Decton Hylton guided his tractor through a grove of pecan trees whose canopy of leaves filtered the sun. As we drove across the 1,638-acre farm near Albany, Georgia, on a scorching day last October, Hylton told me about the nut’s history in the South. In the nineteenth century, he said, an enslaved man known only as Antoine, who worked as a gardener on a Louisiana plantation, was one of the first people to experiment with grafting pecan trees. He was largely responsible for turning the nut into a commercial crop, and the variety he developed is called Centennial. “It’s like an heirloom variety of pecan,” Hylton said. “It’s one of the best.”
Back in Antoine’s day, black farmworkers would have climbed the trees and shaken the branches by hand, flinging the nuts to the ground. Now, Hylton showed me, a machine with rubber-lined arms embraces and shakes the trunks. He imitated how it works, stretching out his arms and convulsing with a smirk on his face. Once the pecans fall to the ground, he said, another mammoth machine vacuums them up.
Hylton hoisted himself back onto his tractor, and we drove beyond the orchard’s shade, past open fields of grass and rows of satsuma orange trees. Hylton, a fifty-nine-year-old Jamaican with dreadlocks and a rolling accent, belongs to a community organization that supports small black-owned farms like this one. Once part of the estate of General Hartwell Hill Tarver, one of Georgia’s wealthiest slave owners, the land was sold in 1912 to the farmers who planted the pecan grove. These days it belongs to New Communities, a black farming cooperative founded in the Sixties that is widely considered to be the country’s first community land trust.
A CLT is a mechanism by which land is held in trust and managed by a nonprofit, used for whatever a community chooses, whether that’s housing, small businesses, cultural spaces, gardens, parks, or farms. The land is owned by a trust, which keeps it out of speculators’ hands, but residences and other structures can be privately owned and inherited, allowing community members to build wealth.
Few know that modern-day CLTs originated here in Georgia, in a civil-rights-era experiment to build economic power among poor black farmers. But the model has proved durable. Over the past decade, as real estate developers have carved up cities and driven housing costs beyond the realm of affordability, interest in CLTs has swelled. There are now 260 of them in the United States. Advocates say CLTs give communities the space and security to develop neighborhoods according to their needs rather than the demands of the market. The Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington, Vermont, which Senator Bernie Sanders helped establish in 1984, is now America’s largest, with 620 owner-occupied homes. Last September, when Sanders announced his campaign’s affordable-housing plan, he earmarked $50 billion for CLTs. “Land-trust housing,” he said, “enables people to enjoy the advantages of homeownership while keeping housing perpetually affordable.” Senator Elizabeth Warren’s housing platform included an “innovation lab” to study CLTs and other affordability strategies. CLTs are now considered by most policymakers to be a key component of any progressive housing solution.
The day after Hylton showed me around the farm, I walked up the steps to the porch of the property’s antebellum plantation house, where wooden rocking chairs faced a grassy expanse, and entered the kitchen. Shirley Sherrod, one of the founders of New Communities, was perched at a marble countertop, radiating warmth and grace, her black curls buoyant.
As a girl, Sherrod wanted to flee southwest Georgia. She didn’t mind the hardships of farm life—she began picking cotton, corn, peanuts, and cucumbers on her father’s farm, just south of Albany, at the age of four—but for a smart, studious black girl in the Jim Crow South, the North seemed to promise freedom. Then, in 1965, when Sherrod was seventeen, her father was shot in the back by a white farmer in a dispute over cattle. His killer was acquitted of murder by an all-white jury. That was when she decided to stay in Albany, and to commit to making it a better place.
By then, the civil-rights movement had arrived in Georgia. With it came Charles Sherrod, a young freedom rider, a theology student, and the first full-time field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. When Charles appeared at the family’s front door to register voters, Shirley’syounger sisters showed him her picture. Charles and Shirley were married in 1966. “We were trying to organize people in the rural area, and we knew the struggle,” Shirley Sherrod told me. Farmers worked from sunrise to sundown, with no days off and for very little pay. According to the historian Pete Daniel, landownership by black farmers peaked in the 1910s, and in the quarter century after 1950, half a million farms were lost by black farmers unable to access loans or other aid. Across the United States today, white farmers hold 97 percent of farms, 94 percent of farm acreage, and 98 percent of net farm income.
The Sherrods saw that their efforts to achieve racial equality would fall short as long as black people lacked economic clout and stability. “I look back at the civil-rights movement in many of these counties, and the work that was done could not have happened without the landowners,” Sherrod told me. “They were more independent. They could get people out of jail. If we had all been sharecroppers, all people working on farms, the movement in this area would not have happened.” The Sherrods started thinking about how to build power and wealth among black farmers. “We would develop something so that we would never lose the land,” she told me.
In 1968, Charles Sherrod visited Israel with a delegation sponsored by the National Sharecroppers Fund. Also on the trip were Slater King, a civil-rights leader in Albany, and Robert Swann, a white, Midwestern peace activist who had been a construction worker on one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s cooperative housing projects. Swann had read the 1879 manifesto Progress and Poverty by the economist Henry George, who argued that the central dilemma of modern capitalism—that what leaders called “progress” only seemed to heighten inequality—could be addressed by replacing all other taxes with a high tax on landownership.
Property values, George wrote, conflate the value of land and the value of the things we build on it, even though it is the latter—roads, electrical lines, businesses, services, farms, and homes—that make the land usable. Shifting the tax burden to landowners would discourage land hoarding and speculation, he thought, while supporting the efforts of regular people to build homes and businesses for themselves. George’s idea of separating the ownership of land from that of buildings had already been taken up by a few back-to-the-land experiments in the United States, and at a larger scale in both India and Israel. Civil-rights activists wondered if they could build a similar movement in the South.
While in Israel, the delegation met with officials from the Jewish National Fund, a private agency that had begun acquiring Palestinian land and leasing it to Jewish settlers in the 1900s. They visited settlements built on JNF plots: kibbutzim, where all property was collectively owned, and moshavim, where only certain operations were shared. Fay Bennett, the executive secretary of the National Sharecroppers Fund, wrote in a report about the trip that the group quickly recognized that the JNF’s model of landholding “could be effectively utilized in the development of a land program for poor people in the rural South.” The moshavim shitufim, villages with small private homesteads surrounded by large, cooperatively farmed fields, seemed like an especially good fit for the family-oriented South. “Without a system of land ownership that prevents foreclosure and loss of land—the Achilles’ heel of poor people through the years,” Bennett wrote, “neither black nor white poor people will be able to gain economic security and political power.”
When the delegation returned, King identified a six-thousand-acre plot of land near Albany for a new cooperative. The Sherrods, along with King and other civil-rights organizers, incorporated as New Communities and began the process of buying the plot with some money from the Sharecroppers Fund and the promise of a $1 million grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity, an agency that Lyndon Johnson created as part of his war on poverty. The OEO grant never arrived; Sherrod claims that white neighbors pressured the agency to withdraw its funding. Instead, Charles Sherrod scraped together money from church groups and took out loans to complete the purchase. In 1969, the deed was transferred, and New Communities became the largest single tract of black-owned farmland in the United States.
More than a hundred people, mostly poor black residents of southwest Georgia, gathered in an old barn on the grounds for intensive sessions in which architects proposed and debated designs. Collectively, the group decided that New Communities should include an industrial park and 250 units of low- and moderate-income housing. Initially, around ten families moved onto the land. Others came to work. They grew soybeans, peanuts, corn, peas, strawberries, collard greens, okra, and eight acres of muscadine grapes. Sherrod’s son, Kenyatta, remembers picking a few bunches from the vine when he was eight or nine and earning enough money to buy soda from the New Communities store to share with friends—there were usually thirty or forty kids hanging around. The store, located on a busy stretch of Highway 19, sold syrup made from sugarcane, as well as ham, bacon, and sausage from the farm’s hogs.
For more than a decade, New Communities was a success. “We were on a roll. We had expanded the farming operation. We could pay the land debt,” Sherrod told me. “And then those droughts came.” In 1981, a severe drought swept the region and continued for years. When Charles sought a loan to install an irrigation system, Sherrod claims, a USDA agent told him that New Communities would only receive one “over my dead body.” Later, the Sherrods learned that white farmers with similarly sized operations nearby had received USDA financing, even while they had been denied. In 1985, they were finally approved for a USDA emergency loan, but by that point the bank was foreclosing on their land. A white farmer bought the property, razed the buildings, and buried the rubble in pits he had dug in the ground. For years, Sherrod could not bear to drive past the site.
The foreclosure of New Communities did not stop the spread of CLTs, largely thanks to the efforts of Robert Swann, who had first brought the ideas of Henry George to Georgia. In 1972, Swann coauthored The Community Land Trust: A Guide to a New Model of Land Tenure in America, a book that drew on his decades of experience at cooperative farms and intentional communities. The book became a primer for communities across the United States. In 1978, a group of Catholic nuns started a CLT in eastern Tennessee, convinced that Swann’s ideas could help the region’s poor, most of whom lived on property owned by absentee coal corporations or land companies, whose sole purpose was buying, selling, and leasing land.
By the early Eighties, the idea had caught on among a growing number of community organizers and housing activists. They tweaked the CLT mandates to spell out social-justice principles like those that originally drove the Sherrods: helping low-income people maintain their homes and pushing for affordable housing in disadvantaged communities. The new, explicit emphasis on serving marginalized people allowed CLTs to register as charitable organizations under the federal tax code, and they began to attract money from public agencies and private foundations. Around the same time, Ronald Reagan withdrew federal funding for affordable housing and community development, prompting then-mayor Bernie Sanders to launch the CLT in Burlington. Years later, as a congressman, Sanders helped unlock federal funds and technical assistance for CLTs in the Housing and Community Development Act of 1992.
CLTs now range from small, grassroots projects to government-supported efforts in major metropolitan areas. Burlington, Houston, Boston, Albuquerque, and Denver have all transferred city-owned land with vacant tax-foreclosed buildings to CLTs. But advocates acknowledge that the mechanism is not a panacea for the manifold injustices plaguing the housing market. For instance, CLTs do little to halt land speculation or skyrocketing prices in the surrounding area. And CLT proponents, who in the past few decades have skewed white and wonky, have a tendency to couch their ideas in jargon that can be off-putting to people who stand to benefit the most from CLTs.
Nevertheless, a new generation of young community organizers of color has been adopting the model. This is welcome news to John Emmeus Davis, a city planner and the foremost historian of CLTs, who believes they can bring the “movement back to its roots.” With a renewed emphasis on social-justice principles, CLTs are reemerging not as mere tools for affordable housing but as launchpads for egalitarian communities. Some are using the trusts to support the grueling, capital-intensive work of farming, at a time when rural land consolidation is squeezing small farmers, food deserts are stifling poor urban communities, and the COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting food chains.
Stephanie Morningstar codirects the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, which formed in 2019 through an informal network of more than two hundred black, Native, Latino, and Asian-American organic farmers in the Northeast. Ten years ago, when Morningstar, who is part Oneida, lost her mother to cancer, she began thinking about how the inaccessibility of nutritious food contributes to poor health in indigenous communities. With the support of the nonprofit Agrarian Trust, she and other farmers developed a plan to steward land in a way that takes into account Native history. At every stage of a project, Morningstar’s organization consults with the tribes that have long inhabited the area.
Although land is harder to come by in urban areas, low-income communities in many cities are also launching new CLTs to take control of neighborhood development. Mychal Johnson, a community organizer with South Bronx Unite, which is based in the poorest congressional district in the United States, has spent years fending off luxury developments and industrial projects—power plants, a FreshDirect warehouse—that threatened to displace people from their homes. “Land has been the precursor for most of the economic oppression of communities of color,” Johnson told me. In 2013, South Bronx Unite asked local residents what they wanted in their neighborhood and found an overwhelming desire for arts spaces, recreation centers, and health services. They then formed Mott Haven–Port Morris Community Land Stewards, and the following year, New York City passed legislation that made it and other CLTs eligible for municipal development funding. Now the group is seeking control of its first plot, a vacant city-owned building that its members envision as a health, education, and arts center.
Twelve years after New Communities was buried, four hundred black farmers sued the USDA for discriminating against them by denying loans and grants between 1983 and 1997. Thousands more later joined the suit, and Pigford v. Glickman went to the U.S. District Court in Washington, where the farmers won. Judge Paul Friedman wrote in the majority opinion that the plaintiffs’ grievances “were the culmination of a string of broken promises that had been made to African American farmers for well over a century.” The $1 billion awarded in the suit is the largest civil-rights settlement in the history of the United States—an acknowledgment of the systemic disadvantages black farmers have faced for decades.
The largest settlement, $12 million, was awarded to New Communities. In 2011, the Sherrods used some of that money to buy a plot of land twenty-five miles from the original New Communities site. In addition to the pecan orchard, their new farm, which they named Resora, has orange groves, a squash garden, and a honeybee apiary, which Hylton uses to train aspiring beekeepers.
In October, hundreds of activists gathered at Resora to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of New Communities. They came from as far as Washington State and Jamaica to sing old freedom songs, hear nostalgic tales from civil-rights standoffs, and pay homage to Sherrod. During the celebrations, as a band belted out soul classics for the crowd, I noticed an elderly man sitting alone at a table. He was compact and neatly dressed in a newsboy cap. He told me his name was Gerald Holley, and we wandered over to two chairs on the porch, escaping the crowds.
In 1973, at age nineteen, Holley had just finished vocational school when a neighbor working at New Communities told him about a part-time position at the store. Like many young black men in Georgia at the time, Holley had expected to work in a factory, but here was an opportunity to help manage a business. “It was like learning to walk: you gotta start with a step,” he recalled. By 1974, he was working full-time and training as a butcher: carving meat, draining blood, hanging cuts to dry. Newly married, he bought a three-bedroom mobile home that he parked on the land, rent-free. He continued living there even after he stopped working at New Communities in 1980, when he took over his aunt and uncle’s shoe shop.
Holley told me that being part of New Communities’ success boosted his self-esteem. The land trust made the farm business easier to sustain—it wasn’t just “one man holding up the company,” he said. In the wake of Jim Crow, the community also helped him withstand the hostility of white neighbors. Some of the older members of New Communities told stories about the difficult times they had lived through, and Holley understood that being part of the group had helped ward off the failure that the outside world wished upon them. “They were a protective net around you.” Rocking gently in his chair, Holley gazed out at the land. “It is a joy to look back.”