African American Economic Solidarity
by Jessica Gordon Nembhard and Ajowa Nzinga Ifateyo
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives (see bottom of pp. 22-23) and the Common Ground Collective are using cooperative, community-based activities in their efforts to help Katrina survivors and rebuild neighborhoods across the Gulf region. African Americans have a strong but often hidden history of economic solidarity—of building cooperative enterprises in response to market failure, poverty, and marginalization. Unless these grassroots models of cooperative economic development, both past and present, are more widely recognized, the opportunity to meet the needs of long-time residents of color and build a solidarity economy in New Orleans may be lost.
What can Katrina survivors take from this history of cooperative economic enterprise in Black communities? Co-ops are all about keeping control in the hands of all of the workers (or consumers, or residents) and institutionalizing participatory decision-making. This is exactly what has been missing in the official post-Katrina redevelopment plans, hatched in small meetings of politicians and businessmen. At the same time, there is a crying need for all kinds of enterprises to meet all kinds of needs. The co-op model directly addresses both of these imperatives.
A number of cooperative and worker-owned businesses operated in New Orleans before the flooding, including Invest Construction, whose members are public housing residents; Cyberspace Central Computer Consultants; Plan B Bicycle Co-op; and the Green Project, a recycling cooperative. Many of these co-ops are working to re-establish themselves and to help develop more local cooperatives. The Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans had been an outlet for many of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund’s Mississippi farm cooperatives. Its reopening two months after Katrina helped local farmers re-establish themselves.
Credit unions have also played a key role in relief and reconstruction. Four of the 14 branches of the ASI Federal Credit Union in New Orleans were destroyed and one damaged, but by September 19, ASI was back in its headquarters and operating its own ATM transactions to serve members who needed cash. The Community Development Relief and Rebuilding Fund provided grants and secondary capital investments to assist a number of credit unions in Louisiana and Mississippi. The National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions (NFCDCU) raised nearly $1 million for relief and reconstruction.
The national cooperative movement has been very much involved in relief and rebuilding in the Gulf. Cooperatives from around the country donated produce, biodiesel fuel and other supplies to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, including the Federation/LAF’s Indian Springs Farmers’ Association in Mississippi, whose own facilities were damaged and whose members’ farms suffered “excessive losses.”
The Common Ground Collective (www.commongroundrelief.org) is focusing some of its efforts on developing cooperative businesses in New Orleans. They plan to launch a number of cooperatives in construction, seafood production, housing, and other areas. Common Ground also helps support three community gardens.
Such is the building of a solidarity economy. These cooperative enterprises have many things in common. Members are from marginalized communities and were not being served well or at all by prevailing market forces or government agencies, even before Katrina. They needed to generate income and build assets, and generally have more control over their own economic lives and their communities. They came together (often with the help of a leader or community organization), studied their circumstances, assessed the alternatives, and pooled their resources—talents and capital. They launched businesses that would address their needs and keep them in control. Reconstruction planners in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast would do well to recognize the existing cooperative enterprises in their midst and add cooperative development to their toolkit.
Jessica Gordon Nembhard is a member of the GEO collective, and
assistant professor African-American Studies at the University of Maryland,
where she is also a staff economist in the Democracy Collaborative.
Portions of this article appeared in two earlier articles by Jessica Gordon Nembhard: “Principles and Strategies for Reconstruction: Models of African American Community-based Cooperative Economic Development,” Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy Vol. 12 (Summer 2006, pp. 39-55), and “Cooperative Ownership and the Struggle for African American Economic Empowerment.” Humanity & Society Vol. 28, No. 3 (August 2004), p. 298-321.
At a time when African-American caulkers were considered the best at their craft, white workers boycotted shipyards that hired Black caulkers, and white mobs attacked Black caulkers and stevedores returning from work. In response, a group of Black stevedores and caulkers started their own cooperative shipyard. W.E.B. DuBois wrote about the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company and its survival as an integrated work place for 18 years; the co-op even succeeded in integrating the all-white unions at that time.
African Americans established the Citizens’ Co-operative Society to operate cooperative meat markets. Members were able to buy shares in installments; no one could own more than ten shares. By August 1919, five stores were doing business, serving about 75,000 people. Members of the guilds associated with each store met monthly to study cooperative economics.
New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and other cities 1930s
The Young Negro Cooperative League, founded in December 1930 by African-American youth in response to a call by renowned African-American journalist and polemicist George Schuyler in the Pittsburgh Courier, was strong in at least five cities by the early 1930s. New York and New Orleans had the two largest contingents of members. Ella Jo Baker was elected its first executive director. The Chicago Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Brotherhood of Pullman Car Porters was also organizing cooperatives during this time. Members formed study groups to discuss economic problems and learn cooperative economics.
Gary, Indiana 1930s
The Great Depression, which hit African Americans particularly hard, inspired a surge in cooperative development. In 1932, a group in Gary, Ind., headed by a local African-American high school principal, established a buying club, then a network of cooperatives. In time, the Consumer’s Cooperative Trading Company came to operate a main grocery store, a branch store, a gas station, and a credit union. In 1936, according to Jacob Reddix (later president of Jackson State University), the company was considered to be “the largest grocery business operated by Negroes in the United States,” with total sales of $160,000. Education was an important element. The co-op offered a popular cooperative economics course in the high school’s evening school.
North Carolina 1930s & 1940s
Inspired by the series of cooperatives developed by the Brick Rural Life School in a nearby African-American community, members of the Tyrrell County Training School began conducting study groups on cooperative economics. In 1939, 25 neighbors established a credit union; in the first year membership increased to 187. The credit union helped several families to purchase farms or to save their farms from foreclosure; it also financed group purchases of farm equipment. Members of the Tyrrell group started a store in 1940. A year later they established a cooperative health insurance program that guaranteed a member up to $100 for hospitalization for a membership fee of $1.00, monthly assessments of ten cents, and a 25 cent co-payment for each hospital visit. Buying clubs and machinery purchasing co-ops were established through 1945. Later, the Bricks and Tyrrell County co-ops joined together to organize a federation of co-ops, the Eastern Carolina Council.
Alberta, Alabama 1966
At a time when the political climate severely reduced economic options for African Americans in the south, a group of women in Alberta, Ala., established the Freedom Quilting Bee in 1966. The women began selling quilts and using other entrepreneurial strategies after many of their families lost the plots they sharecropped because of their Civil Rights activism. The cooperative bought 23 acres in 1968 to build a sewing plant and also to sell land to sharecropping families who had been evicted from their homes. By 1992 the cooperative also owned a day care center and operated after-school tutoring and summer reading programs. At its height the cooperative was the largest employer in the town, with 150 members.
South Bronx, NYC 1980s
Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA) is a worker-owned cooperative of predominantly Black and Latina women. In its 20-year history it has grown to over 500 worker-owners. The cooperative sets labor standards for its industry in wages, benefits, job permanence, job ladder mobility, reduced turnover and quality care; and pays dividends to its worker-owners. In addition CHCA has established training and cooperative development components and engages in policy advocacy through its nonprofit affiliate, Paraprofessional Health Care Institute.
South Central Los Angeles 1992
Following the 1992 uprising in Los Angeles, students at South Central’s Crenshaw High School wanted to help rebuild their community. Working with a science teacher and a volunteer business consultant, they revitalized the school’s garden and created a student-run, “environmentally sound and neighborhood-friendly” cooperative business to utilize its produce. Food from the ’Hood now sells three different kinds of salad dressings in more than 2,000 grocery stores in 23 states and through Amazon.com. The enterprise has expanded to provide academic tutoring, college entrance exam training, mentoring, skills training, conflict resolution, and business skills development to students from Crenshaw High. With 50% of profits going to college scholarships, over the past 10 years Food from the ’Hood has awarded over $180,000 in college scholarships to 77 student managers. Five of them so far have gone on to postgraduate programs.
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