The Working-Class Black Roots of Today’s Southern Coops

For many, the word “cooperative” might stir up a specific set of connotations: white professionals pouring over organic produce on their way home from six figure jobs; liberal arts college students sitting around discussing how to buy quinoa and tissue paper collectively; a cooperatively owned bookstore-coffee shop where you can read Marxist theory off the shelves as you eat a plate of cured tempeh.

Where cooperative development was connected to Black political power, poverty was reduced, Black local populations increased, and out-migration decreased. Activists realized that political gains, not just economic resources, had to be secured.

The real history of cooperatives, however, is much more complex. Many economic alternatives considered part of the “new” economy are decades old, and have typically been used to feed, clothe, house and empower working people. As political economist Jessica Gordon Nembhard writes in Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, American cooperatives have some of their deepest roots in working-class communities and communities of color, largely in the South.

Building on generations of practice honed during slavery and in the early labor movement, cooperative activity in Black communities exploded during the Great Depression as more people than ever struggled to meet their basic needs. Sharecroppers and others long excluded from formal economic structures established self-help organizations, land banks and worker-owned stores and farms that provided not only vital amenities, but also ownership and a means of community empowerment in the face of trying times—not to mention brutal, systemic racism. Often, these institutions were connected to vibrant political programs, perhaps most notably the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party led by Fannie Lou Hamer, who, following her work in the civil rights movement, became a lifelong champion for community ownership.

“Where cooperative development was connected to Black political power,” Gordon Nembhard writes, “poverty was reduced, Black local populations increased, and out-migration decreased. Activists realized that political gains, not just economic resources, had to be secured.”

North Carolina, in particular, became a center of cooperative activity. Nembhard Gordon cites one study which found that, between 1936 and 1948, the number of African-American owned credit unions in the state grew from 3 to 98, joined by nearly 50 other cooperative businesses. The legacy left by these businesses, however, is not purely historical.

Residents of Greensboro are keeping North Carolina’s cooperative tradition alive in well. The city’s northeast, a predominately African-American, working class neighborhood, became a food desert once a Winn Dixie supermarket there closed in 1998. After being unable to woo larger retailers, community members began a campaign to open a grocery store that would provide not only quality, affordable food, but also well paying jobs. It worked: set to open later in 2015, wages at the Renaissance Community Co-op (RCC) will start at $10 an hour.

Dave Reed, cooperative organizer for the North Carolina-based Fund for Democratic Communities, which has supported the project, asked:

“Can cooperatives like the Renaissance Community Coop play a role in making affordable food accessible to low-income communities? Can they provide good paying jobs to communities that desperately need them?”

The answer, in Greensboro, seems clear:

“There are those who believe they cannot do these things because cooperatives will not work unless your community is wealthy enough, educated enough and white enough. But the RCC project is showing everyone that cooperatives can and will be used to solve these problems.”

The RCC is just one small example of the vast solidarity economy springing up all across the US and around the world, much of it led by communities on the frontlines of social, economic and ecological devastation. To learn more about the RCC, Fund for Democratic Communities and more, visit

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