How Shirley Sherrod Saved a White-Owned Farm in South Georgia

In March 2010, Shirley Sherrod spoke before the NAACP in Douglas, Georgia. As the first Black director of the USDA’s Rural Development in Georgia, and a long history of advocating for justice and civil rights in the rural south, Shirley had much to share. I recounted this in my recent article The Racist History of the USDA. But there is need for further explanation.

One experience, that Shirley has recounted numerous times with audiences, was how she helped save the farm of a white family in the 1980’s. It was life changing for her. She talked about this at the NAACP gathering and it was her presentation at this gathering that was recently distorted and distributed by Fox News and that led to her being asked to resign from USDA. The distortion made it look as if Shirley was racist; that she had not provided the assistance that she could or should to a white farmer who asked her for assistance. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The consequence of the distorted video and the actions of the Secretary of Agriculture by asking Shirley to resign is yet another shameful chapter in the history of American agriculture and the USDA. The decision by Secretary Vilsack was made without knowing the details. Nevertheless, he did apologize, as did the President, and that is, at least, appropriate and Shirley accepted their apologies.

I spoke with Shirley the morning after she was asked to resign and she shared with me what happened at the NAACP event as well as her experience with the white farmer who was referred to in the distorted video.

First, though, a definition of racism needs to be given and it is this: Everyone (white, black or brown) can and often does discriminate against someone else. This is probably human nature. Racism, however, is defined as discrimination plus the power to enforce your discriminatory views. In no way can Blacks be racist in America. Blacks don’t control the government, the banks, corporate America, or the courts. At the helm of these institutions in America are whites – and predominantly white males. It’s those of us who are white who are the racists. We control everything and can enforce our discriminatory views be it against blacks, immigrants, the poor, etc. You name whatever the prevailing discriminatory view might be among whites and rest assured we can usually enforce it. You can also rest assured that by doing so we whites demonstrate not a semblance of justice or an understanding of so-called democracy.

It’s we who are white who are in need of learning about justice and democracy and what they mean and about our abysmal supremacist past. We are the ones who need to get beyond our intransigent views. Shirley tries to teach us.

In the 1980’s Shirley was Georgia Field Director for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (Federation) that works primarily with Black farmers throughout the South. The organization grew out of the civil rights movement to assist farmers and rural communities across the region with, for example, land retention, access to credit and USDA programs, housing, farm management and importantly cooperative economic development. It continues with this important work today.

The 1980’s were a time when black and white farmers were losing their farms in record numbers.

In 1986, Shirley was approached, for the first time, by a white farmer who needed help. He was Roger Spooner from Iron City, Georgia. For someone white to ask for assistance from a black person was not the order of things in the South. He had been referred by the Georgia Department of Agriculture. Also Carolyn Mugar, director of FARM AID, was referring white farmers to the Federation in the 1980’s as it continues to do today.

The meeting at first was somewhat uncomfortable. He spent much of the time at the beginning of their discussion trying to demonstrate that he was superior to her. Southern poor whites have been socialized into thinking they are better than Blacks. It is always the classic divide and rule strategy by the white elite in the South to keep whites and blacks separated and controlled. In fact Shirley mentions this scenario in her NAACP speech about the history of how the races were divided by the white elite and why.

But in spite of all, Shirley recognized Spooner needed help.

There was a lot to consider as to what would be best for him and where she should seek assistance for him. She also thought that perhaps it was best that someone in the white community help him as her networks were not necessarily prepared to rally assistance for white farmers.

It was the beginning of a process that changed Shirley’s life as well as that of the Spooner family. It was a growing time for both.

Spooner’s visit to Shirley came just after Congress had passed the Chapter 12 bankruptcy provision to assist family farmers. Under Chapter 12 farmers could hold on to their land while arranging whatever they could to retain ownership. Chapter 12 also required that farmers had been in operation the previous year, otherwise, they were not able to file.

He needed an attorney. Shirley contacted a white attorney in Albany who she knew had gone through the Chapter 12 training. She also went with Spooner to the meeting with the attorney.

She, Spooner and his wife Eloise, then kept in close contact in the subsequent months and years as Spooner tried to hold on to his farm. Shirley helped him every step of the way.

One of the challenges faced by Spooner, however, and what was an eye opener for Shirley, was that the USDA county supervisor had rented Spooner’s farm to other producers without his approval. Because of this, Spooner was not able to file Chapter 12, as he could not claim having farmed the year before. Shirley had never witnessed this kind of abusive behavior by the USDA county supervisors even against Black farmers.

As it turned out, the Albany attorney was abysmal and did little for Spooner. Finally, in May of 1987, Spooner received a foreclosure notice along with 13 others in Georgia. He called Shirley and she asked him to come immediately. It was on Thursday before Memorial Day that they met. Time was limited as the farm was to be auctioned on the courthouse steps the week after Memorial Day.

They visited his Albany attorney who said, “You’re getting old, why don’t you let the farm go?” Shirley was outraged by the comment.

She then contacted another attorney in Americus, Georgia who had helped black farmers associated with the Federation. He immediately offered his assistance. On Tuesday after Memorial Day the attorney had the Spooner papers. Because Chapter 12 was not useful to Spooner, the attorney instead filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The Spooner farm was saved, although the Chapter 11 filing was just the beginning of a process. It took 2 years for a final resolution. In the meantime, Shirley and the Spooners kept in close contact and a friendship evolved. They would often have lunches together after discussing the case. In the late 1980’s there was a conference in Atlanta on Black landloss issues. Shirley asked if the Spooner’s would like to attend. Roger Spooner drove his truck all the way from Florida so that he and his wife could drive from Albany with Shirley to the conference in Atlanta.

The lessons learned for Shirley from this experience were profound. While she had always thought that the white community and white farmers could work the system for their benefit, she realized this was not always the case. The Spooner’s were poor whites. They, as whites, had been treated by the USDA in a way she had not witnessed. She became aware that the problems farmers experienced were not only racial, but that it was also a question of those who have and those who do not. She stressed the importance of moving beyond race and for blacks and whites to work together and help each other. It was this that Shirley wanted to share with the NAACP.

HEATHER GRAY is the producer of “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She has been involved in agriculture advocacy and communications for 20 years in the United States and internationally. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net





More articles by:

Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia, Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern Africa. For 24 years she has worked in support of Black farmer issues and in cooperative economic development in the rural South. She holds degrees in anthropology and sociology. She can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.

Weekend Edition
March 23, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Roberto J. González
The Mind-Benders: How to Harvest Facebook Data, Brainwash Voters, and Swing Elections
Paul Street
Deplorables II: The Dismal Dems in Stormy Times
Nick Pemberton
The Ghost of Hillary
Andrew Levine
Light at the End of the Tunnel?
Paul de Rooij
Amnesty International: Trumpeting for War… Again
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Coming in Hot
Chuck Gerhart
Sessions Exploits a Flaw to Pursue Execution of Meth Addicts
Robert Fantina
Distractions, Thought Control and Palestine
Hiroyuki Hamada
The Eyes of “Others” for Us All
Robert Hunziker
Is the EPA Hazardous to Your Health?
Stephanie Savell
15 Years After the Iraq Invasion, What Are the Costs?
Aidan O'Brien
Europe is Pregnant 
John Eskow
How Can We Live With All of This Rage?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Was Khe Sanh a Win or a Loss?
Dan Corjescu
The Man Who Should Be Dead
Howard Lisnoff
The Bone Spur in Chief
Brian Cloughley
Hitler and the Poisoning of the British Public
Brett Wilkins
Trump Touts $12.5B Saudi Arms Sale as US Support for Yemen War Literally Fuels Atrocities
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraqi Landscapes: the Path of Martyrs
Brian Saady
The War On Drugs Is Far Deadlier Than Most People Realize
Stephen Cooper
Battling the Death Penalty With James Baldwin
CJ Hopkins
Then They Came for the Globalists
Philip Doe
In Colorado, See How They Run After the Fracking Dollars
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Armed Propaganda
Binoy Kampmark
John Brennan’s Trump Problem
Nate Terani
Donald Trump’s America: Already Hell Enough for This Muslim-American
Steve Early
From Jackson to Richmond: Radical Mayors Leave Their Mark
Jill Richardson
To Believe in Science, You Have to Know How It’s Done
Ralph Nader
Ten Million Americans Could Bring H.R. 676 into Reality Land—Relief for Anxiety, Dread and Fear
Sam Pizzigati
Billionaires Won’t Save the World, Just Look at Elon Musk
Sergio Avila
Don’t Make the Border a Wasteland
Daryan Rezazad
Denial of Climate Change is Not the Problem
Ron Jacobs
Flashing for the Refugees on the Unarmed Road of Flight
Missy Comley Beattie
The Age of Absurdities and Atrocities
George Wuerthner
Isle Royale: Manage for Wilderness Not Wolves
George Payne
Pompeo Should Call the Dogs Off of WikiLeaks
Russell Mokhiber
Study Finds Single Payer Viable in 2018 Elections
Franklin Lamb
Despite Claims, Israel-Hezbollah War is Unlikely
Montana Wilderness Association Dishonors Its Past
Elizabeth “Liz” Hawkins, RN
Nurses Are Calling #TimesUp on Domestic Abuse
Paul Buhle
A Caribbean Giant Passes: Wilson Harris, RIP
Mel Gurtov
A Blank Check for Repression? A Saudi Leader Visits Washington
Seth Sandronsky
Hoop schemes: Sacramento’s corporate bid for an NBA All-Star Game
Louis Proyect
The French Malaise, Now and Then
David Yearsley
Bach and the Erotics of Spring