Antioch alumna draws spotlight
- Published: July 29, 2010
Before rural farming and land trust crusader Shirley Miller Sherrod was thrust into the national spotlight when she was forced to resign last week from her position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), she studied at Antioch University Midwest. The Obama Administration, admitting it was wrong, quickly offered to rehire her.
Sherrod received a Master of Arts in Rural Development in 1989 from Antioch’s School of Adult and Experiential Learning, as the school was then known, in partnership with the Rural Development Leadership Network, or RDLN. Sherrod was part of the first graduating class of the program, according to RDLN’s Web site.
Her masters thesis, “The Multi-Purpose Farm Cooperative as an Approach to Saving the Black Farm,” details an innovative model for ensuring the economic success of black farms that includes marketing, processing, wholesaling and financing. According to the RDLN Web site, Sherrod’s thesis “continues to provide a blueprint for her ongoing work with black farmers and others.”
“We appreciate working with Antioch,” said RDLN President Starry Krueger in a telephone interview last week. “It enables people working with rural development to stay in their communities to continue their work.”
According to Krueger, Sherrod used her time as an Antioch student to begin a resource center for small farmers in Georgia. Sherrod’s degree was sponsored by the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, where she worked after graduation implementing the ideas outlined in her thesis.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Sherrod and her husband Charles were instrumental in developing the nation’s first land trust, starting a movement which produced three in the Yellow Springs area — Home, Inc., the Tecumseh Land Trust and the Vale Land Trust. Today, Yellow Springs remains the only municipality in the world with two community land trusts and a conservation land trust, according to Home, Inc. Program Manager Emily Seibel.
The Sherrods’ land trust, New Communities, Inc., was a black farm collective that stretched 6,000 acres across southwest Georgia, the largest black landholding at the time. After it dissolved in the mid-1980s, Sherrod enrolled at Antioch.
“Black farmers face a crisis of survival,” Sherrod wrote in her thesis. “We are fast becoming a landless people and a powerless people and therefore a hopeless people.”
Last year New Communities, Inc. won a $13 million settlement from the USDA for racial discrimination in the withholding of federal loans which were promised during a drought, leading to its collapse. Shirley and Charles Sherrod received $150,000 each in the settlement due to pain and suffering with the rest going to revive New Communities, Inc.
Sherrod was asked to resign on July 19 as the USDA’s Georgia Director of Rural Development after her remarks at an NAACP meeting four months earlier were taken out of context and promoted as racist in an edited video posted on the Internet. Once the distorted editing became known, the Obama Administration apologized and said she could have her job back.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack admitted in a briefing with reporters that he had seen a transcript of only a portion of Sherrod’s remarks to the NAACP before seeking her resignation. In offering to rehire her, he said, “She has an extraordinary history of helping individuals in trouble.”