Cover image for Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice By Jessica Gordon Nembhard

Collective Courage

A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice

Jessica Gordon Nembhard

BUY

Was: $39.95 Now: $27.97 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06217-4

328 pages
6.125" × 9.25"
1 b&w illustration
2014

Collective Courage

A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice

Jessica Gordon Nembhard

“The word ‘pathbreaking’ should not be used casually, but this is, in fact, a pathbreaking book. There is nothing like it. Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s study of Black cooperatives opens a door on a critical aspect of Black history in general and cooperative history in particular—a door very hard to open, given the challenges and difficulties with records and sources. What she has found behind the door is subjected to inspiring yet tough-minded analysis. The long trajectory of development Gordon Nembhard describes and the direction she illuminates offer profoundly important guidance as we enter an era of increasingly difficult economic and political challenges.”

 

  • Media
  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects

Watch Jessica Gordon Nembhard on GRITtv with Laura Flanders discussing the history of cooperative economics in the movement for civil rights.

In Collective Courage, Jessica Gordon Nembhard chronicles African American cooperative business ownership and its place in the movements for Black civil rights and economic equality. Not since W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1907 Economic Co-operation Among Negro Americans has there been a full-length, nationwide study of African American cooperatives. Collective Courage extends that story into the twenty-first century. Many of the players are well known in the history of the African American experience: Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph and the Ladies' Auxiliary to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Jo Baker, George Schuyler and the Young Negroes’ Co-operative League, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Panther Party. Adding the cooperative movement to Black history results in a retelling of the African American experience, with an increased understanding of African American collective economic agency and grassroots economic organizing.

To tell the story, Gordon Nembhard uses a variety of newspapers, period magazines, and journals; co-ops’ articles of incorporation, minutes from annual meetings, newsletters, budgets, and income statements; and scholarly books, memoirs, and biographies. These sources reveal the achievements and challenges of Black co-ops, collective economic action, and social entrepreneurship. Gordon Nembhard finds that African Americans, as well as other people of color and low-income people, have benefitted greatly from cooperative ownership and democratic economic participation throughout the nation’s history.

“The word ‘pathbreaking’ should not be used casually, but this is, in fact, a pathbreaking book. There is nothing like it. Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s study of Black cooperatives opens a door on a critical aspect of Black history in general and cooperative history in particular—a door very hard to open, given the challenges and difficulties with records and sources. What she has found behind the door is subjected to inspiring yet tough-minded analysis. The long trajectory of development Gordon Nembhard describes and the direction she illuminates offer profoundly important guidance as we enter an era of increasingly difficult economic and political challenges.”
Collective Courage is an important addition to the body of work examining efforts to achieve economic development by African Americans. This book represents the culmination of Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s long-standing and pathbreaking research in this area. The publication of Collective Courage will be warmly welcomed by scholars and community activists searching for development strategies that circumvent increasingly globalized predatory economic networks. The historical and contemporary examples of cooperative ventures discussed in the book will unquestionably serve as useful models for pursuing sustainable approaches to community development.”
“Jessica Gordon Nembhard's excellent book provides a refreshing antidote to the straitjacket on our imagination of better ways to organize our economic lives. Our economic lives can be both just and productive. Gordon Nembhard cogently demonstrates that black cooperative models offer a non-utopian route toward meeting both goals.”
Collective Courage makes a very strong case for the historical and continuing importance of cooperatives as a strategy for African American economic, social, and political development. Given the emphasis on pooled resources, cooperative economic development is an approach that gets around the constraints of limited wealth among African American individuals and families. Moreover, this volume clearly demonstrates that cooperatives have ‘joint outputs’—that is, in addition to producing a particular good or service, a cooperative frequently produces other valuable social services, civic involvement, leadership development, and managerial expertise that is transferable to activities beyond the particular cooperative enterprise. Jessica Gordon Nembhard concludes that cooperatives have been successful in the past and also present the opportunity for expanded self-reliance in the future.

“The originality of this book is substantial. I am unaware of any similar work. This volume shows that Gordon Nembhard is a leading scholar on the role of cooperative economic development activities among African Americans. This well-organized text will be useful to general interest readers, undergraduate and graduate students, policy makers, and practitioners.”
“Though the cooperative movement in the United States is one of the largest in the world, it is routinely ignored or marginalized by observers, particularly in the academic world. This book, based on years of multidimensional research in many sources by Jessica Gordon Nembhard, fills a particularly glaring gap in our understanding of that movement. It carefully documents how many African Americans have explored the cooperative option over the years, in the process making a major contribution to the fields of cooperative studies and African American studies.”
“In her inspiring book Collective Courage, Jessica Gordon Nembhard has compiled the most complete history to date of the cooperative economic struggles of African Americans from early times until now. Following in the profound footsteps of W. E. B. Du Bois, she has illuminated the historical roots of African American economic cooperation and thus made a vital contribution to the knowledge so badly needed today for African Americans and all people to come together in mutual aid and, by their common efforts, rise above all economic obstacles.”
“[A] fascinating history of African American cooperatives.”
Collective Courage is truly a book to be celebrated and not merely reviewed. A book to read and re-read, one that gives voice to a long neglected and embattled history, and which can contribute massively to new and far more democratized and humane forms of social and economic life than those to which we are accustomed or resigned.”
“With the 'free market' increasingly predatory toward poor and working poor people, seeking to turn poverty itself into a profit center, Jessica Gordon Nembhard's book couldn't be more timely. If cooperative economic arrangements have any future we must first learn their vital past.”
“[Collective Courage is] full of suggestions and lessons that can be used by any group seeking to empower itself through cooperative organization. The range of concepts covered—from the Antigonish method of development, the needs of cooperative development and the impact of co-ops on community development—gives the book applications well beyond the badly needed African-American cooperative history.

“. . . The history of African-American cooperative practice, as documented in this volume, clearly demonstrates how a group of oppressed people, in the face of pain and grief, persisted relentlessly to provide themselves economic independence, and political freedom, but also, thankfully, a model, and lessons of development, inclusion and diversity that can benefit all of us.”
“This elaborate historical portrait of the cooperative movement in the African American community is an important academic reference. Nembhard articulates a business model rooted in the values of a community, which will resonate well with those who work to create community-centered enterprises. To do so, the author delves into the past of the movement that generated this model, documenting the historical experience of a community working hard to create an economic base to support long-term growth and social mobility. The book illustrates how social structures and deliberate acts frustrated or destroyed early attempts to create this economic base rooted in the community's values, and it also extends this historical chronicle to the present to help readers understand why the economic base of the community is still so fragile. For those wishing to turn back the page of history to explore collaborative, community-based economic development, this book will offer a window of insight, a template for action, and a framework grounded in African American culture and values. ‘Lift as you climb,’ a traditional phrase reflecting one of these many values, serves as a powerful call to readers for past and future community empowerment and growth.”
“This work encourages readers to view African American economic and political history through a new lens. Information from primary source materials provides a unique perspective on a critical but underexamined aspect of African American resistance to economic arrangements that have created and perpetuated racialized disparities in wealth and points out that this resistance began well before the Civil War.”

Jessica Gordon Nembhard is Associate Professor of Community Justice and Social Economic Development in the Department of Africana Studies at John Jay College, City University of New York.

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction: A Continuous and Hidden History of Economic Defense and Collective Well-Being

Part I: Early African American Cooperative Roots

1 Early Black Economic Cooperation: Intentional Communities, Communes, and Mutual Aid

2 From Economic Independence to Political Advocacy: Cooperation and the Nineteenth-Century Black Populist Movement

3 Expanding the Tradition: Early African American–Owned “Cooperative” Businesses

Part II: Deliberative Cooperative Economic Development

4 Strategy, Advocacy, and Practice: Black Study Circles and Co-op Education on the Front Lines

5 The Young Negroes’ Co-operative League

6 Out of Necessity: The Great Depression and “Consumers’ Cooperation Among Negroes”

7 Continuing the Legacy: Nannie Helen Burroughs, Halena Wilson, and the Role of Black Women

8 Black Rural Cooperative Activity in the Early to Mid-Twentieth Century

Part III: Twentieth-Century Practices, Twenty-First-Century Solutions

9 The Federation of Southern Cooperatives: The Legacy Lives On

10 Economic Solidarity in the African American Cooperative Movement: Connections, Cohesiveness, and Leadership Development

Time Line of African American Cooperative History, 1780–2012: Selected Events

Notes

References

Index

Introduction:

A Continuous and Hidden History of Economic Defense and Collective Well-Being

Courage: Every great movement started as we have started. Do not feel discouraged because in our few months of life we have not rivaled some long established Co-Operative venture. Each successful Co-Operative enterprise has taken much time and energy and sacrifice to establish. Nothing worth accomplishing is ever achieved without WORK.

—Baker (1931d, 2)

No race can be said to be another’s equal that can not or will not protect its own interest. This new order can be brought about once the Negro acknowledges the wisdom in uniting his forces and pooling his funds for the common good of all. Other races have gained great wealth and great power by following this simple rule and it is hoped some day that the Negro will do the same.

—Wilson (1942c, 1–2)

We can by consumers and producers co-operation, . . . establish a progressively self-supporting economy that will weld the majority of our people into an impregnable, economic phalanx.

—Du Bois (1933b, 1237)

We have a chance here to teach industrial and cultural democracy to a world that bitterly needs it.

—Du Bois (1940, 715)

African Americans have a long, rich history of cooperative ownership, especially in reaction to market failures and economic racial discrimination. However, it has often been a hidden history and one obstructed by White supremacist violence. When there is a narrative, the history is told as one of failure. The challenges have been tremendous, and have often been seen as insurmountable. The successes are often anecdotal and isolated, little understood, and even less documented—particularly as part of an economic development strategy and a larger economic independence movement. My research suggests that African Americans, as well as other people of color and low-income people, have benefitted greatly from cooperative ownership and democratic economic participation throughout the history of the United States, much like their counterparts around the world. This book documents these practices and experiences, as well as the various philosophies behind the strategy of cooperative ownership among African Americans.

Considering the broad aspects of cooperative economic development in African American communities over the past two centuries, my research shows that cooperative economic thought was integral to many major African American leaders and thinkers throughout history. These include known figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, Marcus Garvey, E. Franklin Frazier, Nannie Helen Burroughs, George Schuyler, Ella Jo Baker, Dorothy Height, Fannie Lou Hamer, and John Lewis, as well as lesser-known figures such as Halena Wilson, Jacob Reddix, W. C. Matney, Charles Prejean, Estelle Witherspoon, Ralph Paige, and Linda Leaks; and organizations such as the Young Negroes’ Co-operative League, the North Carolina Council for Credit Unions and Associates, and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. This study attempts to show how these individuals and organizations contributed to the development and philosophy of the African American co-op movement. I consider the various organizations’ agendas and strategies over time, as well as the kinds of impact cooperative practices have had on Black communities. There are lessons to be learned from the history of cooperative economic models that can be applied to future discussions about community economic development in communities of color.

What Is a Cooperative?

Cooperatives are companies owned by the people who use their services. These member-owners form the company for a particular purpose: to satisfy an economic or social need, to provide a quality good or service (one that the market is not adequately providing) at an affordable price, or to create an economic structure to engage in needed production or facilitate more equal distribution to compensate for a market failure. The International Co-operative Alliance (ICA), a nongovernmental trade association founded in 1895 to represent and serve cooperatives worldwide, defines a cooperative as “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise” (ICA 2012b). Cooperatives range across the globe from small-scale to multi-million-dollar businesses. There are more than one billion members of cooperatives throughout the world (ICA 2012a). According to the ICA, in 1994 the United Nations estimated that “the livelihood of nearly 3 billion people, or half of the world’s population, was made secure by co-operative enterprise” (2012a)—and the cooperative movement has continued to grow since then. Moreover, the United Nations designated the year 2012 “the international year of cooperatives,” with the theme “cooperative enterprises build a better world” (UN 2011), recognizing the viability of the model in addition to its widespread use. Although they were not a well-publicized economic structure before 2012, cooperatives are a significant force in the world economy. Building on the successful year of cooperatives, the ICA and UN have now declared the following ten years to be the international decade of cooperatives.

Cooperatives are classified into three major categories, depending on the relationship between the member-owners and the co-op’s purpose: consumer-owned, producer-owned, or worker-owned (or some combination of the three). Consumers come together and form a buying club or cooperative retail store in order to pool their money to buy in bulk the kinds of goods and services they want, and the quality they want, at an affordable price. Consumers establish a grocery cooperative, for example, if fresh produce and natural and vegetarian foods are not supplied elsewhere or are very costly. Consumers also come together to buy electricity, financial services (as in a credit union), environmentally friendly fuels, pharmaceuticals, or child care, for example. Cooperative retail enterprises such as natural-food grocery stores and rural electric and energy cooperatives, together with credit unions, are the most common and successful examples of consumer cooperatives. Credit unions offer financial services and loans to a specific group of members (affiliated with a union, a workplace, or a church, for example) or to underserved communities, and keep financial resources circulating in the community. Housing co-ops expand home or apartment ownership to more people, addressing both financing and maintenance issues, and often build in long-term affordability.

Producers also form cooperatives to jointly purchase supplies and equipment or to jointly process and market their goods. Here again, cooperative economics facilitates the pooling of resources to supply producers or to help produce or enhance their product, to standardize procedures and prices, to increase the selling price, or to decrease the costs of distribution, advertising, and sales. Agriculture marketing and craft cooperatives are the most common form of producers’ cooperatives.

Workers form cooperatives so as to jointly own and manage a business themselves, to stabilize employment, make policy, and share the profits. Worker cooperatives are often established to save a company that is being sold off, abandoned, or closed down, or to start a company that exemplifies workplace democracy and collective management. Worker-owned businesses offer economic security, income and wealth generation, and democratic economic participation to employees, as well as provide communities with meaningful and decent jobs and promote environmental sustainability.

Cooperative businesses must operate democratically, according to a set of principles that include open membership, equal voting rights for each member regardless of how much is invested, returns based on use, continuous education, and concern for the community. According to the ICA, “co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity” (ICA 2012b), as well as accountability and transparency. Cooperatives operate on a “double bottom line”—paying attention not just to good business practices and producing a surplus but also to good functioning of the association and to member and community participation (democratic participation) and well-being (Fairbairn 2003; Spear 2000). Because many cooperatives also address sustainability (both economic and environmental), they are often seen as addressing a “triple bottom line”: economic (business), social (mutuality and participation), and ecological sustainability. Fairbairn argues, however, that making distinctions between social and economic sustainability is reductionist because it suggests tradeoffs instead of synergies. A more integrated approach recognizes that “social and economic functions come together” and that economic activities achieve social goals (Fairbairn 2003, 4). This is not an either/or relationship in which one goal has priority over others.