A Black Commons

Robert Swann and Charles Sherrod with members of New Communities, Inc. at planning meeting circa 1970.

Since its founding in 1980 the Schumacher Center for a New Economics has been an advocate for community land trusts as a way to create more equitable access to land. The board of directors queried staff as to how the community land trust model could be applied to the issue of reparations.  Following is a summary of that thinking.  The full proposal may be read here.

Proposal Summary

For decades community land trusts have enabled local communities to create affordable homeownership opportunities by providing low cost access to land held in a commons while enabling private ownership of the homes on the land.  Our proposal is to adopt the community land trust structure to serve as a national vehicle to amass purchased and gifted lands in a Black Commons with the specific purpose of facilitating low cost access for Black Americans hitherto without such access.  In short creating one piece of a Black Reparations Movement.

The community land trust is a tested and known entity for holding working lands in a commons while at the same time facilitating leaseholders ability to build equity in homes and other improvements on the land. Donors would be assured that their one-time donation of land would not again enter the market but would remain a permanent part of a Black Commons.  Individual leaseholders could change, and buildings sold, but the land would continue to be held in the nonprofit structure dedicated to serving those disenfranchised by a history of discriminatory practices.

The business of a Black Commons would be to acquire land by gift or purchase, develop a plan for use of that land, and identify a leaseholder for each site.  Leases are contracts and those contracts can be written to cooperative enterprises as well as to individuals.  The rich tradition in the Black community of farming cooperatives could be encouraged by prioritizing and purchasing farmland to lease. Or it could be that housing is a priority, or manufacturing sites for worker-owned businesses, or affordable neighborhood-owned retail sites.

A Black Commons is a tool for community organizing as well as wealth building.  A high-profile national board of directors could attract donations of land. Staff would require fluency in land use planning to shape long term leases that embody the donors’ intentions while meeting the realities of leaseholders.  Local community land trusts can serve as partners in the implementation.

Freeing the Land as well as a People

The creation of a Black Commons to hold land for Black Americans and the leasing of that land with equity rights in improvements, can provide some justice to a people that have been systematically excluded from ownership opportunities.

At the same time a highly visible initiative to form a Black Commons can be a powerful tool to educate a broader public about the enslavement of land held in private hands that led to inequities in the first place.  By returning land to a Commons through the vehicle of community land trusts, a basic injustice in our economic system begins to be addressed.  All need access to land to live, work, play, and create goods for one another.  When land is privately held, it means owners benefit unfairly from the need of all for land.  An imbalance occurs.  Wealth accumulates disproportionately with all the related consequences.  It is time to boldly address these issues at their core.  (Continue to full proposal.)

For information about donating lands as a means of reparations:

Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust

Land Loss Prevention Project

Acres of Ancestry Initiative

People of Color Sustainable Housing Network

National Black Food and Justice Alliance

Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative

Sogorea Te’ Land Trust

Native Land Conservancy

White Earth Land Recovery Project

Agrarian Trust

Resource Generation

Land Justice Network, U.K.

A Directory of Community Land Trusts – all of which can accept gifts of land

Wishing all good health,

Staff of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics