New Internationalist

Of caulkers and quilt-makers

Issue 368

Jessica Gordon Nembhard tells the little-known story of the part played by co-ops in forwarding the rights of African Americans.

Throughout his life, African American scholar WEB Du Bois proposed that African Americans should use ‘intelligent co-operation’ for ‘the common good’ and advocated for a Black co-operative ‘group economy’. Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association at the turn of the 20th century espoused co-operative ideals for their businesses and supported a Pan-African co-operative trading network. The Young Negroes’ Co-operative League in the 1930s, and the Federation of Southern Co-operatives since 1967, have brought African Americans together to support co-operative economic development.

African Americans, other people of colour and low-income people have seen many gains from co-operatives in the US:

The Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company in Baltimore allowed African American caulkers and stevedores to protect their jobs, own their own company and escape discrimination from 1865 to 1883. They paid off their mortgage in five years and started to receive a stock dividend by the sixth year.

The Consumers’ Co-operative Trading Company in Gary operated in the 1930s. It began as a food-buying club in response to the lack of quality, affordable food during the Depression. The club became a main grocery store. Later the co-op added a branch store, a filling station and a credit union. It paid dividends and offered co-op education.

The Apex Cab Co-operative in Milwaukee began in January 1973. Although it was short-lived, it showed that cab ownership was viable for African Americans. One of its competitive edges was that drivers were willing to take passengers to any part of the city, unlike white cab drivers. Washington DC also had an African American-owned co-op cab company for several years.

The Freedom Quilting Bee, a handicraft co-op in Alberta, Alabama was established in 1966 because share-cropping families needed a more stable income. The women began selling quilts after many of their families lost the farms because of their civil-rights activities. In 1968 the co-op bought land for a sewing plant and for families who had been evicted from their homes. By 1992 it was the largest employer in the town.

The Federation of Southern Co-operatives/Land Assistance Fund is a network of rural co-ops (particularly farms, marketing boards and housing), credit unions and state associations. In its 35-year history, the Federation has mobilized $50 million in resources for support of member co-ops, facilitated $75 million in sales through co-operative marketing and helped retain $87.5 million worth of land in Black ownership. Its network of 16 community development credit unions had combined assets of $27.4 million with 14,633 members at the end of 2001.

SSC Employment Agency in Baltimore is a worker-owned temporary employment agency. It places ‘difficult to employ’ workers (260 in 2000) in hospitality jobs, and trains members to be owners and managers of the company.

Outside Boston, Co-operative Economics for Women (like WAGES in Oakland) organizes low-income women – especially women of colour – immigrant and refugee women and women surviving domestic violence, to create co-operative approaches to generating income while organizing for community development. They have spun off several successful women’s co-ops in sewing, house cleaning, catering and childcare.

Co-operative Home Care Associates in New York City employs more than 300 African American and Latina women as homecare paraprofessionals. Since 1987 worker-owners have earned annual dividends of between 25 and 50 per cent on their initial investment. The co-op maximizes wages and benefits for members, providing paid vacations and health insurance – unprecedented in this sector.

In spite of these successes there is still a long way to go: for every dollar of wealth white Americans hold as a group, African Americans have only 16 cents. If the 20th century was an era of rapid economic growth at the expense of human and natural resources, the 21st will need to create wealth based on the principles of caring community and democratic sustainable societies. Co-ops can offer a model for that future.

Jessica Gordon Nembhard is Assistant Professor in the African American Studies Department, and Economist in The Democracy Collaborative, University of Maryland College Park.

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