Philly’s Hidden History of Interracial Co-op Organizing: Collective Courage details the history of Black Cooperatives

by Caitlin Quigley
from Generocity Newsletter

Recently, Drexel University professor Dr.Andrew Zitcer and I embarked on a research proj­ect to uncover the largely unknown history of the Phila­delphia Area Cooperative Federation, an association of 18 consumer food co-ops, many of them black-owned, which was active from roughly 1943 to 1952. It’s a fasci­nating history that still matters today. In honor of Black History Month, here’s a piece of what I’ve learned.

The Federation had extensive educational programs, including study clubs that were meant to prepare groups of neighbors to open their own food cooperatives. Under the leadership of Federation staff member Samuel Ev­ans, these programs spanned many neighborhoods in and around the city and included both Blacks and Whites.

A July 1947 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer titled “Negroes [sic] in Area Plan 3 More Cooperatives” doc­uments the accomplishments and plans for cooperative development in Black communities in the region. At the time, there were 50 study clubs comprised of only Black members as well as 20 racially-mixed study clubs. As the title suggests, plans were underway to open food cooper­atives in North (at 1126 W. Jefferson St.), South, (“some­where near 18th and Christian Sts.”), and West Philadel­phia (“‘half a dozen good spots’ under consideration”).

Why, exactly, was this moment in history so success­ful for captivating interest in cooperatives among both Whites and Blacks? In the article, a quote from Samuel Evans offers one answer: “There is a growing tenden­cy in the minds of the American people toward self-help and self-initiative. The Negro [sic] is no exception; and in Philadelphia the progressive Negro [sic] leadership is choosing the alternative of cooperation as against the use of force to lift the overall economy of the group and to cement better relations among all peoples.”

Language like “cooperation as against the use of force” might make you wonder how the cooperative movement and the Civil Rights movement intersected. Luckily, last year Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard pub­lished a landmark book detailing the history of black cooperatives and situating them in the larger histori­cal context. “Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice,” is the only attempt to compile a chronicle of this impor­tant history in the last hundred years or so.

You might be surprised at how many big names in the Civil Rights movement participated in and even spear­headed co-op organizing initiatives. According to the book’s synopsis, “Many of the players are well known in the history of the African American experience: Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph and the Ladies’ Auxiliary to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Nannie Hel­en Burroughs, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Jo Baker, George Schuyler and the Young Negroes’ Co-operative League, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Panther Party.”

Collective Courage is tremendously inspiring and frequently heartbreaking. Dr. Gordon Nembhard found evidence of many ambitious cooperative enterprise proj­ects in Black communities. These cooperatives were too often short-lived—usually because they were terrorized, sabotaged, or destroyed by racist people and institutions.

About the Author:

Caitlin Quigley is a proud co-op fanatic. She helped launch the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance and is a member-owner of Mariposa Food Co-op, The Energy Co-op, and Philadelphia Federal Credit Union. In her work, Caitlin has focused on organizing to strengthen local economies and fundraising for social justice movements. Caitlin lives in West Philly and is a dedicated but slow-moving bike commuter. You can follow Caitlin on Twitter at @cequigley.