From LIGAYA FIGUERAS, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
ALBANY, Ga. (AP) — Hidden behind the wrought-iron gates that line the facade at 801 Old Pretoria Road is the stuff retreats are made of: an 1851 mansion furnished with antiques and decorated as a Venue can be rented for weddings or other private event; Farm area with vines, beehives and citrus trees; a long dirt road lined with pecan trees leading to secluded, rustic guesthouses and an 85-acre lake surrounded by bald cypress trees covered in Spanish moss.
Hard to imagine that such an idyllic area was once a slave plantation.
But the past and present of this 1,638-acre estate, known as Resora and named to reflect resilience and resourcefulness, is worth showing and telling.
As part of Southwest Georgia’s newly launched Airbnb-advertised Agri-Tourism Trail, visitors are encouraged to visit Resora and other destinations along the trail for not only a relaxing vacation, but also an educational experience that illuminates to the rich agricultural history of the region. What makes the trail even more unique, given its history, is that it’s run by black farmers with long-standing ties to the area.
A NEW WAY FOR BLACK PEASANTS
The driving force behind Resora and the Southwest Georgia Agri-Tourism Trail is Shirley Sherrod, whose name sounds familiar to some. In 2010, she was forced to resign as Director of Rural Development for Georgia at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) after Breitbart News aired some comments she had taken out of context in a speech and misinterpreted her comments as racist . and the video snippet went viral. Federal officials eventually determined that Sherrod had been misrepresented. She was excused and offered another position with the USDA, but she declined.
Now Sherrod serves on the US Department of Agriculture’s newly formed Justice Commission to address historical discrimination within the Department and its programs. But she has been committed to the rural community of South Georgia for decades.
In 1968, Sherrod and her husband, Rev. Charles Sherrod, co-founded New Communities, a non-profit farming collective in Lee County, which became the largest black-owned land holding in the country at the time. Discriminatory lending practices eventually led to the foreclosure of the property in 1985, with 20 black families affected by the loss. A string of lawsuits, lawsuits, denials, and appeals spanning nearly 25 years eventually resulted in a $12 million settlement by the USDA in 2009.
Almost a generation had passed since the New Communities had to dig in the dirt. For Sherrod it meant “we had life again”.
The search for another property to continue the New Communities mission led to the purchase of the former Tarver plantation in Albany for $4.5 million in 2011. Sherrod only learned of their history as a slave plantation a year after the sale.
“I had a problem. It was hard for me to grasp,” she said.
“This was once a slave plantation. It once belonged to the largest slave owner and the richest man in the state,” she said, referring to Hartwell Hill Tarver. Among the artifacts discovered on the property was an 1859 advertisement announcing the sale of 150 slaves owned by Tarver’s son, Paul Tarver, who inherited the plantation after his father’s death.
As part of the healing process, they invited members of the Lower Muskogee Creek Tribe and other ethnic groups to perform blessing ceremonies on the land for three consecutive years. Present at the first blessing was Herbert Phipps, then a judge on the Georgia Court of Appeals whose great-great-grandmother was a slave on the plantation and whose great-great-grandfather was an overseer. After emancipation, the couple married and, according to Sherrod, had eight children.
At events in Resora, New Communities publicly reclaim the injustices of the past by putting up a large sign at the gate that reads, “This land belonged to the largest slave owner in Georgia and now belongs to the descendants of slaves.”
Sherrod’s goal for the Southwest Georgia Agri-Tourism Trail is threefold: to help participating farmers access the economic opportunities of local tourism; to raise social awareness of the history and contemporary needs of black farming communities; and to promote racial reconciliation and healing.
The heart of the tourism component is Resora, where the former plantation house is available for retreats, conferences and weddings. Rentals are processed directly through the website at theresoraexperience.com.
On the grounds are rustic looking one and two bedroom log cabins a stone’s throw from the calm waters of the cypress pond and a two bedroom cottage near the manor house. Available for overnight stays via Airbnb from $175 to $300 per night, each cabin features fully equipped modern kitchens, hardwood floors, and living and sleeping areas with modern furniture.
So far, the Southwest Georgia Agri-Tourism Trail offers two experiences. One is a tour of the farm in Resora ($25 per person) that includes a wagon ride where visitors explore some of the 400 acres used for agricultural testing, on-site learning and production, including a 200 acre one Pecan orchard, muscadine vineyard, satsuma grove, beehives and trial plots for rice and truffle cultivation. The working farm is run by three full-time employees, while seasonal workers help out during harvest time.
Because education is an important part of the trail, guides weave stories about the area’s agricultural history, particularly the plight of black farmers, and the community’s role in the fight for racial equality that dates back to the civil rights movement.
“We want this place to be available to all people, but especially black people, to teach and heal from history,” Sherrod said. “Education, manufacturing, agriculture, culture, history, healing – we can see all of that in this place.”
The second experience on the Southwest Georgia Agri-Tourism Trail is one that showcases how Southerners know best how to build community and bridge cultural understanding: eating together. That’s the experience Clinton offers Vicks.
A native of Albany, 41-year-old Vicks is currently a high school teacher in the Dougherty County School System. He left his hometown in the early 2000s to attend Howard University. After graduating in Communications Studies with minors in Voice and English, he worked as a performer and communications specialist in Washington, DC and New York for nearly two decades. A few years ago, he returned to his roots to be close to his family, which has been linked to agriculture for four generations.
In 2020, Vicks purchased a 1925 home that sits on five acres. He named it The Vicks Estate, Farm & Fishery and set to work renovating the house and clearing the land. While those projects are ongoing (lodging will be available beginning mid-July), his initial involvement with the trail is as the host of “A Taste of the South,” a barbecue cookout in his backyard.
For $40 per person, diners sit in the shade of patio umbrellas with a cold glass of Vick’s signature ruby fruit punch while he fires up the grill. He invites participants to help prepare the meal by picking herbs from the garden or husking corn. While he oversees jerk chicken and ribeyes, guests can play cornhole and horseshoe. During a tour of the property, he hints at big plans to restore a pond and stock it with catfish, perch and bream. to build a barn to raise goats and chickens; to make a clearing in the pine forest to build a stage for live performances.
He sees participating in the agritourism trail as an Airbnb host as a way to generate revenue to help make those dreams come true while also contributing to the local community. “I’m in a place where I want to come back and give something back,” he said.
The timing could be opportune to promote agritourism. The coronavirus caused many people to avoid air travel and big cities. Instead, they ventured out and vacationed in the great outdoors and less crowded places. This has been a boon for Airbnb hosts in rural areas.
Airbnb hosts in rural counties made $3.5 billion in 2021, with stay-at-home bookings by US guests in rural areas across the country up 110% last year compared to 2019. according to Airbnb.
“This trail also comes at a time when guests are discovering and supporting farming communities in new ways, creating new opportunities for those living in more rural areas to host,” said Catherine Powell, Airbnb’s global head of hosting . “We are so proud to work with Mrs. Sherrod and this historic organization to support her vision to empower black farmers.”
“If you just start, things will happen organically”
Sherrod is excited about the progress that has been made on behalf of underserved farmers in Southwest Georgia since the founding of New Communities in 1968 – from shaping national policy in favor of black farmers to helping them access support, education, capital and new markets that now include tourism dollars.
“This is really so much more than we originally envisioned,” she said.
Sherrod sees the scope of this effort beyond the gates of Resora. “We’re not just trying to have something for this side. We think of other growers in the region – so that with everything we do, we can help other farms do the same. It’s not just designed to “see what can happen here at New Communities,” but for the region,” she said.
But with work still to be done and Sherrod in his mid-70s, who of the next generation will take the torch?
She noted that many young people move away from the region once they reach adulthood. “Atlanta puts a lot of pressure on our young people. They all want to be there.”
As Sherrod and Vicks see the potential of agritourism as a source of income for black farms and a unique travel option that raises social awareness for past and present black farming communities, they hope the path will grow. (See airbnb.com/host for information on becoming an Airbnb host.)
Sherrod envisions a trail with a dozen or more participating farm owners offering accommodation and experiences.
Vicks and his party have tried to get other black farmers to participate.
“I think if you just start,” Wick said, “things will come naturally.
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