The History of Black Cooperatives


COLLECTIVE COURAGE: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought And Practice  – Jessica Gordon Nembhard (The Pennsylvania State University Press 2014)

“Courage,” Ella Baker said, in 1931, to a phalanx of young African American co-operators gathered in Pittsburgh. They had come from across the country to organize for a radically democratic society – based on solidarity and justice – and to inspire their communities with a vision of a Black commonwealth. Baker continued, “Each successful Co-Operative enterprise has taken much time and energy and sacrifice to establish.” Here we have a thread – courage and hard work – that Jessica Gordon Nembhard follows in her fascinating history of African American cooperatives, Collective Courage. These were cooperatives organized despite racist repression (sometimes violent), federal discrimination (a drain on resources to fight) and little (does it need to be said?) financial support.

Gordon Nembhard, a political economist by training, took up the historian’s trade and delved into archives and tracked down original sources to uncover the untold story of Black economic self-help. This was not the path she expected to take after her research convinced her that if communities organized cooperatives they would both create and retain local wealth. That realization led her to explore African Americans’ historic involvement with cooperatives. The problem, though, was that there wasn’t a history to turn to. Its place on the library shelf was vacant. She had to write the book.

And write it she did. It took ten years of tracking down sources only partially revealed in writings by W.E. B. Dubois, the Black intellectual, Ella Baker, the renowned organizer, A. Philip Randolph, the labor leader, and many others who appeared faintly until new lines of inquiry surfaced and clarified their role. Some of the difficulty writing this history, as Gordon Nembhard says, was due to the fact that many informants felt it was a history of failure. And there were failures. But also incredible resilience and vision.

Where to start the history of Black cooperatives? Gordon Nembhard begins her narrative with slavery and the practices of mutual aid that sustained the oppressed population. But the sinews of cooperation were most tested during the rebellions to the plantation system. Years later, the Underground Railroad institutionalized, beyond bitter local conditions, the practice of cooperation across physical and racial boundaries.

With the end of the Civil War, and the beginnings of landownership, African American interest in cooperatives nebhardmirrored a national phenomenon. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, over five hundred cooperatives formed across the country. The Knights of Labor (KoL) alone organized two hundred of them as a defense against the wild gyrations of the marketplace – and as prefigurations of a truly democratic society.

With the demise of the KoL, and the upsurge of populism a decade later, southern Blacks reinvented their organizations and formed the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union (CFNACU). At its strongest, it had over a million members in the rural South, mainly tenant farmers and sharecroppers, to become the largest African American organization in the 1890s.

The early years of the Twentieth Century saw a resurgence of interest in cooperative economic development in great part due to W.E.B. DuBois’ relentless propagation of the concept of collective economic emancipation. DuBois wrote, “Cooperatives would provide the economic opportunities denied to African Americans and would allow Blacks to serve the common good rather than be slaves to market forces.”

While a foremost theoretician of cooperative development, DuBois was also a tireless agitator for their formation. But he was hardly a lonely voice proclaiming a vision to a wall. Gordon Nembhard found that almost all the prominent Black leaders of the last century supported the idea. And they weren’t all men.

One of the pleasures of reading this history of cooperatives is learning about the prominent agitational role of African American women. To take one example, they were central to the formation of consumer cooperatives during the Depression. In city after city, during that period of severe deprivation, buying clubs sprouted and some successfully became retail cooperatives. The Ladies Auxiliary of the Black run Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters worked diligently to spread this practical self-help idea throughout African American communities.

Along with women, youth also took up the co-op banner. Here we meet again Ella Baker, as a young organizer with the Young Negroes Co-operative League in the early 30s. The lineages of cooperators passed through the decades. Ella Baker in the 60s, for instance, mentored the youth of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee including their leader John Lewis, who later became the U.S. Representative from Atlanta. And who, in turn, today supports the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC) the organization that carries on the work begun by CFNACU.

FSC was founded in 1967 when various local federations throughout the southern States merged. Presently, Gordon Nembhard records, it consists of approximately “a hundred cooperatives, credit unions and community – based economic development organizations involving twenty-five thousand mostly Black rural and low-income families, including some ten thousand family farmers who own half a million acres of land.”

Bringing this remarkable, and until now unknown, history up to the present, FSC’s success inspired the Jackson Rising vision of a network of urban cooperatives in Jackson, Mississippi. Creating a sustainable, democratic city-based economy doesn’t seem so utopian when you consider the history Jessica Gordon Nembhard has revealed. She was, of course, a featured speaker at the Jackson Rising conference in May.

This review would be incomplete without mentioning that besides a history book, Collective Courage serves as both an introduction to the concept of organized cooperation (it is, after all, an international phenomenon) and, necessarily, a brief examination of its implementation and practices. Now that the history has been documented, Gordon Nembhard promises to expand on this foundation with further analysis.

Unfortunately Collective Courage is only available as a pricey paperback, and even more expensive hardbound edition, so practice cooperation and organize a book-buying club, or alternatively, request that your library fill that vacant spot on their US history shelf.

Bernard Marszalek, editor of The Right to be Lazy (AK PRESS) can be reached at info@righttobelazy.com . He was a member of a worker cooperative for seventeen years.


Bernard Marszalek, editor of The Right to be Lazy (AK PRESS) can be reached at info@righttobelazy.com. He was a member of a worker cooperative for seventeen years. Links at http://righttobelazy.com/blog/

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