How often have you heard it said that black Americans don’t support each other economically? It’s a common refrain in conversations around sociopolitical uplift for the black community and many come to the conclusion that blacks just don’t show each other the same kind of financial love that you see in other racial and ethnic groups. Here’s the thing, however: that’s a myth. A new book, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, unearths the rich and long history of cooperative economics in the black community.
“In most places I’ve spoken, people think that we didn’t engage in cooperative economics,” says author Jessica Gordon Nembhard, political economist and professor of community justice and social economic development at John Jay College in New York City. “My challenge was to prove that we did.”
Gordon Nembhard says she assumed she’d spend just a few years researching whatever cooperatives she could dig up. Instead, she was met with a history that spanned black Americans’ period of enslavement to the present day and support for cooperatives from almost every major black political leader along the way.
One example of a powerful black economic cooperative was the Colored Farmers National Alliance and Cooperative Union, which existed from 1886 to 1891. Gordon Nembhard found that the CFNACU was formed to aid Black farmers, particularly with mortgage payments and marketing. The group provided other community services, however. It promoted alliances between farmers and laborers and served as a resource for sharing agricultural techniques and coordinating efforts for planting and harvesting. CFNACU also worked to counter exploitation by white landowners and violence from vigilantes. With more than 1 million members and branches/cooperative stores in the ports of Norfolk, Charleston, Mobile, New Orleans and Houston, it was the largest Black organization of its day.
Watch Gordon Nembhard discuss the book below.
So why is this history relatively lost?
“I’m not sure but there’s a lack of education about co-ops in general in our society,” says Gordon Nembhard. “We teach about capitalism and present capitalism as the only option. Also, often whenever blacks attempted to establish them, their efforts were sabotaged by white competitors and white supremacists. In many cases, it was through violence but in others it could be as simple as having your rent raised, banks denying your loan or even being priced out of insurance.”
Finally, after years of studying black cooperatives and their place in black life, Gordon Nembhard says she’s taken away just how important economic independence through cooperation has been for black Americans.
“The black cooperative movement has always been parallel to the black liberation and civil rights movements. We’ve mostly heard about the political side of the movement but you can’t name a major black political leader that didn’t point to cooperatives as a pathway to freedom.”