The Black History of the Community Land Trust Model

Rondo CLT
April 29, 2024
Rondo staff with the Liberated Land Trust Tour delegation
Rondo staff with the Liberated Land Trust Tour delegation

While the nation turns its attention each February to African American ingenuity, at Rondo Community Land Trust, we honor — and make — Black history everyday.

As a CLT, we’re part of a movement that was born out of the vision and resistance of Black people in the segregated South who knew they needed more than the right to participate in American democracy—they needed the ability to own and control land to shape their own collective futures.

Charles Sherrod organizing in Georgia

It all started, not as a dream, but as a defense. In 1961, the Albany Movement became the first mass movement in the modern civil rights era to seek complete desegregation of an entire southern community. The all-white city council in the Georgia town vowed it would never happen and demonstrations were met with mass jailings. Even as the Albany Movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activated Black southerners to organize and register to vote, the consequences leveled against working families were devastating.

As the Center for Community Land Trust Innovation notes:

“As a community organizer, Charles Sherrod witnessed first-hand the painful repercussions of political activism, as again and again African American families were evicted from their homes or fired from their jobs because they had raised their voices against segregation. He came to believe that the only way African Americans in the Deep South would ever have the independence and security to stand up for their rights – and not be punished for doing so – was to own the land themselves.”

So Charles Sherrod, along with his wife Shirley and leaders with the National Sharecroppers Fund (NSF),  looked abroad to models of land ownership that could be adapted to the Black experience in America. After studying movements in India and traveling to Israel to explore the kibbutz model, they boldly advanced a new concept of land ownership in the United States. As the late Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis said in the documentary Arc of Justice:

“It was a courageous and brilliant idea to bring people together in a new way of thinking. Through cooperative land ownership, it was not just an individual but a community. It was what many of us during the early days of the [civil rights] movement spoke about it: building of a beloved community.”

While the NSF had expanded its programing in the 1960s to include the construction of affordable housing and the creation of agricultural cooperatives, the community land trust model went a step further. In 1969, New Communities, Inc. was established as “a nonprofit organization to hold land in perpetual trust for the permanent use of rural communities.” Less than a year later, NCI closed on 3,000 acres of farmland and over 2,000 acres of woodland just north of Albany – at the time, the largest tract of land owned by African Americans in the United States.

With Charles Sherrod as its president, NCI aimed to put into practice this new model of “cooperatively managed farms and planned residential communities located on land that was leased from a community-controlled nonprofit.” Predictably, the racist backlash was swift and fierce. As Charles Sherrod noted in Arc of Justice, “All power comes from the land” — and white people used all the tools they could leverage to strip that power.

While a federal agency committed a $100,000 grant to NCI to plan a vibrant community on the land, the governor of Georgia blocked the funding. While farmers across the nation were able to withstand years of drought by securing loans from the federal government, NCI was denied loans (like thousands of other Black farmers) and the land ultimately went into foreclosure.

Through the tenacity and resilience of countless others, though, the vision and the model spread far beyond rural Georgia. Today, there are more than 225 community land trusts in the United States building stability, equity and agency for people who have been marginalized or shut out of traditional housing markets. And, just like the concept itself, the history of CLTs in Minnesota originates from the Black experience, as well.

“Before the destruction from the I-94 freeway, the Rondo community was a solidarity economy when it came to Black prosperity,”  says Mikeya Griffin, Rondo CLT’s Executive Director. “There was high homeownership, cooperatively owned businesses, like a grocery store and a credit union. It was a very intergenerational community where, rich or poor, you were part of the circle of care. Rondo CLT was born out of that Black experience and a need to preserve affordable housing long term. It was certainly informed and inspired by the growth of the land trust model that blossomed from New Communities.”

When Rondo Community Land Trust was established in 1993, we were the first in Minnesota — and we’ve continued to make history ever since. While there are now 14 other CLTs statewide, Rondo became the first to take the model a step beyond affordable housing.

“When businesses were getting displaced from Selby Avenue, Rondo CLT developed the first commercial community land trust in Minnesota to preserve and celebrate our rich cultural heritage through economic development,” Griffin says. “As a CLT, we’re able to leverage public and private investments to preserve affordability for small businesses operated by people of color and non-profits at risk of displacement from rising rents.”

We know that Rondo is one of countless communities that have been harmed by government policies and banking practices that have forcibly removed or economically evicted Black people from the places we call home. That’s why we’re so committed to a reparative framework that accounts for our history while planning for our future — together.

“Black history tells us many things but one is that the government often makes promises but rarely follows through, whether that’s related to major infrastructure projects like highways or many other things,” Griffin says. “But the CLT movement, as we see it, is about building our own solidarity economy so we have control.”

The history of Rondo CLT is still being written — as is the history of New Communities.

Shirley Sherrod at Cypress Pond Plantation

Years after the foreclosure on the original land, the organization was awarded $12 million as part of a class action lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture alleging racial bias in its loan practices. In 2011, NCI purchased the 1,600-acre Cypress Pond Plantation near Albany, Georgia, where it all began. Now, as Shirley Sherrod explained in Arc of Justice, the land is once again inspiring a new generation to take back community control.

“We all own it together. It’s ours. We can start here to help people understand land trusts and start land trusts. And they listen more when we bring them to this place. When they come out here, they know everything is possible.”

Learn more about New Communities and the Black history of CLTs: