Our friend and colleague Jessica Gordon Nembhard will publish her new book, “Collective Courage: A History of African-American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice” in May. She spoke to Colorlines.com about this critical, but often overlooked, part of the Civil Rights Movement.
First, what is cooperative economics and how early does this practice begin among African-Americans?
As early as the mid-1700s. I actually start the book with a mutual aid society in Philadelphia that came together to help members bury their dead. Mutual aid societies were formed by people who couldn’t afford to do something important in life like bury their dead or take care of their sick. So each member would put in money, say $1 a year, and pool their resources so that they could bury their loved ones or, in another case, hire a nurse for a town that doesn’t have one.
Cooperatives take many forms, from housing co-ops to consumer-owned groceries to worker-owned pig farming. There is no individual ownership. Rather, everyone is in it together and owns together. There’re usually rules about how the money can be used and all members participate in regular study groups. That fosters democratic participation both in the co-op and the community. [And by the way,] those same people who formed that burial society later went on to found the African Methodist Episcopal church.