When thinking about how today’s financially-stressed African Americans can update the survival strategies of earlier generations of blacks, Dr. Cecilia A. Conrad keeps returning to the economic significance of the old-fashioned rent party.
Conrad is a member of the B.E. Board of Economists and is interim dean at Scripps College, an elite women’s institution in Claremont, California. She says that beneath their surface of providing friends with music and home-made fried chicken, these fundraising gatherings embody two important principles.
The first idea is that cooperative enterprises reduce risk. When people pool resources, risks are smaller for the group than they are for any individual person. One pool member might lose his job, but it’s unlikely every member would lose theirs at the same time. Conrad says the historical pattern of mutual aid in the black community goes all the way back to the late-1800s burial societies that evolved into black life insurance companies.
A second pattern represented by rent parties is the value of lower-cost, family-based entertainment. Parents can show their children ways to entertain themselves that don’t involve large expenditures of money. Families can read public library books for free. Such a habit advances the economic and financial education of young people, helping them understand the family’s budget situation and constraints.
Other activities besides organizing a rent party can put cooperative ventures to work today, says Conrad. Two families could pool resources to purchase and share a house now selling at a bargain price in a safer neighborhood with better schools. Black churches or civic organizations could take advantage of city programs for purchase foreclosed houses to be converted from residences to community use.
Lending circles are an acknowledged strength in Asian American and Caribbean communities, but were an African American community tradition that disappeared, says Conrad. She thinks blacks’ urbanization as they migrated from the South to the North undermined some of the historical roots of cooperative ventures.