In September, CoMinnesota and Nexus hosted an event to address the issues of economic development and cooperatives in African American communities. The event featured author Dr. Jessica Gordon-Nembhard, author of “Collective Courage: A history of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice.”
During her talk, Dr. Gordon-Nembhard discussed the history of cooperative economics and co-op formation. Her book “Collective Courage” highlights a little known and forgotten history: cooperation and cooperative economics are principles and survival tactics of African American communities.
Dr. Gordon-Nembhard’s book begins by expanding the definition of cooperatives by including the development of mutual aid societies. Mutual aid societies share contemporary co-op principles such as voluntary ownership, owner-led and owner-organized, and participatory democracy. In her talk, Dr. Gordon-Nembhard discussed the Free African Society, founded in Philadelphia in April 1787 by Richard Allen, who is also the founder of the African Methodist Church. The purpose of the Free African Society was to serve the spiritual, economic and social needs of Philadelphia’s African American community.
The book also uncovers numerous examples of cooperative economics throughout the history of social justice movements in the United States. Many pioneers in the Civil Rights Movement have their feet rooted in cooperation economics. From Frederick Douglass to the Black Panther Party, the human rights movement is filled with examples of economic self-help.
However, successful use of the cooperative model has come at a cost for some African Americans. The increased visibility and success of black-owned cooperative businesses makes them more visible as targets for racially motivated violence.
Ida B. Wells, journalist and anti-lynching advocate, found out first hand that the quest for ownership, economic control, and access to food was a dangerous undertaking. In 1889, Peoples Grocery was a cooperative owned by 11 prominent blacks, including postman Thomas Moss, a friend of Ida Wells. The store was created to serve the needs of the black community in the black community in Memphis called “the curve.” Peoples Grocery was very successful and attracted customers, black and white, from all over Memphis. The popularity of the new store negatively impacted the business of the white grocery store owner William Barnett, however, and this created tension between white and black customers.
As a result of an altercation between two children at the store, Moss and two of his workers were lynched by a mob organized by the owner of the white grocery store across town. In the end, Peoples Grocery was sold to the white store owner for a fraction of its value.
The Peoples Grocery story isn’t about food. It is about equality and freedom. Similarly, the co-op movement is not just about food either; it’s about community-based economics and activating whole communities. The disparity between co-ops arises, however, because cooperative principles don’t specifically address race, per se. Ideally, cooperative principles would include points on racial equity and justice, in order to appeal more directly to communities of color and empower them.
Dr. Gordon-Nembhard’s book, “Collective Courage,” serves to reconnect communities of color to cooperative principles and practice. The book is also an opportunity to discuss how the cooperative principles might include the values of equity and justice. This reconnection is essential to viability of the co-op movement as a whole, and of local Twin Cities co-ops in particular.
* Join the Seward Co-op Book on February 25 to discuss Gordon-Nemhard’s book Collective Courage. Details here.
* This article originally appeared in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of Seward Co-op’s Sprout! Newsletter.