There’s no “me” without “we”: The importance of cooperatives in the Black community

Collage of Black cooperative leaders

From left to right: John Merrick of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, Estelle Witherspoon of the Freedom Quilting Bee (photograph by Nancy Callahan), Fannie Lou Hamer of the Freedom Farm Cooperative in 1969 (still captured from 2022 Fannie Lou Hamer’s America documentary), Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson, and a Federation of Southern Cooperatives member with a sign reading “Black farmers demand fair prices”

One of the greatest features of the Black community in America is our resilience. In spite of racial and economic discrimination, we have been able to survive and even thrive. How have we managed to withstand so much for so long? Cooperatives.

Cooperatives operate under the principles of inclusion, solidarity, democratic participation, and sharing. Used all over the world, they range from factories to freedom farms to bulk buying clubs. As models of sustainability, stability, and resilience, cooperatives are the perfect way to weather economic stagnation or a financial crisis. It is no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic led to a rise in mutual aid networks all around the globe.

Black communities have historically used cooperatives to survive. We’ve always known that the individual isn’t possible without community; there’s no “me” without “we.” From the first Africans forcibly brought to America, our community has shared their resources to withstand poverty and enable self-reliance. Enslaved Black people farmed small gardens on their one day off and shared the produce, even saving money to help each other buy their freedom. The Underground Railroad, the network that helped enslaved people escape to the North, was one of America’s first cooperatives. Eventually, our community began mutual societies through religious and fraternal institutions. Members pooled their dues and monthly fees for healthcare access, burying a member, or taking care of the deceased’s family.

Historical photo of NC Mutual Insurance offices

Founded in 1898, N.C. Mutual Insurance became one of the largest Black-owned businesses in America. This 1902 photo shows the company’s first office in Durham, North Carolina. Credit: Durham County Library

As mutual aid societies evolved, some eventually became mutual insurance companies, such as N.C. Mutual Insurance, one of the largest Black-owned businesses in America. The end of the Civil War led to a proliferation in Black farmer and worker cooperatives, cooperative stores and warehouses, and collective lending in the South. In the North, mutual aid societies flourished, including the Young Negro Cooperative League (YNCL), whose purpose was “to gain economic power through co-operation.” Black colleges taught cooperative economics, and Black thinkers embraced it. W.E.B. Du Bois observed, “We have a chance to teach industrial and cultural democracy to a world that bitterly needs it.”

Grassroots movements that used cooperative economics gained momentum in the ’60s. In 1966, women from sharecropping families in Alabama established the Freedom Quilting Bee as a cooperative to sew and sell quilts. With the money they earned, they bought 23 acres of land and built a sewing factory on it, providing daycare and after-school services to members’ children. A supporter of the civil rights movement, the co-op is a founding member of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC).

Historical photo of Credjafawn Co-op Store

Inside the Credjafawn Co-op Store in 1948. Located in the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota. Credit: Minnesota Historical Society

In 1969, civil rights leader Fanny Lou Hamer, herself the daughter of sharecroppers, founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative in Wisconsin to feed and empower impoverished families. During the ’60s and ’70s, the Black Panther Party established cooperative housing and free community services, including breakfast programs, daycare and schooling, and healthcare, in cities throughout the United States, sparking similar movements across the world.

In spite of increasing backlash from the white community, the Black cooperative movement persevered throughout the ’80s and ’90s, particularly in urban, low-income areas. After police acquittals in the Rodney King case and the subsequent South Central uprising in 1992, Los Angeles high school students planted a garden behind their school. Calling their effort Food from the ’Hood, they shared the produce with their low-income neighbors and even developed a salad dressing to create more jobs for the Black community. These are just a few examples of noteworthy Black cooperatives, but a more comprehensive history can be found here.

There are numerous examples of Black-led cooperative and community-centered enterprises today. Black craftswomen in Pittsburgh created Ujamaa Collective as a marketplace to sell their wares. Oakland’s Mandela Co-op keeps money circulating in the local economy by sourcing from local farmers and food purveyors. Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi is building a solidarity economy by connecting co-ops and worker-owned enterprises. The Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA) in New York City is the largest worker co-op in the United States today; it was cofounded by a Black woman, Peggy Powell, and consists largely of Black and Latine women.

The Black community has used cooperative economics as a way to build power in spite of systemic exclusion. As a collective survival strategy, cooperatives have ensured self-sufficiency and dignity in the hardest of times. They exemplify Black social, cultural, and economic solidarity and yield a transformative effect by centering human need and relationships.

Still, an undeniable racial wealth gap exists in this country, and for us to achieve social and racial justice, we must work toward economic justice. We at BCIF strive to push the needle by building wealth and equity in the Black community, focusing specifically on the Southern California region. Our organization raises funds that provide ongoing capital for small Black-owned businesses through zero-interest loans. Loan repayments go back in full to supporting future borrowers in the community.

Cooperative economics is key to our operations at BCIF because it places value directly in the hands of our community. It has paved the way for us throughout history and will continue to move all of us toward independence and liberation.