ALBANY, Ga. (AP) – Tucked behind the wrought-iron gates along the frontage of 801 Old Pretoria Road is the stuff retreat-style getaways are made of: an 1851 mansion decorated in period furniture that can be rented as a wedding venue or other private event; farmland dotted with vines, beehives and citrus trees; a long dirt road flanked by pecans that leads to secluded, rustic guest houses and an 85-acre lake surrounded by bald cypress trees draped in Spanish moss.
It’s hard to imagine that such idyllic lands were once a slave plantation.
Still, the past and present of this 1,638-acre estate, known as Resora and named for resilience and ingenuity, is worth showing and telling.
As part of the recently launched Southwest Georgia Agri-Tourism Trail promoted on Airbnb, visitors are encouraged to visit Resora and other destinations along the way, not only for a restful vacation, but for an educational experience that sheds light on the rich agricultural history of the region. What makes the trail even more unique, given its history, is that it is hosted by black farmers who have long-standing ties to the area.
A NEW TRACK FOR BLACK FARMERS
The driving force behind Resora and the Southwest Georgia Agri-Tourism Trail is Shirley Sherrod, whose name may sound familiar to some. In 2010, she was forced to resign as the Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) after Breitbart News aired some comments she made in a speech out of context and misinterpreted her comments as racist. and the video clip went viral. Federal officials eventually realized Sherrod had been misrepresented. She was apologized and offered another job at the USDA, but she declined.
Now Sherrod serves on the newly created US Department of Agriculture Equity Commission to address historic discrimination within the department and its programs. But she has served the rural community of South Georgia for decades.
In 1968, Sherrod and her husband, Rev. Charles Sherrod, founded New Communities, a nonprofit farm collective in Lee County, which at the time became the largest black landholding in the nation. Discriminatory lending eventually led to the foreclosure of the property in 1985, with 20 black families affected by the loss. A series of lawsuits, claims, denials and appeals dragged on for nearly 25 years, ultimately resulting in a $12 million settlement from the USDA in 2009.
Almost a generation had passed since the New Communities had dirt to dig in. To Sherrod it meant ‘we had life again’.
The search for another property to continue the mission of the New Communities led to the purchase of the former Tarver Plantation in Albany in 2011 for $4.5 million. Sherrod only learned of its history as a slave plantation a year after the sale.
“I had a problem. I had a hard time comprehending it,” she said.
“This was once a slave plantation. It was once owned by the largest slave owner and 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. The first blessing was attended by Herbert Phipps, then a judge on the Georgia Court of Appeals, whose great-grandmother was a slave on the plantation and whose great-grandfather was the overseer. After emancipation, the couple married and had eight children, according to Sherrod.
During events held in Resora, New Communities publicly claims the wrongs of the past by placing a large sign at the gate that reads, “This land belonged to the largest slave owner in Georgia and is now owned by descendants of slaves. “
A PLACE FOR ALL PEOPLE
Sherrod’s goal for the Southwest Georgia Agri-Tourism Trail is threefold: to support participating farmers in seizing the economic opportunities of local tourism; to increase social awareness about the history and current needs of black farming communities; and to promote racial reconciliation and healing.
The heart of the tourist component is Resora, where the former mansion is available for retreats, conferences and weddings. Rentals are handled directly through the website theresoraexperience.com.
On the property are rustic one and two bedroom log cottages steps from the tranquil waters of the cypress pond and a two bedroom cottage near the mansion. Available for overnight stays through Airbnb for $175-$300 per night, each cabin has a fully equipped modern kitchen, hardwood floors, and living and sleeping areas with contemporary furnishings.
So far, the Southwest Georgia Agri-Tourism Trail offers two experiences. One is a tour of the farm in Resora ($25 per person), which includes a wagon ride, which allows visitors a close-up view of some of the 400 acres used for agricultural testing, site learning, and production. including a 200-acre pecan orchard, muscadine grape vineyard, satsuma orchard, beehives, and trial plots for growing rice and truffles. The working farm is cared for by three full-time employees, while seasonal workers help out during the harvest periods.
With education an important part of the trail, guides weave stories about the area’s agricultural history, especially the plight of black farmers, and the community’s role in the fight for racial equality dating back to the civil rights movement.
“We want this place to be available to all people, but especially black people, to learn and heal from history,” Sherrod said. “Training, manufacturing, farming, culture, history, healing — we can see all of that happening on this site.”
TASTE OF THE SOUTH
The second experience on the Southwest Georgia Agri-Tourism Trail illustrates the best way Southerners know how to build community and bridge cultural understanding: sharing a meal together. That is the experience Clinton offers Vicks.
Born in Albany and currently a high school teacher in the Dougherty County School System, Vicks, 41, left his hometown in the early 2000s to attend Howard University. After graduating with a degree in communications and minors in vocal performance and English, he worked for nearly two decades as a performer and communications specialist in Washington, DC and New York. A few years ago, he returned to his roots to be close to family, whose ties to farming go back four generations.
In 2020, Vicks bought a 1925 home that sits on five acres. He renamed it The Vicks Estate, Farm & Fishery and set to work renovating the house and clearing the land. While those projects are underway (overnight accommodation will be available starting in mid-July), his first involvement with the trail is hosting “A Taste of the South,” a barbecue cookout in his backyard.
For $40 per person, guests sit in the shade of umbrellas with a cold glass of Vicks’ signature ruby red fruit punch as he fires up the grill. He invites participants to help prepare meals by picking herbs from the garden or peeling corn. While he keeps an eye on jerk chicken and slabs of ribs, guests can play cornhole and horseshoes. On a tour of the property, he points out major plans to restore a pond and stock it with catfish, bass, and bream; build a barn to keep goats and chickens; make a clearing in the pine forest to build a stage for live performances.
He sees joining the agritourism trail as an Airbnb host as a way to generate income to make those dreams come true while also being involved with the local community. “I’m in a place where I want to come back and give back,” he said.
RURAL TRAVELS ON THE RISE
The timing can be right to promote agritourism. The coronavirus has prompted many people to avoid air travel and major cities. Instead, they hit the road and vacationed in the great outdoors and in less crowded destinations. This is a boon for Airbnb hosts in rural areas.
Airbnb hosts in rural counties earned $3.5 billion in 2021, with overnight stays by U.S. guests in rural areas across the country increasing 110% last year compared to 2019. Over the same two-year period, nights booked rose. at farm stays by 40%, 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 people living in more rural areas to consider hosting,” said Catherine Powell, global head of hosting for Airbnb. “We are so proud to partner with Ms. Sherrod and this historic organization to support their vision of empowering black farmers.”
‘If you just start, it will come naturally’
Sherrod welcomes the progress made on behalf of disadvantaged farmers in southwestern Georgia since the new communities were founded in 1968 — from shaping national policies on behalf of black farmers to helping them access aid, training, capital and new markets that now include tourist dollars.
“This is really going to be so much more than we initially envisioned,” she said.
Sherrod considers the scope of these efforts beyond the gates of Resora. “We’re not just trying to have something for this site. We are thinking of other growers in the region – to make it happen on other farms with everything we do. It’s designed to be not just ‘Look at what could happen here at New Communities,’ but for the region,” she said.
But with work to do and Sherrod in his mid-70s, who of the next generation will take over?
She noted that many young people leave the region when 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 about past and present black farming communities, they hope the path will grow. (Information on how to become an Airbnb host is available at airbnb.com/host.)
Sherrod envisions a trail with a dozen or more participating farm hosts providing shelter and experiences.
Vicks celebrated his party by recruiting other black farmers to join them.
“I believe if you just start,” Vicks said, “things will happen organically.