Greenville Reading in Harper’s about New Communities farming land trust in Georgia celebrating the 50th anniversary since its founding, my memory is playing tricks on me. I keep thinking that I met Charles Sherrod or at least was in a meeting at the same time with him, but I can’t place the time or occasion, so it’s more likely that I’m transposing something else on it. I suspect Tom Wahman is to blame.
Tom Wahman was part of a philanthropic underground of sorts. One of those progressive pearls embedded deeply in the shells that encased the rich and their wealth in foundations. I met Tom when he was at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund through an introduction from George Wiley of the National Welfare Rights Organization. Tom was an early funder of ACORN for several years while he was at RBF in the mid-1970s. He would pull the money out of a hat and wash it to ACORN via the Center for Community Change and an alley of his there, who ironically was George’s ex-wife’s partner. When Tom would visit ACORN in Little Rock in the early days, he was equally cagey. He would combine it with a visit to the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation as cover, and he was always on his way to his pet project and great passion, New Communities. It’s likely hearing Tom talk so much about the Sherrod’s work there and his love and support for the project that I felt we were on a parallel path, starting organizations in 1970.
New Communities was a community land trust, one of the first of its kind. There are some 260 of them around the country. Our still thriving Mutual Housing Association of New York (MHANY) is likely listed in that mix with its thousands of land trust apartments. All of our early ACORN Housing Corporation housing developments were founded on a land trust model. Sadly, we were not able to continue on that model except in New York City. Too many of the members wanted to see their housing equal wealth for their families. We understood and eventually stopped trying to push water upstream.
New Communities endured to 50 though, much as ACORN has, through the ups and downs, so I find myself celebrating with the Sherrods on that score as well. Their groundbreaking success in the 1970s was crippled by first drought and USDA discrimination denying them a loan until a lawsuit by black farmers saw New Communities get the largest single settlement at $12 million. Though they had lost their first 6000-acre property, the money allowed New Communities and its model to rise again twenty-five miles away, and celebrate their fifty years. As I steered the riding mower around our four pecan trees to cut the tall grass on the half-acre ACORN Farm in New Orleans lower 9th Ward yesterday, I marveled at how hard their work had been and how amazing.
Creating a community land trust of any kind is never an easy ride. It’s collective ownership and combined resources and decision making that’s a saddle sore on capitalism’s hide. Tom Wahman and Charles and Shirley Sherrod and their fellow farmers were right. We need more of these, no matter how many rocks are in the road.