The Courage of Cooperation

Against the Current, No. 176, May/June 2015

Michael J. Friedman

Collective Courage:
A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice
By Jessica Gordon Nembhard
Penn State University Press, 2014, 328 pages, $39.95 paperback.

DETROIT HAS BECOME something of a national symbol of the growing trends of economic inequality, and something of a laboratory challenge as to whether they can be reversed.(1) The impetus for economic development fostered by both governmental and private initiatives in Detroit has focused on the downtown and midtown areas, and the development of high-tech start-ups that depend significantly on younger, better educated, and primarily white entrepreneurs.

What’s been generally omitted in these planning efforts is how to bring economic development to Detroit’s predominantly Black and poor neighborhoods whose residents comprise a large majority of the city’s population, but who may have insufficient education, training or transportation to take advantage of whatever high-tech infrastructure is able to take root in the metropolitan area.

If “omitted” is an overstatement, it may just be fairer to say that with the globalization of manufacturing and the concomitant export of low-skilled and moderate-skilled jobs, few solutions have been proposed that begin to address the economic development of poor, oppressed communities.

In this context, it was a pleasure to read Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice by Jessica Gordon Nembhard. The author 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.

Professor Gordon Nembhard seeks not only to explore in detail the theory and practice of Black engagement in cooperative economic enterprises throughout the 20th century — including collective benevolence organizations, grassroots economic organizing, cooperative agricultural initiatives, union cooperative ownership and deliberate efforts among African Americans to develop Rochdale cooperatives(2) — but also to highlight significant trends among African American thinkers fostering cooperative economic development as a means of overall economic and social advancement for the Black community.

Importantly, she sees such initiatives providing something of a template for moving forward, as she explains in the introduction:

“I was interested in cooperative economic development as a community economic development strategy, and my focus was on how cooperatives help subaltern populations gain economic independence, especially in the face of racial segregation, racial discrimination, and market failure. . . .As a specialist in racial wealth inequality, I also began exploring ways in which cooperative ownership, particularly in worker cooperatives, is a strategy for community-based asset building, and I began to develop a concept of community wealth based on cooperative ownership and community assets.”

In developing her history of Black cooperative initiatives as a guide to pursuing community wealth building through cooperative development, the author was very much influenced by the experience and example of the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in northern Spain.(3)

Not surprisingly, the earliest cooperative efforts of African Americans were undertaken as simple collective actions and mutual self-help efforts in the face of racial violence and oppression — e.g. collectively tilling small garden plots, pooling savings to buy freedom or farm plots, forming mutual aid societies to cover burial expenses, taking care of widows and orphans or providing income when sick.

These arrangements took many forms,(4) and in two studies — Some Efforts of American Negroes for their own Social Betterment (1898) and Economic Cooperation Among Negro Americans (1907)(5) — W.E.B. DuBois documented many of them, intending as Gordon Nembhard explains, to illustrate “the myriad ways in which African Americans shared the costs, risks, and benefits of economic activity that helped Black families and communities, and to illustrate joint Black business and economic successes.”

Later in his career, DuBois proposed Rochdale cooperative organizations as a key economic strategy for African Americans, and in 1918 he organized the Negro Cooperative Guild to promote Black economic development.

Abolition, Labor and Cooperation

The abolitionist movement created a number of Black communities and communes in the early 1800s, among them the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in western Massachusetts. Though short-lived, over 200 people lived there,including Sojourner Truth and David Ruggles. Frederick Douglass was a frequent guest. Other such communities were the Nashoba Commune in Tennessee and the Combahee River Colony in South Carolina.

Professor Gordon Nembhard also notes that unions were instrumental in developing cooperatives among African Americans. Specifically, the Cooperative Workers of America (CWA) and the Knights of Labor (KOL), both integrated unions in the South, supported small farmers in grassroots efforts to develop agricultural cooperatives.

After the Civil War, Rochdale coops attracted support from labor unions, specifically, the Iron Molder’s Union, the National Labor Union, the Sovereigns of Labor and the KOL. About 10% of the KOL membership was Black, and many participated in these cooperatives.

By the 1880s, there were 334 worker coops in the United States, and 200 were part of a chain of industrial cooperatives organized by the KOL between 1886 and 1888.(6) The CWA built on this KOL cooperative tradition, but focused on cooperative stores and free cooperative school systems. The CWA also organized against poll taxes, unjust labor laws and for guaranteed wages.

It is not possible to review in detail the myriad of cooperative efforts documented by Gordon Nembhard, though a summary of the areas she explores gives a sense of the scope of her research. She surveys:

• the agricultural cooperative system established by the late 19th century populist movement through the Southern Farmers Alliance and the Colored Farmers National Alliance;

• the development of mutual insurance companies in Black communities (though she admits that these efforts were closer to Black capitalism than true cooperatives);

• the development of Black joint stock businesses like the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Co. (1865-83), organized by Black dock workers in Baltimore in response to efforts by white workers to keep them off the docks, and the Coleman Mfg. Co., in Concord, North Carolina, a Black cooperatively-owned cotton mill;

• Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association;

• the earliest Black-founded Rochdale cooperatives;

• the development of cooperatives during the Great Depression by the Negro Business league, the Young Negroes Cooperative League and the International Ladies Auxiliary of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, in both rural and urban areas, which focused on business organizations, housing cooperatives and cooperative education; and

• 20th century Black rural cooperatives from the National Federation of Colored Farmers in 1922 to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s (MFDP) Freedom Farm in the 1970s, with emphasis on the history and experiences of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.

Throughout these discussions, the author emphasizes the integral role Black women have played in the cooperative movement — from the earliest church-based mutual aid societies to the consumer cooperatives promoted by the International Ladies Auxiliary of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; the quilting and sewing cooperatives founded by rural Black women in the South; the efforts of Ella Jo Baker in numerous cooperatives in Harlem; and the struggles of Fannie Lou Hamer in founding and managing the MFDP’s cooperative farm in Mississippi.

Continuing Struggle

This book’s wealth of information and detail about Black economic cooperative efforts in America is impossible to convey in a summary review, yet it does not present an overly rosy history, as many if not most of these Black cooperative initiatives were opposed, and undermined, by vehement white opposition. Nevertheless, Gordon Nembhard sees cooperative economic development as a key element in allowing oppressed communities to move beyond the limitations imposed by the greater society.

One development strategy for marginal, disadvantaged, underserved and oppressed groups is to use economic cooperation and group solidarity to create businesses that will provide meaningful work and income, greater control for workers and the possibility of wealth creation.

Most significantly, it is not just the building of single cooperative enterprises that can achieve this kind of independence, control and wealth creation. It also requires the development of networks of cooperatives that cooperate with each other.

Here the Mondragon model is so important, as Mondragon’s global success is built on a system of interlocking cooperatives that supply one another and help to keep money circulating among grass roots and local businesses. Such efforts are being looked at, copied, implemented and experimented with in marginal and oppressed communities across America. This book, hopefully, is spurring such efforts. It certainly is doing so here in Detroit.


  1. This review will not be addressing Detroit’s bankruptcy filing, the reasons for it, or its outcome, though clearly the consequences of the bankruptcy proceeding will have a significant impact on the city’s ability to move forward, both economically and socially.
    back to text
  2. A Rochdale cooperative is a formal cooperative business that follows the Rochdale Principles of Cooperation established by the Rochdale Pioneers in England in 1844, and codified by the International Cooperative Alliance in 1895. These principles are: (1) voluntary open membership, (2) democratic member control, (3) member economic participation, (4) autonomy and independence, (5) education, training and information, (6) cooperation among cooperatives, and (7) concern for community.
    back to text
  3. The Mondragon Cooperative Corporation is a complex of about 258 industrial, financial, distributive, research and educational cooperatives and enterprises in the Basque region of northern Spain, with 93 production plans and nine corporate offices located outside of Spain. Though large, it has maintained fealty to the one-worker-one-vote governance model of working cooperatives. Growing out of the efforts of a Jesuit priest who was assigned to the Basque country during World War II, and who started a technical training school for unemployed Basque youth, the corporation began with a single worker cooperative formed in 1956 by graduates of that school. As explained by Gordon Nembhard, “Today, the Mondragon complex uses a system of interlocking cooperatives to handle evils of business development, including education and training, development, financial services, and social security. It has provided mechanism for some members of the Basque community to form and control their own businesses, schools and financial institutions, according to shared values and shared work.” To find out more about the Mondragon Cooperative Complex, you can go to their website at:
    back to text
  4. Indeed, Gordon Nembhard sees the underground railroad as an example of economic and social cooperation among African Americans, as well as the number of “outlaw communes” organized by fugitive slaves for both their own survival and as bases for guerrilla raids on slaveholders.
    back to text
  5. In this latter publication, DuBois documented 254 African-American cooperative businesses.
    back to text
  6. The economic system retaliated against these cooperative efforts — railroads refused to haul their goods, manufacturers refused to sell them machinery, and banks refused to extend credit — and this explains the short-lived existence of these KOL-sponsored cooperative enterprises.
    back to text

May/June 2015, ATC 176