Black Co-ops Matter!

5 minutes

Like Black lives, Black co-ops matter, now and historically. Collective Courage by Jessica Gordon Nembhard is an inspiring and thorough survey of the long history of collective action taken by African Americans in the US as far back as the 1700s. Against adversity, the African American community has created a legacy of cooperation that still exists. The earliest efforts built communal ways of supporting each other, and built the foundation for formal businesses. These efforts enriched many during the ebb and flow of US co-op history throughout which African Americans have been contributors.

Today there is a co-op in Pittsburgh called the Ujamaa Collective. This co-op was mentioned in Nembhard’s book as a modern day example of a co-op that supports African American women. Its name, Ujamaa, embodies the African American collective spirit, and a lesson for all of us, and for the new economy. Ujamaa is the Swahili word for cooperative economics. It is also the fourth of seven principles in the Kwanzaa religion. It would appear that sharing is a common concept in the culture of African and African American culture.

Ms. Nembhard covered a lot of terrain to find the earliest forms of African American cooperative action. Starting as early as 1780, the Mutual Aid Society was started in Rhode Island by the African Methodist Church. This is one of many Mutual-aid societies, many run by women, that would form the basis of African American cooperative development. In Nembhard’s words: “Early African American cooperative economic action took many forms: mutual-aid and beneficial societies, mutual insurance organizations, fraternal organizations and secret societies, buying clubs, joint-stock ownership among African Americans, and collective farming.”

Mutual-aid societies led the way to cooperatives and also mutual insurance companies. “Mutual insurance companies were the earliest formal cooperative businesses among Blacks and Whites in the United States. By the late nineteenth century, African Americans also organized official cooperative businesses that followed the European ‘Rochdale Principles of Cooperation.’”

By the 1880s, African American cooperative businesses developed in earnest. The cooperative movement was seen by WEB Du Bois as valuable to the betterment of African Americans and he wrote about the movement in two works: Some Efforts of American Negroes for Their Own Social Betterment (1898) and Economic Co-operation Among Negro Americans (1907).

In 1907, Du Bois documented the existence of “154 African American-owned cooperatives: 14 ‘producer cooperatives’: 3 ‘transportation cooperatives’: 103 ‘distribution or consumer cooperatives,’ and 34 ‘real estate and credit cooperatives,’ in addition to hundreds of mutual-aid societies and cooperative projects through religious and benevolent institutions, beneficial and insurance societies, secret societies, schools, and financial institutions”.

These early cooperative efforts can be instructive for any cooperative. Nembhard outlines some conclusions from pioneering African American collective action: efforts were based on values as much as need; education on cooperative economics is very important; success was more likely with a stable income among members; regional and national support was important; a strong organization among members with an understanding of democratic leadership; a trust with the governing structure; hostile competition was a major factor in failure, in Nembhard’s words, “violence, sabotage, the hostility of competitors, and structural class and racial discrimination often made it difficult to survive and eventually defeated these cooperative efforts”; but in most cases, even after failure members were better off; and all co-ops had grand long-term plans.

Collective Courage also offers an important perspective on the cycles of US cooperative history. A high point for organized labor and co-ops, for example, was in the 1860s. The National Labor Union at that time advocated co-ops and promoted solidarity for Blacks and Whites. Also the formidable labor group, the Knights of Labor, was a significant force for labor at the time and strongly endorsed co-ops. By the 1880s, 334 worker cooperatives had been organized in the United States.

But two radical stoppages of the movement occurred in American history. The first was the Haymarket strike of 1886 in Chicago during which a violent explosion ended a pro labor demonstration and affected public opinion of co-ops thereafter. The Knights of Labor and cooperatives went into decline.

Nembhard reports that in the 1930s, scholars and activists alike advocated the cooperative way and experimenting with co-op development. But then by the 1950s, the red scare and any perceived connection to Communism negatively impacted US co-ops.

Today current African American co-ops are creating their own legacies. Since 1967 the Federation of Southern Cooperatives has been functioning “to support and sustain Black farmer ownership and control over land, to support the economic viability of family and independent farm businesses — especially small, sustainable, and organic farms — and to advance the stewardship of Black-owned land and other natural resources in rural low-income communities in the southern United States.” In 1985 it merged with Emergency Land Fund. Nembhard: “In many ways, the story of the Federation of Southern Cooperative/Land Assistance Fund tells in microcosm the broader history of African American cooperatives. The reasons why it was started, its goals and aims, its challenges and threats, its focus on grassroots empowerment, economic independence, leadership development, and women’s development — all elements of the entire experience of the Black cooperative movement.”

Starting in 1987 African American and Latina home-care professionals formed Cooperative Home Care Associates which has more than seven hundred members. This makes it the largest cooperative in the US.

I’m grateful for Collective Courage and its research on this significant aspect of American history. The history of African American cooperative action needs to be rediscovered and understood for not just social reasons, but for sound economic thought.

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