How did Black Co-ops start?
In the 1700s Black cooperatives and mutual aid societies began from the need to remedy the disparity for Black people, both free and enslaved, who had no resources for burials, farming, homes, medical care, or even to buy their freedom. These organizations developed to help their members and community by voluntarily exchanging resources or services for mutual benefit, or by pooling their resources together. This started long before the Rochdale Pioneers, who are given the credit of starting the co-op movement in Europe. The first documented mutual aid society was the Free African Society, founded in 1787 by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen to provide aid to newly freed Blacks. There were other forms of early cooperatives as well, such as mutual insurance and cooperative farming, but the most famous is The Underground Railroad, created from cooperative efforts.
How did Black Co-ops grow in number?
The evolution of Black co-ops started during the Civil War because the war created alternative possibilities for cooperatives. For example, in South Carolina, Black women that had joined the Union Army grew cotton on abandoned farms and expanded to become a community of several hundred women known as the Combahee River Colony. Once the war ended, Black farmers were not allowed admittance to the Southern Farmers Alliance (unless in a separate chapter), so they founded the Colored Farmers National Alliance and Cooperative Union in 1886 in Texas. In 1922, to increase Black farm ownership through cooperative buying, production, and marketing, Black farmers formed the National Federation of Colored Farmers.
Most influential people and Civil Rights parallel
In 1907, W.E.B. Du Bois did a study that identified 154 co-op businesses or exchanges (not including mutual aid societies) and held a conference to educate Black people on cooperatives. It was extremely dangerous for any group to create any kind of alternative economics because of white supremacists and competitors. These other groups refused many Black store owners bank loans, sabotaged Black efforts, and attacked and sometimes killed Black business people who tried to succeed. Today, people remember these businesses failing, creating the stereotype of Black businesses not being able to do well, but do not remember how dangerous it was to practice cooperative economics in America, which caused much of the failure.
The history of Black co-ops is important because the civil rights movement paralleled the movement for cooperative economics. After all, cooperatives were training grounds for leaders and activists. Many of the same leaders, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, created the Negro Cooperative League, a federation of local groups that sponsored growth and development of local consumer cooperatives by buying clubs throughout major cities across the country. Philip Randolph created the Brother Hood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first labor organization led by African Americans, which protected railway workers in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Mindy Chateauvert of the Ladies Auxiliary started study groups on consumer education and cooperative economics and subscribed people to co-op magazines and books that supported black workers. Fannie Lou Hamer, who was a voting rights activist in the 60s and 70s and co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, believed in co-ops as well. Hamer believed African Americans could not win the political struggle till they had economic independence, by controlling their land and food production through co-ops.
These leaders worked for independence, and often supported and encouraged co-ops and collective economics to keep resources in the hands of the people who needed them.
Why is this important?
Black cooperatives are still around today, creating opportunities and being vehicles for economic development in Black communities, because they create economic stability and resiliency for marginalized communities. In fact, the largest worker-owned co-op in the United States is the Cooperative Home Care Associates in New York, which is largely composed of Black and Latina women. They offer small interest-free loans, paid vacation, health insurance, and even free income tax preparation. Cooperatives succeed by improving the lives of those in the community, which is why co-ops are important today.
A few facts about co-ops in North Carolina
North Carolina is the only state to have created a Black statewide co-op and credit union association that allied with a white statewide association to get resources from the larger organization, which allowed the smaller association to focus on developing black co-ops. This is an early example of the cooperation of co-op with co-ops, which also is the seventh founding principle of many co-ops today. Today, NC Mutual (formerly North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association), which started by offering burial insurance, is the largest and oldest Black-owned insurance company in the United States.