BHM | Jessica Gordon Nembhard on the History of African-American Cooperative Economic Practice

Long before the recent growth in co-operative businesses, African American communities throughout the U.S. relied on the democratically-governed and shared ownership principles that we continue to uphold today.

Denied access to the same resources as their White neighbors, African American communities combined their knowledge, finances, and efforts to create economic opportunities and provide critical public health services. Before the Civil War, documents show that many slaves pooled their money to buy one another’s freedom. After the war, freed slaves purchased farmland and equipment to share, and established mutual aid societies that provided collective funds for healthcare and funeral services.

Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard has studied the immense history of Black co-operatives for over fifteen years. Her 2014 book, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice sheds light on the untold contributions Black co-operatives have provided in today’s powerful movement of cooperative structures in business and community. Common Share Food Co-op board members JuPong Lin and Alex Kent had the special opportunity to hear Dr. Gordon Nembhard speak at the 2018 Up & Coming Conference.

In working on family-friendly economic development policy, Jessica Gordon Nembhard examined W.E.B. Dubois’ ideas about cooperative economics. Her research tells a story of cooperatives that centers African American cooperation, from informal cooperation in slavery (collective sharing of resources to help buy out relatives, the Underground Railroad) to mutual aid societies to support needs around death and health to labor unions such as the Knights of Labor that were promoting coops. Jessica’s work is essential for the food co-op movement to acknowledge that the coops of today have roots going back to black cooperation.

Check out this interview of Dr. Gordon Nembhard from Grassroots Economic Organizing (interviewed by Laura Flanders) to learn more about the fascinating contributions of Black-led co-operatives and consider where the movement might be today without these efforts.

-Emily Chiara (Community Engagement Coordinator) & Ju-Pong Lin (Co-President)
Common Share Food Co-op