African-American co-ops and collective courage

by LaDonna Sanders-Redmond

This article was originally published in May 2018

In celebrating the power of the cooperative model, it’s imperative to address the impact of cooperative economies across diverse communities. This book review comes from our colleagues at Seward Community Co-op in Minneapolis.

Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s book, “Collective Courage,” is about the forgotten history of cooperative economics in African American communities. It begins by expanding the definition of cooperatives to include the development of mutual aid societies. Mutual aid societies share contemporary co-op principles, such as voluntary ownership, owner-led and owner-organized operations, and participatory democracy.

For example, Dr. Gordon Nembhard discusses the Free African Society, founded in Philadelphia in April 1787 by Richard Allen, who also is the founder of the African Methodist Church. The purpose of the Free African Society was to serve the spiritual, economic and social needs of Philadelphia’s African American community.

The book uncovers numerous examples of cooperative economics throughout the history of social justice movements in the United States. Many pioneers in the Civil Rights Movement have their feet rooted in cooperation economics. From Frederick Douglass to the Black Panther Party, the human rights movement is filled with examples of economic self-help.

Successful use of the cooperative model has come at a cost for some African Americans

However, successful use of the cooperative model has come at a cost for some African Americans. The increased visibility and success of black-owned cooperative businesses has made them more visible as targets for racially motivated violence. Ida B. Wells, journalist and anti-lynching advocate, found out firsthand that the quest for ownership, economic control, and access to food was a dangerous undertaking.

In 1889, the Peoples Grocery in Memphis was a cooperative owned by 11 prominent blacks, including postman Thomas Moss, a friend of Ida Wells. The store was created to serve the needs of the black community in a neighborhood of Memphis called the “Curve.” Peoples Grocery was very successful and attracted customers, black and white, from all over Memphis. The popularity of the new store negatively impacted the business of white grocery store owner William Barnett, however, and this created tension between white and black customers.

As a result of an altercation between two children at the store, Moss and two of his workers were lynched by a mob organized by the owner of the white grocery store across town. In the end, Peoples Grocery was sold to the white store owner for a fraction of its value.

The story of Peoples Grocery isn’t only about food. Truly, this story is about equality and freedom.

Similarly, the co-op movement is not just about food, either. It’s about community-based economics and activating entire communities.

The disparity in cooperative models arises when cooperative principles don’t specifically address race per se. Ideally, cooperative principles include attention to racial equity and justice to appeal more directly to communities of color — and to empower them.

Dr. Gordon Nembhard’s book, “Collective Courage,” serves to reconnect communities of color to cooperative principles and practice. This book provides an opportunity to discuss the ways where cooperative principles can incorporate values of equity and justice, and ways that we can learn through history to promote a model that works well for all people and communities.

A deep commitment to racial and social justice is essential to the viability of the cooperative movement as a whole, and to local co-ops in particular.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Seward Community Co-op, Minneapolis, MN.

LaDonna Sanders-Redmond is the diversity and community engagement manager at the Seward Community Co-op in Minneapolis.

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