FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

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.

 

More articles by:

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

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

June 25, 2019
Rannie Amiri
Instigators of a Persian Gulf Crisis
Patrick Cockburn
Trump May Already be in Too Deep to Avoid War With Iran
Paul Tritschler
Hopeful Things
John Feffer
Deep Fakes: Will AI Swing the 2020 Election?
Binoy Kampmark
Bill Clinton in Kosovo
Kenneth Surin
Brief Impressions of the Japanese Conjuncture
Edward Hunt
Is Mexico Winding Down or Winding up the Drug War?
Manuel E. Yepe
Trump’s Return to Full-Spectrum Dominance
Steve Kelly
Greed and Politics Should Not Drive Forest Policy
Stephen Carpa
Protecting the Great Burn
Colin Todhunter
‘Modified’: A Film About GMOs and the Corruption of the Food Supply for Profit
Martin Billheimer
The Gothic and the Idea of a ‘Real Elite’
Elliot Sperber
Send ICE to Hanford
June 24, 2019
Jim Kavanagh
Eve of Destruction: Iran Strikes Back
Nino Pagliccia
Sorting Out Reality From Fiction About Venezuela
Jeff Sher
Pickin’ and Choosin’ the Winners and Losers of Climate Change
Howard Lisnoff
“Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran”
Robert Fisk
The West’s Disgraceful Silence on the Death of Morsi
Dean Baker
The Old Japan Disaster Horror Story
David Mattson
The Gallatin Forest Partnership and the Tyranny of Ego
George Wuerthner
How Mountain Bikes Threaten Wilderness
Christopher Ketcham
The Journalist as Hemorrhoid
Manuel E. Yepe
Yankee Worship of Bombings and Endless Wars
Mel Gurtov
Iran—Who and Where is The Threat?
Wim Laven
Revisiting Morality in the Age of Dishonesty
Thomas Knapp
Facebook’s Libra Isn’t a “Cryptocurrency”
Weekend Edition
June 21, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Brett Wilkins
A Brief History of US Concentration Camps
Rob Urie
Race, Identity and the Political Economy of Hate
Rev. William Alberts
America’s Respectable War Criminals
Paul Street
“So Happy”: The Trump “Boom,” the Nation’s Despair, and the Decline of Joe Biden
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Ask Your Local Death Squad
Dr. Vandana Shiva
Fake Food, Fake Meat: Big Food’s Desperate Attempt to Further the Industrialisation of Food
Eric Draitser
The Art of Trade War: Is Trump Winning His Trade War against China?
Melvin Goodman
Trump’s Russian Problem
Jonathan Cook
Forget Trump’s Deal of the Century: Israel Was Always on Course to Annexation
Andrew Levine
The Biden Question
Stanley L. Cohen
From Tel Aviv to Tallahassee
Robert Hunziker
Permafrost Collapses 70 Years Early
Kenn Orphan
Normalizing Atrocity
Ajamu Baraka
No Dare Call It Austerity
Ron Jacobs
The Redemptive Essence of History
David Rosen
Is Socialism Possible in America?
Dave Lindorff
The US as Rogue Nation Number 1
Joseph Natoli
The Mad King in His Time
David Thorstad
Why I’m Skipping Stonewall 50
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail