The Black Co-op Movement: The Silent Partner in Critical Moments of African-American History

(Image: The Federation of Southern Cooperatives logo, courtesy of Jessica Gordon Nembhard.)

An interview with Jessica Gordon Nembhard

For National Co-op Month, we present a three-part series from an interview with Jessica Gordon Nembhard who is Professor of Community Justice & Social Economic Development at John Jay College, CUNY; and an Affiliate Scholar at the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. She serves on the following boards: Grassroots Economic Organizing, the Association of Cooperative Educators, and the US Solidarity Economy Network; and is a founding member of the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy, and the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. Gordon Nembhard’s acclaimed new book is Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. This is the first of a three-part interview to run during October, which is Co-op Month. See the first piece, Black Cooperative Economics During Enslavement, here.

The Black cooperative movement has been a silent partner to many significant moments in Black history in the US, from survival in economic depressions to the union movement to the civil rights movement.

In my research for Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, I found Black cooperatives in every period. But the most prolific growth was during three major periods: the 1880s, the 1930s and 40s, and the 1960s and 70s. Why? What those periods had in common was, first, the idea that the fight for political rights necessitated economic independence and economic democracy. Second, they also were periods when large Black organizations promoted cooperative economics.

Survival and Economic Independence

What was similar between the 1880s and 1930s was the need for survival in horrible economic times. It was hard for Blacks to find work and feed their families, so they turned to collective economics. They had co-op grocery stores, gas stations, health insurance, worker co-ops and credit associations — to get loans and do financing in the face of discrimination and exclusion in the credit market.

The Black cooperative movement was the silent partner, not only to the Black civil rights movement, but also to the growing union movement in the 1880s. Labor organizers knew that they couldn’t forward the rights of white workers without including Blacks, or without thinking about controlling the means of production through worker co-ops. Still, the 1880s integrated labor organizations were fighting for their rights to own the mills, factories and farms that they were working on, and for the right to control their own work. They developed co-op mills, co-op farming, and co-op exchanges. Blacks were originally involved in these labor struggles with whites, but also started their own organizations and established co-op exchanges and stores to obtain the supplies and products they needed, and credit associations to help members people get mortgages or buy on credit without using the racist banks or exploitative white stores.

Several large unions, like the Knights of Labor, had Black and white workers before they became segregated in the early 1900s. The Knights started several worker cooperatives throughout the country, but were not well received by the powers that be and most had to go underground and then disbanded. The Colored Farmers National Alliance and Cooperative Union, was a Black political party, union and cooperative development agency that started in Texas, and spread throughout the South. It was so controversial that their leader was actually a white man because no Black man could have led it without being killed. Most of the Black organizers were underground, organizing secretly. They lasted less than 10 years but it was the largest Black organization until the Universal Negro Improvement Association in the 1920s.  

It’s interesting to see how things changed between the 1880s and the early 1900s in terms of cooperatives and Black and white labor relations. The unions could not stay integrated, segregation prevailed, and most labor unions gave up developing co-ops because it was too dangerous. Nobody wanted workers talking about owning their own enterprises and getting rid of the capitalists. Separately Blacks continued to do various small-scale cooperative activity on into the 20th century, as did some separate white organizations.

Major Black Organizations and Cooperative Economics

As for Black organizations’ involvement in cooperative economics: In the 1880s, it was the unions and the Colored Farmers. In the 1900s several other groups evolved. The Colored Merchants Association, a co-op of independent Black grocers around the country, was started by Booker T. Washington’s Black Negro Business League in the late 1920s. The held conferences and trainings in the 1930s in their attempt to create a small, interlocking system of cooperative economic societies throughout the US. Ella Jo Baker, hugely famous because for her work with SNCC and NAACP in the 1950s and 60s, was one of the league’s co-founders and executive director in 1930 long before she became famous. In the 1940s, it was the , the first official independent Black union, that promoted co-ops. The Brotherhood’s leaders, including A. Philip Randolph and Halena Wilson (president of the Brotherhood’s Ladies Auxiliary), read and wrote about, promoted, taught, and started cooperatives to keep resources circulating in the Black community.

In the 1960s and 70s, the majority of civil rights organizations were quietly supporting co-op development. Co-ops were still considered communist following the McCarthy era, so these organizations did not publicly promote co-ops. But if you look into the community development efforts and how the organizations earned money, and even where leaders were developed, they were practicing cooperative economics.

In 1967, the five major civil rights organizations(1) started the Federation of Southern Cooperatives with initial grant money from the Ford Foundation. The FSC developed cooperatives throughout the South — mostly farming and marketing and supply co-ops, but also credit unions, housing co-ops, worker co-ops. The FSC still operates today.

Another example of the use of co-ops in the official Civil Rights era: After fighting for voting rights for a decade, started a pig banking program, and then in 1969, an affordable housing program and a collective farm called Freedom Farm. She explained her reasoning something like this: When we registered to vote, they — white supremacists — kicked us off the farms, threw our things in the street, and we had nothing. They retaliate against us economically. But if we start by owning our own land, growing our own food, owning our own homes, then when we are politically active they are less able to retaliate against us.

In addition, the Black Panther Party, Congress of African Peoples, and other radical groups during this time engaged in economic cooperation and established cooperatives.

No Substitute for Studying Cooperative Economics

Every Black co-op I have found so far started with a study group.  They came together to study their situation, and eventually found and studied cooperative economics. They tapped into all kinds of co-op literature, from Europe and the US, and even found essays written by the few Black leaders promoting co-ops.

W. E. B. Du Bois wrote a book in 1907 called Economic Cooperation Among Negro Americans. He also was editor of NAACP’s magazine, “The Crisis,” for about 30 years. As editor, he wrote about Black co-ops and had James Warbasse, executive director of the Cooperative League of the USA, write an article in 1918 about why Negroes should be interested in cooperatives. That same year, Du Bois started the Negro Cooperative Guild. Also, before he was a famous organizer for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, A. Philip Randolph edited a Black socialist magazine in the 19-teens called “The Messenger,”  where he wrote a piece called ‘Four Ways Cooperatives Will Help Negroes.”

In the 1930s, some of the Black cooperative study groups started visiting other co-ops.One co-op in Virginia visited a co-op in Indiana, and the one in Indiana visited Harlem. The co-op in Indiana, the Consumer Cooperative Trading Company, was started by a teacher at a Black high school in Gary. They started with a study group and grew to have a co-op economics course offered in the night school that had the largest number of students registered than any other course. One of their leaders, Jacob Reddix, later became President of Jackson State University.

Several universities at this time offered courses on cooperative economics and co-op development. Black independent schools in North Carolina for example, and some Historically Black Colleges and Universities, taught cooperative economics, especially in the 1930s and 40s.

Columbia University had a summer institute that organized a study tour to Nova Scotia, Canada to study the Antigonish Movement. Nineteen of the 54 people that went were Black — in 1939. They spent three weeks studying cooperative economics and the cooperative education model at St. Francis Xavier University. When the 19 returned, they taught others about it.

In addition, as with mutual aid societies, religious organizations supported and promoted cooperatives. The Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America invited the foremost cooperative leader from Japan, Toyohiko Kagawa, to talk about co-ops in Harlem in 1935. The Federal Council’s secretary of race relations then organized several conferences among Black religious leaders in the late 1930s. Also, the Harlem Unitarian Church supported cooperative economic development. Much of these details I learned in a column by Althea Washington published in the Journal of Negro Education. Her column focused on cooperative education. It’s fascinating: I had no idea that in the 30s, the Journal of Negro Education even knew about co-ops, let alone had an entire column about it that ran for about 2 years.

Co-op education and training were critical to the development of Black co-ops. Success often depended on support from strong Black national and local organizations, which almost all co-ops had. Those strong organizational structures promoted shared leadership and mutual responsibility, and created opportunities to learn and develop collectively. Success also depended on those exchanges, with people sharing ideas among their own group and studying what other co-ops were achieving.

The co-ops were started, and thrived, because members understood that they could make more progress as individuals and as a race by working together and sharing resources.


1. The five organizations are the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and .