top of page
Anchor 5

A History of Collective Courage– How African American Cooperatives Countered Oppression.[i]

Updated: Aug 9, 2021

Maggie Lena Walker (1864 – 1934) was an African-American teacher and businesswoman. She was the first African-American woman to charter a bank and serve as its president in the United States. See accompanying post regarding the banks success. Her mother had been a slave, then a domestic worker, and a spy for the Union army in Richmond, Virginia. Maggie’s biological father was a Confederate soldier. Maggie’s mother married her stepfather after the Civil War, when Maggie was 4 years old. She established extraordinary rapport with her employees and community by regarding everyone who worked for the bank as “family.”


The disposition to act collectively and cooperatively to achieve community goals in the face of adversity is a Black Culture virtue that goes back several centuries. Because the pattern of this disposition resiliently reestablishes projects like those that have been violently extinguished, the pattern reflects an energy field that overcomes discontinuity. Mechanical causality that occurs in continuous time does not explain the causality that reemerges when there has not been a continuity of project recovery or a continuity of the same group of individuals. This cultural energy pattern will present itself clearly when this post recounts the cooperative projects that have resiliently established and reestablished themselves in Black history through its centuries in America. The recounting of this cooperative history begins with slave communities and builds forward into 20th century economic cooperatives. Economic cooperatives tend to surge during times of hardship so in this Covid time, economic cooperatives have the potential to play a critical role in reestablishing prosperity, especially for low-income groups.

The resilience of African American co-ops is rooted in a disposition toward mutual assistance that dates back to tribal traditions in Africa and survival strategies in slave communities. They looked out for the sick, often nursing them until they were reestablished in health. And whenever Blacks had their own churches, mutual aid societies were an integral part of their life together.

Communal practices included tilling small garden plots to provide more variety and a healthier diet for their families. Freedmen and enslaved alike formed mutual-aid, burial, and beneficial societies, to take care of their sick, look after widows and children, and bury their dead.

Collective Resistance

African Americans have showed throughout history their ability to organize themselves to survive enslavement and poverty. They have organized a myriad of strategies of emancipation, including buying their freedom, work slowdowns, the creation of escape paths, and the formation of separate communities. The Underground Railroad was also a type of economic and social cooperation. Its design and implementation of escape routes throughout the United States and into Canada were examples of high-level social and economic cooperation and collaboration among African Americans and between Blacks and Whites. The Underground Railroad system also linked independent Black communities to one another and connected fugitives from slavery to Black and White support systems. While their cooperative networks were mostly invisible to masters, African Americans used them as channels for organized resistance. In addition, the communal settlements and villages organized by fugitives from enslavement were used as bases for guerrilla raids on the slavers. These ‘maroon’ outlaw communes, many with both Black and Indian members, appeared wherever slavery spread. Religious gatherings while providing for the organization of mutual aid, they in addition often served as planning meetings for revolts and escapes. Cooperation in the form of insurrection was used to establish widespread organization for the rescue of fugitive slaves. This in turn developed, in both the North and the South, into various co-operative efforts toward economic emancipation and land buying and those efforts led to cooperative businesses, building-and-loan associations, and trade unions.

Mutual-Aid Societies

Most of the early African American cooperative economic activity revolved around benevolent societies, mutual-aid societies, and, more formally and more commonly, mutual insurance companies. Many of these societies were integrally connected with religious institutions or people with the same religious affiliation, and they established educational, health, social welfare, moral, and economic services for their members. Chief among the activities was care for widows and children, the elderly, and the poor, and provision of burial services. The purpose of these mutual-aid societies was to provide people with the basic needs of everyday life—clothing, shelter, and emotional and physical sustenance. They also protected fugitives and free African Americans from kidnappers whose goal was to collect the bounty for returning them to slavery.

How a Mutual Aid Society Transmorphed into a Cooperative Economic Powerhouse – Maggie Lena Walker and the Independent Order of Saint Luke

The Order began as a women’s sickness and death mutual-benefit association in Maryland in 1867. The organization accepted men starting in the 1880s, when it expanded to New York and Virginia. Women members argued that their community could not be developed fully by men alone, and that Black women had to be integral to the process. Prompted by the leadership of Maggie Walker, the organization institutionalized a notion of family that encompassed everyone who worked within the organization, which helped to cement community ties. In 1903 the Order added a department store and a bank to serve community members. By 1924, the Order of Saint Luke had 50,000 members, 1500 local chapters, and a staff of 50 working in its Richmond headquarters.

Undergirding all their work was a belief in the possibilities inherent in the collective struggle of Black women and of the Black community in general. Walker argued that the only way in which Black women would be able to avoid the traps and snares of life would be to band themselves together, organize, . . . put their mites together, put their hands and their brains together and make work and business for themselves. The idea of collective economic development was not a new idea for these women, many of whom were instrumental in establishing the Woman’s Union, a female insurance company founded in 1898.

From Economic Independence To Political Advocacy

The Nineteenth-Century Black Populist Movement arose in the [Delta] region with the aim of expanding social and economic democracy, only to be ignored, dismissed, and defeated. These defeats were followed by arrogant attempts to purge such heroic movements from both historical texts and popular memory. Yet even in defeat these movements transformed the policies of the plantation bloc and informed daily life, community-building activities, and subsequent movements.

The story of the African American cooperative movement in the United States is also a story of unionization, organized labor’s early efforts at cooperative development, and populism. The Cooperative Workers of America and the Knights of Labor, integrated unions operating in the South, supported small farmers, laborers, and the grassroots Black rural sector. The Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Co-operative Union continued their legacy, challenging White supremacy and establishing cooperatives in a hostile environment. In the late nineteenth century, the cooperative movement was part of the populist movement for the rights of small farmers and laborers, working for political power, economic survival, and control over production.

The Knights of Labor

The Knights of Labor supplanted the Sovereigns of Industry and operated cooperatives from their local chapters. By the 1880s, 334 worker cooperatives had been organized in the United States. Two hundred were part of a chain of industrial cooperatives organized by the Knights of Labor between 1886 and 1888. The KOL envisioned widespread adoption of economic democracy and the development of a “cooperative commonwealth.” At least five hundred cooperative workshops and factories opened in the twenty-five years following the Civil War. KOL cooperatives were concentrated in the East and Midwest. Most were mines, foundries, mills, and factories making barrels, clothes, shoes, and soap, but KOL cooperatives also included printers, laundries, furniture makers, potters, and lumberjacks. Products made in KOL cooperatives carried the KOL label. African American members of the KOL operated a cooperative cotton gin in Stewart’s Station, Alabama, and built cooperative villages near Birmingham. The KOL achieved its greatest victory in 1885, when it won union representation against the Union Pacific Railroad. At its height, the KOL was the largest labor organization in the world, with almost one million members. It was also one of the few racially integrated unions. In 1886 there were an estimated sixty thousand African Americans in the Knights of Labor, although some estimate that by 1887 there were closer to 90 or 95,000.

An integrated KOL campaign in Richmond organized the Workingmen’s Reform Party, which won control of the municipal government in 1886, electing Black candidates. This new administration in Richmond proceeded to build a new city hall with a racially integrated, unionized local workforce. This was a biracial coalition of men and women laborers, with Black and White members organizing separately for a linked campaign with shared goals.

A major issue for the Richmond Knights of Labor was the construction of the new city hall—the old one had been burned down by the Confederate government as it abandoned Richmond in April 1865. In the early 1880s, the reigning conservative White city government solicited bids for the reconstruction of the building. In 1885 the KOL submitted a petition requesting that the hall be built with local materials by local workers employed directly by the city, who would be paid union wages and work eight-hour days. The petition also specified that all jobs, skilled as well as unskilled, should “be open to the employment of ‘colored’ workers. This was of particular concern because the city had been contracting with workers from the Virginia State Penitentiary and using convict labor. KOL coopers in Virginia were skilled workers and among the most racially integrated of the trades. In the early 1880s the penitentiary housed a mechanized barrel factory within its walls and used convicts to make the barrels. This had a large negative impact on the local Black and White coopers, and the two KOL district assemblies in Virginia mounted a campaign to close the factory. Not only was the strategy—boycotts, petitions, and electing KOL members to city government—successful, but it also transformed “their labor organization into a political and social movement. Richmond Blacks, for example, convened a statewide Black political convention in October 1885, calling for an end to convict labor and a suspension of support for the Republican Party if it did not agree to this plan.

The fortunes of the KOL took an abrupt downturn after the Haymarket riot. The rapid decline in popular support was instigated by capitalist barons, building their defamation campaign on the Haymarket strike of 1886 in Chicago. The day had begun with the killing of union strikers who were marching in a picket line by the McCormick building. Then, that evening, at a makeshift labor rally of support, some unknown person threw a stick of dynamite into the gathering and a shooting melee began with a few policemen and several labor participants being shot. The media and the judge who officiated the hocus-pocus trial convinced the general population that labor was responsible for this crime and was more extensively a band of criminals who would destroy the economy. Men who were convicted and sentenced to hanging included a man who was not even in the city at the time. The subsequent Illinois governor saw through the whole legal charade and pardoned all the men, but some had already been hanged.

The decline of the Knights of Labor was felt most strongly among the cooperatives. The entire economic system came down hard on them: railroads refused to haul their products; manufacturers refused to sell them needed machinery; wholesalers refused them raw materials and supplies; banks wouldn’t lend. Most of the cooperatives were forced to close by the end of 1888. The Knights of Labor led a movement that tore through the country, mostly the South. It had a significant impact but then went underground and resurfaced in other forms.

The Cooperative Workers of America (CWA) built on the foundation laid by the Knights of Labor. . The CWA focused on starting cooperative stores and a free cooperative school system, and addressed issues of wages, work conditions, and electoral reform. The organization’s goal was to strengthen the position of workers, especially Black workers, by decreasing their dependence on the credit system. The CWA used Black organizers and connected the movement to Black Baptist and Methodist churches, union leagues, Black fraternal orders, and other mutual-benefit societies that continued after Reconstruction and often met in secret for protection. As with other African American movements, a strong connection to mutual-benefit societies was important.

The CWA advanced a progressive platform that included repeal of the poll tax and of all unjust laws against labor, weekly wage guarantees, and “implementation of a free cooperative school system. White attempts at infiltration of the CWA failed, but terroristic suppression was successful in many areas, especially after rumors of a strike.

The Populist Movement

The Populist movement developed out of the experiences – including the failures – of the early unions and the growing National Farmers Alliance in the late eighteen eighties, as well as other grassroots farmers movements such as the Grange. In the eighteen seventies. In 1987, the 3-million strong farmers alliance opened its 1st cooperative, intended to be part of a network of organized agricultural cooperatives in an extensive cooperative economic system. The Farmers Alliance in South Carolina, for example, arrived in that state only a few months after the demise of the CWA and centered its efforts on cooperation. The Farmers Alliance, however, whose members were primarily landowning farmers, had far more resources upon which to draw than did the rural, Black day-laborers who made up the bulk of the membership of the CWA. In the face of rising costs, falling prices, and rural isolation, White and Black farmers in the South in the late eighteen eighties were joining farmers’ organizations such as the Grange, the agricultural Wheels, state’s Farmers’ Unions, and the Southern Farmers Alliance. The Southern Farmers Alliance emerged as the most significant agricultural organization in the South, but it did not accept Negro membership and at best made separate Black chapters. African Americans formed their own organization, The Colored Farmers National Alliance and Cooperatives Union (CF. NACU) which worked with the Southern Farmers Alliance but remained a separate organization.

As the earlier populist organizations disbanded and went underground, they began to pull together grassroots efforts and form a network of regional and national organizations. Like the mutual-aid societies, many were connected with and relied on churches

By 1891 the CFNACU boasted a membership of one and a quarter million members, making it the largest-ever organization of Black Americans, most of them sharecroppers and tenant farmers. While its local leaders were Black, the state and regional organizers were largely White, headed by the White founder Reverend Humphrey, who was general superintendent. Whites were able to organize openly in places where Blacks would be physically attacked.

Some state chapters raised money to keep Black public schools open for longer terms, founded academies, and solicited funds to help the sick and disabled. In many ways, the CFNACU was another mutual-aid society. But it was also formed to increase Black political participation, and it advocated a political agenda.

Before being violently suppressed, the Colored Farmers’ Alliance advocated the expansion of land ownership and the creation of cooperative stores designed to pool African American resources while boycotting stores owned by planters or allied merchants and commissaries,

Branches established exchanges (cooperative stores/warehouses and credit outlets) in the ports of Norfolk, Charleston, Mobile, New Orleans, and Houston where members could buy goods at reduced prices and borrow money from the organization to buy land and equipment or pay off a loan The organization sustained itself despite almost continuous opposition to its very existence from the White plantation bloc.

The Leflore Massacre

In Leflore County, Mississippi, the CFNACU was successful in organizing their farmers to boycott white businesses and buy from the Alliance stores. Plantation bloc Whites countered by organizing a defamation campaign against CFNACU leaders and Blacks rallied to support them. As the situation evolved, local militias and perhaps the state troops attacked the Black defenders. Some sources indicate that up to 100 were murdered and no Whites were injured. Subsequently the CFNACU was forbidden from functioning in Leflore County.

Similar terrorism was happening through much of the South making the success of the CFNACU, short-lived! Lessons, however, were nonetheless learned. At its height, the CFNACU, learning in part from the mutual-aid movement as well as the various Black populist and organized labor movements, used collective action, cooperative economics, economic solidarity, and political action to strengthen the position of Black farmers and farmworkers, form strategies for sustainable farming, and advocate for economic and political rights. All the Black populist efforts (like the White ones) were targeted by White employers, banks, and railway owners, who sanctioned White vigilantes. Early Black cooperators suffered physical violence—even death—as well as economic sabotage. At the same time, even the unsuccessful campaigns provided invaluable lessons about economic and political organizing at the grassroots level. Both the frustrations and the small victories associated with these efforts would be remembered, and the vision of a cooperative society would continue to surround the Black civil rights and liberation movements.

As indicated at the beginning of this post, the organizing of cooperative projects was often discontinuous, more like a pulsing of tradition that would continue to erupt, as from an energy field that disposed the Black collective toward mutual support rather than individualism. There is no doubt that The Black Collective will continue to spontaneously organize civil rights movements as in “Black Lives Matter” and in support of economic institutions, educational institutions and voting rights.

[i] The core materials of this post and their substantiation are from Nembhard, Jessica Gordon. Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. Penn State University Press. Kindle Edition. Although not included in this post, her book is prolific with citations that support her narrative.

Copyrights – Respect the Internet Commons: when this material is used, make attributions to Karl Ostrom <>, including the title of this Post and . Additionally, you are legally responsible for respecting the copyrights of others cited within the material that I have created.

20 views0 comments
bottom of page