’s Marge. She’s a midwife, she’s a taxi driver, she cures our meat, she makes soap— all those old ways of doing things that people knew to make ends meet. She knows leaves for various teas. All the old ways. She drives for over an hour a day to come here. She’s also got a job as a deputy sheriff.

QUESTION: It sounds as if most of the folks who actually live on the land are there because of their commitment— beyond just a paycheck.

CHARLES SHERROD: Yeah. They understand what we’re working for. They understand that it’s not just them that’s going to prosper from the land. It’s going to affect thousands of people if we’re successful.

The Larger Community; The Future

QUESTION: What kind of training have you been able to do for people who either work here on the land trust or who are from the wider community?

CHARLES SHERROD: First of all, we had to learn a lot of things ourselves. The things that we have learned, we’ve put to use. And by demonstration we’ve shown people what we know, and what we don’t. So based on that, at various times in the past 10 or 11 years we’ve had seminars, workshops. We’ve talked about the various kinds of cooperatives that could be developed if people would get together. We’ve shown and talked about various federal guidelines that were current. And we’ve helped people hold on to some of their equipment. We’ve made small loans to various farmers where we could help them. We have sent some young people to school— through our contacts, and we have given some money at various times.

QUESTION: Will these students come back and work at New Communities?

CHARLES SHERROD: That’s what we ask. Not many of them have come back, to be quite honest. But it’s not too late, you know. For example, one student in Albany is a lawyer. We sent him to college, and helped him some in grad school. When he came back he didn’t come and work with us in the way that we had asked him to— a year or two for free— but at the same time, we still have him. He’s here; he’s in the area. We can go to him and ask him this and ask him that. He is accessible to the people. So, while he didn’t come back to us as an organization, he did come back home. That’s good enough as far as I’m concerned. And there are other people. In our society, when a woman marries she goes with her husband, so we can look at some of our students we’ve lost by that. But they are in community- related, upgrading projects, so although we don’t have them at our disposal, they are at the disposal of other poor people somewhere in the country.

QUESTION: How does the white establishment in this area regard New Communities?

CHARLES SHERROD: They’re not opposing us now. There was a time when they did oppose us. They’d burn, and they’d fi re at us; they threw one or two of us in jail. But at this point, they have accepted us. They even ask for our judgment on certain things. The white farmers lease cropland from us, year by year. People come and fish on our land, for a minimum fee— white people.

QUESTION: If you had it to do over again, do you think you would start out with as much land as you did or do you think you’d start out with a little less?

CHARLES SHERROD: No, I’d start out with as much as I could start out with. See, I’ve heard those arguments too. But, well, I say it like this: How many groups in the country have as much land as we have? See? Chances are we wouldn’t have had it either if we hadn’t been lucky to have a certain group of people together at one time, a certain kind of people together at one time.

QUESTION: Other people around the South, other organizations haven’t tried to organize community land trusts. Why?

CHARLES SHERROD: Land costs money. It’s something our folk don’t have. If they did have, they’d buy land for themselves. They’d buy a car for themselves; they’d build a house for themselves. So also there’s got to be political commitment, a deep philosophical underpinning, to move toward these kinds of goals, given our up bringing. There’s got to be a commitment to the movement, a broader movement for a better life in our country.

QUESTION: Have you talked with some of the black farmers in the area about putting their land into trust?

CHARLES SHERROD: Not really, not legally. That’ll come later. I’ve talked with some farmers, some people who have land, about willing their land to us when they die— instead of letting it go to certain individuals who really have no interest in it but to sell it and move to New York. These happen to be their children, so it’s a hard thing to get over to somebody. But there are some people who, when I’ve asked, find it easier to understand and identify with the idea.

QUESTION: Is there still resistance to the idea of leasing, rather than owning land?

CHARLES SHERROD: Not resistance— why should I resist if nobody’s imposing it on me? But if you try to sell that idea— the idea of personal ownership is more intriguing because we’ve grown up in a kind of greedy society. So you’ve got to overcome 20, 30, or 40 years of that kind of indoctrination. That’s why anybody making the kind of moves we’re making has to be committed to another way of life. Because we are continually shown the glittering of the individual approach, individual ownership, individual rising from rags to riches. That is success in our society. We have to write a new way of success, new criteria for success in our society.

QUESTION: And this is what you’re trying to do with New Communities?

CHARLES SHERROD: This is what I’m trying to do with my children and my other contacts and people who are part of New Communities.