The Land Trust’s Astonishing Roots

Attending the National Community Land Trust Network conference in April, with Robert Dowling, executive director of our own Community Home Trust, I expected to learn a lot about contemporary operation of land trusts and ideas for keeping them successful–and I did. But a session that I happened onto on the history of the land trust movement left my head spinning.

Roots of the Contemporary Land Trust Movement,” a tutorial on the movement’s historical and philosophical beginnings, opened a window into a rich, inspiring, and largely unknown story. It’s a story about an alternative vision of land ownership, one that seems utterly alien today: land as a resource too valuable to be owned and exploited by individuals. Fortunately, this story is starting to be gathered and told. What follows draws largely on a narrative by John Emmeus Davis, one of the most influential leaders of the American land trust movement.

Within the history of the United States–in which land speculation for individual profit has played a critical role from the beginning–there coexists another tradition: “an ethic of stewardship, where land is treated as a common heritage.” Henry George, borrowing from John Stewart Mill, argued that “most of the appreciating value of land is created not by the investment or labor of individual landowners, but by the growth and development of surrounding society.” That unearned increase in value, he argued, should be taxed: and this “social increment” tax could serve to fund schools, roads, and other public goods. Imagine that.

In the United States, George’s basic model was followed in Alabama and Delaware. Ralph Borsodi, another follower of George’s working in the 1930s and 1940s, went so far as to decry all private ownership of land. Among those inspired by Borsodi was Arthur Morgan, who founded the Celo community in western North Carolina.

It took the Civil Rights Movement to transform the idea of self-selecting intentional housing communities into the essence of the contemporary land trust model. This new model embraced a larger goal of making equitable housing available as a community benefit.

Bob Swann, a pacifist and a student of Bayard Rustin, drew inspiration from Arthur Morgan and even worked for him for awhile, but soon felt called to more direct involvement in the major issues of the day. In Albany, Georgia, where he went to rebuild fire-bombed black churches, the idea came to him

that part of the oppression and insecurity of African Americans was due to their limited access to land on which to farm, to build houses, or to start new business of their own. He also heard of black farmers being forced off the land in retaliation for registering to vote.

Working with Albany activists Slater King and C.B. King, Swann crafted a new model for the land trust that reserved a place for the public interest.

Albany_MovementThe story of the Albany Movement is, itself, one that in civil rights history is too often dwarfed by the objectively more successful Birmingham movement of the following year. Organizers failed in their efforts to desegregate the city–the first mass movement to take on a whole city as a goal. And yet after Martin Luther King had moved on to Birmingham, the work continued. SNCC organizer Charles Sherrod came, like Swann, to draw the connections between land ownership and the kind of security necessary for blacks to claim their rights without fear of dispossession. Swann made common cause with Sherrod, Slater King, and others, and a new idea was born.

The rest of the story is fascinating. From what I saw in Cleveland, this spirit of dedication to civil rights is alive and well among contemporary practitioners of the community land trust movement. Knowing the powerful history that lies at the roots of the Community Home Trust as well as the Durham Community Land Trustees puts their important work in a whole new perspective.

UPDATE: Over at Rooflines, Miriam Axel-Lute reacts to the same session with a lovely post that begins with a personal story.

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