Sherrod offered special deputy director position

ALBANY -- Shirley Sherrod was back to normal Saturday. Probably more so than in a long time.

“I’m glad to be home,” she told her hairdresser Saturday morning as she sat down for a wash and set.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution followed the ousted USDA rural development director for Georgia as she settled into what could be life after federal employment -- and amid all the publicity surrounding the way that job ended.

Meanwhile, she's pondering an offer from U.S. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose office orchestrated her sacking after only a 30-minute administrative leave of absence Monday. Vilsack not only reversed himself, but sweetened his apology with the offer of a much broader job within his agency.

As the stylist washed Sherrod's hair, it seemed as if the week’s frustrations were rinsed away, too.

Behind her was the online video that appeared to cast the 62-year-old black woman as a racist, refusing to help a struggling white farmer -- and the subsequent revelation that the brief clip lacked the context to show that the speech she was giving was about her changing the way she dealt with race.

Gone, too, was the media blitz -- the constant calls from news outlets wanting quotes and nonstop travel for talk shows.

“I missed my mother’s birthday Wednesday while I was in New York,” she said. “I had to try to call her between interviews.”

Ahead of her, Sherrod’s future seems bright, yet uncertain. "I still want to keep helping people," she said.

Sherrod said Saturday that she had yet to decide whether to accept a position as deputy director of the USDA’s Office of Advocacy and Outreach.

“I haven’t had time,” she told the AJC. “I want to be able to read the details myself, then decide.”

Vilsack described the role to Sherrod as one that would, among other things, help to end discriminatory practices the department has been accused of concerning the settlement of a 1997 black farmers' discrimination suit.

But Sherrod said she was wary of his commitment.

"He said he wanted to do a lot to address discrimination within the agency during his tenure," Sherrod said. "But he certainly didn't show he was willing to try to make that attempt by what he did this week."

Sherrod admitted to some ambivalence over losing her job, however. She would miss her staff and the projects they had put in place to help farmers and rural communities across Georgia.

Sherrod said she had arranged for civil rights training for all of the Georgia development staffers, and had set up outreach activities to help what she had determined to be the poorest counties in the state -- nine of them with a median household income of less than $20,000.

“I wonder whether the outreach program will continue,” she thought aloud. “The first one was held this past Thursday in Calhoun County.”

Another agenda item left on the table was a statewide rural summit planned for next week that would bring businesses, rural community leaders and farmers together to highlight problems in rural areas as well as best practices from communities that have succeeded.

But she said she wouldn’t miss the travel, constantly zigzagging across the state, and sacrificing most weekends.

“Driving all over this state was killing me,” she said, noting she has a bad back.

When she accepted the USDA appointment nearly a year ago, she began working from an office in Athens. But she kept her home in Albany and commuted, living during the week in an apartment away from her family.

“I had to drive four hours to get home every Friday, and then leave on Sunday mornings going back,” she said. “I wanted to be able to get back in the right frame of mind for work.”

As Sherrod sat under the hair drier, a customer came and hugged her and asked for an autograph.

“You give me inspiration to do great things,” Geraldine Hightower told Sherrod.

That type of outpouring of support --– the kind she received from random people at the dry cleaners and car wash Saturday and from a throng of well-wishers when she returned arrived Thursday at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport -- encourages her to continue helping people.

“The support I have received from around the country has given me hope that maybe something bad can be turned into something good,” she said.

So even as she enjoyed some free time she said she hasn’t seen in years, she continued to look to do work for other people.

She returned to her tiny hometown of Newton and hinted at putting more work into continued renovations on the community center, the East Baker Historical Society, that she helped found.

“We need to try to finish putting in the floors,” she said talking to a volunteer. “Did I say ‘we’? I guess I can with all this free time I’ve suddenly found.”

And en route to her mother’s home she fielded calls from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, the organization she helped build in the southwest Georgia area more than 24 years before going to work for the USDA.

“We need you to talk to Nancy Pelosi to help with funding for the Pigford settlement,” federation head Ralph Paige told her over the phone, speaking of ongoing efforts to get congressional support for further federal settlement payments in the discrimination suit -- a measure that had failed to pass the Senate earlier in the week.

Sherrod committed to making the call, returning to the normal she had known for the past 45 years -- working for others.

“I need to read the details first,” Sherrod told him. “Then try to help.”