The Southwest Georgia Project (SWGAP), a grantee of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation based in Albany, Ga., has worked for more than 50 years to empower black families in southwest Georgia and advocate for social justice.
In June 2011, an outgrowth of SWGAP called New Communities purchased Cypress Pond, a 1,638-acre plantation outside Albany that had once been the property of the largest slaveholder in Georgia. New Communities plans to farm the land and develop a conference center for racial education and healing. The development of an African-American grassroots organization now owning a former slave plantation represents a remarkable turn of events, yet it’s only the latest step in SWGAP’s long history.
Fifty Years of Grassroots Community Organizing
The SWGAP grew out of desegregation efforts that began in Albany in 1961 by civil rights activist Charles Sherrod. In 1966, Sherrod married Shirley Miller, who had grown up on a nearby farm. In 1969, the couple formed a partnership with other black leaders to establish New Communities, a farm collective on 5,700 acres that is widely recognized as a model for community land trusts in the U.S. They planted grapes, opened a roadside market and built a greenhouse and sugarcane mill. The next dozen years were fruitful ones.
Beginning in 1981, however, the region experienced several years of extreme drought. New Communities applied for an emergency loan from the USDA. Although many drought-stricken white farmers around them received loans, New Communities’ application was denied and ultimately the property was foreclosed. Dispirited but unbroken, Shirley Sherrod embarked on a long career in rural development.
In 1997, New Communities joined 400 African-American farmers in filing a class action lawsuit against the USDA, alleging racial discrimination in the allocation of farm loans. The case was settled in favor of the farmers in 1999, but payment to New Communities was still 10 years down the road.
Empowering Communities to Work for Change
Today Sherrod directs a small, dedicated SWGAP staff – all of them women – who work on community empowerment, agricultural and economic development and racial healing.
Among SWGAP’s most successful efforts has been its ongoing partnership with the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative, which supports women in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi. The SWGAP also facilitates a leadership development program for young women, offering training, resources and opportunities in agricultural development, community building and racial healing.
On the agricultural front, SWGAP is developing a food processing plant that will be the heart of a community food network, connecting mostly African-American small and mid-sized farmers with school districts in the region. The project builds on the success of a commercial kitchen SWGAP helped establish in 2005 at a local community center.
Racial Healing Goes Hand in Hand with Community Engagement
With funding from the Kellogg Foundation, SWGAP’s Racial Healing Project engages people of all races in Albany’s Dougherty County and nearby Clay and Wilcox Counties in honest and open dialogue to bridge the racial divide. The project has convened a series of forums to train facilitators from the three counties. The facilitators include pastors of predominantly African American and predominantly white congregations, a county judge, a Hispanic school teacher, professors from nearby universities, business owners and public officials. All will go forward to lead community conversations on racial healing.
In Clay County, SWGAP helped build a community garden for high school students that’s located near the senior center. The garden connects teens, most of whom are black, with seniors, most of whom are white. The seniors share what it was like to farm and grow your own fruit and vegetables, a way of life the teens have never experienced.
In Wilcox County, SWGAP is supporting an effort on the part of black and white high school students to hold an integrated prom. It would be a first in in the county, where students have held segregate senior proms for generations.
“We feel like we want to make a change in our community,” says black student Mareshia Rucker. White student Brandon Davis says, “Some of us still hold back … but, hey, it takes one person to start a movement.” The two formed a committee that is now raising funds for the prom.
Planting Hope at Cypress Pond
In 2010, New Communities at last received compensation from its 1999 class action settlement. As it happened, Cypress Pond plantation was on the market. In June 2011, New Communities used some of its settlement funds to purchase the property and with it a chance for rebirth.
In her book, The Courage to Hope, written with Catherine Whitney, Sherrod eloquently lays out the new dream:
“We wanted a property where we could both farm the land and also nurture the minds of people across the nation. Our land would become a home for progressive thought and action. Cypress Pond was the ideal setting, and we were mindful that there was a certain moral justice to acquiring a former slave plantation to promote economic opportunity for farmers and dialogue among the races.”