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The History of African American Cooperatives and the Importance of Representative Legal Support

In her book, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, Jessica Gordon Nembhard states that the principles of African American cooperatives are solidarity, equity, democracy, and sustainability. These principles were accomplished by working together to fight racism through the pooling of resources. Jessica Gordon Nembhard highlights this history and the ways in which African Americans worked together to improve each others’ lives through cooperative economics in Collective Courage. A brief historical overview of the different cooperative, or solidarity economy, forms discussed in G. Nembhard’s piece and their connection to representative legal support are what follows.

Mutual Aid

In the late 18th century, the first cooperative efforts were established in the form of mutual aid. A mutual aid society is an organization that provides benefits and assistance to its members during times of death, sickness, disability, or unemployment. During the antebellum period, mutual aid societies allowed both free and enslaved Black people to pool their money together in order to pay for burials, buy land, and help the sick and the orphaned. Enslaved Black people also pooled their money together to buy their freedom. Other early forms of cooperation ranged from mutual insurance companies and buying clubs to collective farming and organized labor.
Intentional Communities

Later, new cooperative possibilities like intentional communities emerged for Black Americans during the Civil War. For instance, the Combahee River Colony in South Carolina was formed by African American women during this time in order to grow cotton on abandoned farms, remain independent, and eventually become a community of several hundred women with the intent of sustaining themselves. The role of African American women in forming cooperatives during this period was great. Consider the efforts of Sojourner Truth in finding one of the earliest cooperatives within the United States called the Northampton Association for Education and Industry. This intentional community, co-founded by other abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, was created to address growing social inequality in the industrial North and end slavery.
Union Cooperatives

After the Civil War, Black farmers in the American South started the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Unions when the Southern Farmers’ Alliance would only admit Black farmers in separate chapters. By 1891, this union cooperative had more than a million Black farmer members. The Union stressed mutual aid, which entailed sharing farming techniques, coordinating the planting and harvesting of crops, and encouraging political participation amongst its members.
In addition, African American cooperatives often faced retaliation and violence by white supremacists because they redirected trade from White-owned businesses to Black businesses and communities. Thus, the Black-owned cooperatives were a threat to White supremacy and often short-lived due to organized White supremacist tactics. In 1922, the National Federation of Colored Farmers was formed to increase Black farm ownership in the South and improve farm businesses through cooperative buying, production, and marketing. Black Tenant farmers and sharecroppers joined the cooperative with most members gaining the capacity to buy their own farms within 10 years or by 1932.
Consumer Cooperatives

By the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, many more Black-owned consumer cooperatives were established. These include cooperatively-owned grocery stores, gas stations, credit unions, insurance co-ops, and some housing co-ops. In 1907, W. E. B. Du Bois held a conference on cooperatives and documented 154 current African American co-ops.
An important consumer cooperative during the 20th century was the Young Negro Cooperative League, founded in 1930 with a mission “to gain economic power through cooperation.” This co-op inspired many other cooperative efforts, especially during the 1960s civil rights movements, where they influenced civil rights leaders and activists. Freedom fighters such as Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer were instrumental in forming cooperatives that were owned and controlled by Black farmers, residents, and consumers alike in order to improve the lives of Black families and communities during the time. While cooperatives were a training ground for activists and leaders of the civil rights era, the Civil Rights Movement, in general, led to more co-ops such as the Freedom Quilting Bee and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.
Worker Cooperatives & More

Today, Black cooperatives are still solving problems and creating opportunities for Black people and other economically marginalized communities. In fact, the largest worker co-op in the United States today is composed largely of Black and Latina women called —the Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA) in the South Bronx. This cooperative provides benefits such as small interest-free loans, free income tax preparation services, and health insurance for its members. Other Black cooperatives that are making their mark in industries and communities today include: Pecan Milk in Georgia, Sweet Livity headquartered in California, Ground Cover in Atlanta, ChiFresh in Chicago, Lawndale Christian Development Co-op in Chicago, HeyKinFolk based in Miami, Forty Acres headquartered in Minnesota, and Bloc by Block News located in Maryland.
Representative Legal Support

One of the main purposes of forming Black cooperatives is to gain equity, and sustainability among this marginalized group through solidarity among similarly situated people. It is important that these cooperatives also have representative legal support by Black attorneys rooted in the community. These attorneys can assist by providing legal assistance to cooperatives, including entity formations and securities legal compliance for raising capital. In ​​Solidarity Economy Lawyering, Renee Hatcher writes that creative legal strategies are an important part of sustaining the solidarity economy (including cooperatives) movement.

For instance, “transactional lawyers can play a critical role in (1) advocating for corporate and regulatory reform and creatively reimagining the law to aid the goals of the solidarity economy movement; and (2) ‘scaling up’ the solidarity economy through the linkage of solidarity economy organizations and enterprises.” Representing cooperatives in their various matters is a way that attorneys can contribute to democracy and equity. This is especially true for Black lawyers since it has been shown that representative legal support adds benefits to the growth and sustainability of Black communities that cannot be replicated elsewhere.

The securities legal industry remains heavily dominated, led, and controlled by White-owned firms, especially those owned by White men. For instance, Black attorneys represent only 3.3% of law firm attorneys within the U.S. despite representing over 13% of the entire U.S. population. This is in stark contrast to White attorneys who represent 82% of law firms in the U.S., with White men representing a majority at 55%. These numbers are even starker for women of color, namely Black women, making up only 1.73% of all attorneys. Providing representative professional support to Black and other underrepresented cooperatives contributes to a fairer, more just, and better democratic ecosystem.
If you are interested in creating and capitalizing a cooperative within your community, then contact us today.

Co-authored by Managing Attorney, Elizabeth L. Carter, Esq.
*updated February 9, 2023
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