The Black History of Community Land Trusts


A photograph of the family of J.N. Battle, a former slave known for amassing a large amount of land after the Civil War. Debbie Elliott/NPR


The first true community land trust was founded in the United States in Southwest Georgia. Charles Sherrod—my boss in early 1961, when I worked on voter registration in Albany, Terrill County, and Americus, Georgia, as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—was troubled because sharecroppers in southwest Georgia who joined the movement for voting rights were being evicted from the white plantations on which they lived. They either ended up homeless or had to migrate to other parts of the country.

About the same time, Slater King, a cousin of Martin Luther King, Jr., had been talking to the National Sharecroppers Fund about buying land for the Black farmers who were being forced off the plantations. The National Sharecroppers Fund came up with the money to send eight people to Israel to learn more about the kibbutz and moshav models of agricultural communities, both of which had been developed on lands that were leased from the Jewish National Fund. Charles Sherrod was among this delegation of 8 who wanted to learn how ground leasing worked.

After a month in Israel, Sherrod and his cohorts returned to the United States, convinced that a network of agricultural cooperatives, developed on lands leased from a community-based nonprofit, had the potential to be a powerful model for empowering Black people in the rural south.

In 1968, they introduced this idea in Atlanta to which they had invited representatives of nearly every civil rights organization in the south with an interest in addressing the land problem of Black farmers. At that meeting they formed a planning committee to explore the feasibility of developing a leasehold model of rural development for Black farmers. By mid-1969, bylaws drafted by C.B. King, a civil rights lawyer, brother of Slater, and cousin of Martin, were approved by the planning committee. The name adopted by the committee was New Communities, Inc., which was described in the Articles of Incorporation as a “nonprofit organization to hold land in perpetual trust for the permanent use of rural communities.”

The leadership of New Communities included three of the newly elected officers who had gone to Israel: Slater King, President, Faye Bennett, Secretary, and Leonard Smith, Treasurer. The corporation’s vice-president was a Black priest from Louisiana, Fr. Albert J. McKnight. At the time New Communities was formed, Fr. McKnight had a long history of helping the organizing of cooperatives and credit unions.

Under Slater King’s leadership, they took an option on 5,735 acres located in Leesburg, which is about 50 miles north of Albany, Georgia, using a $50,000 grant provided by the National Sharecroppers Fund. That left over $1 million dollars they still had to raise before their six-month option to purchase the land expired.

The whole process was almost derailed one month later, when Slater King was killed in an automobile accident. Despite this tragedy, the board decided to press on and asked Charles Sherrod to assume the presidency of New Communities, a position he retained for many years.

Under Sherrod’s leadership, New Communities was able to close the land deal on January 9, 1970, coming into possession of 3,000 acres of farmland and over 2,000 acres of woodland. It had to borrow most of the million eighty-thousand dollars purchase price. This meant that for the next 20 years most of the profits from raising and selling its agricultural products—corn, peanuts, soybeans, watermelons, hay, and beef—went into servicing the debt on its land.

Although several families moved into buildings that already existed on the land prior to its purchase by New Communities, government agencies—at the federal, state, and local levels—refused to fund the organization, and there were no accumulated profits to build new housing or to develop the planned community envisioned by the organization’s founders. In addition to all of this, New Communities had to grapple with white racist boycotting of their products followed up by threats to those who bought them, along with firebombing, shootings, and government harassment.

By 1982, things like burnings, bombings and government harassment had settled down. However, the economic risks of farming and the crushing debt on their land forced New Communities to sell 1,300 acres in the early 1980s. By 1987, they were forced to sell the rest.

The significance of this community land trust history for Northwest CLT Corporation is that we understand that control of land by Black, Brown, Indigenous and People of Color is a fundamental component required for racial justice in the City of Philadelphia, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and in the United States of America.

Since Black people have suffered the most historically under the heel of racist oppression, we understand that Black homeownership is an extremely critical part of Black self-actualization. For it is only in stable home settings that Black families can focus on providing the education, nurturing and values transmission that allows succeeding generations to evolve into higher levels of success in every area of life.

Consequently, Northwest CLT Corporation believes that owning a home is a Black person’s right—not something that has to be earned. Accordingly, we believe that no Black, Brown, Indigenous Person of Color should have to jump through hoops in order to own a decent home in a decent neighborhood in which to grow their family.