“African Americans have utilized cooperative ownership in good and bad times throughout U.S. history,” says Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s there were Black farmers’ cooperatives, credit unions, co-op grocery stores and schools, points out Nembhard, an associate professor at John Jay College of the City University of New York (CUNY) and a member of the B.E. Board of Economists.
In 1930, George Schuyler, a controversial journalist for the Pittsburgh Courier black newspaper, founded the Young Negro Cooperative League. Ella J. Baker, who later became a luminary of the Civil Rights Movement, led the organization’s two dozen young people. By 1932, the League had formed councils in cities from Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., to Cleveland, New Orleans and Phoenix. They promoted cooperative businesses in black communities.
Some cooperative ventures made real money. “In the fall of 1932 Gary, Indiana, was ravaged by the depression, the steel mills were closed and only one bank remained. Black citizens came together and formed the Consumers Cooperative Trading Company,” Nembhard writes. “Starting with a buying club, the Trading Company came to operate a main grocery store, a branch store, a filling station and a credit union. By 1934 there were over 400 members and seven full-time employees in the grocery store. The Credit Union was organized in November 1934. In 1936, sales for the co-op store were at $160,000, and dividends were paid to share owners.”
A Foundation of Hope
But that was 70-plus years ago. Dr. H. Viscount Nelson, a professor in the Afro-American Studies Department of UCLA, believes that several strengths that helped blacks survive during the Great Depression no longer exist or have become weaker. In the 1930s, he asserts, the masses of the black population — not just a middle-class or well-off black minority — functioned on hope. Many young blacks today have given up hope, Nelson says. The idea that education is the key to upward mobility was more widely embraced by black youths then than it is now. There was also a greater respect for work, with blacks admiring people able to hold down any job. Many young blacks today reject the concept of starting at a low level and working one’s way up, he says.
Author of the book, “Black Leadership’s Response to the Great Depression in Philadelphia,” Nelson used 1930-1931 data to study Philadelphia’s black 30th Ward. “What I discovered was that despite the economic reversals that people had suffered, life was relatively placid and calm,” says Nelson. Crime was minimal, with no rapes, no murders and very few robberies or assaults and batteries. Most 30th Ward arrests during these Prohibition years involved alcohol. Nelson found all socioeconomic levels of blacks living within the same neighborhood — doctors, schoolteachers and businessmen residing on blocks also home to laborers and house cleaners. Depression-era segregation and discrimination made life hard, but forced blacks to live together, pull together and have racial consciousness. Demographic diversity within the black community kept hope high. This general optimism has been lost, Nelson believes.
While Conrad disagrees with Nelson that widespread hope remains lost, she does admit that upward-mobile blacks’ departure from inner-city neighborhoods has reduced opportunities for young people to interact with social and employment networks. Conrad remembers how her father, a Dallas physician, helped steer the six children of the janitor next door toward all going to college. Today, churches can perform some of those networking functions, she believes. But middle-class suburbanites commuting to old-neighborhood churches must consciously make an effort to make this happen, says Conrad. “They need to be there other than on Sunday.”
Sowing the Seeds
The image of First Lady Michelle Obama planting a vegetable patch on the White House lawn is perhaps a signal to Americans that taking down-to-earth self-help action is something everybody must do to make it through our current economic crisis.
Cultivation of that garden may bring to mind one of the most basic forms of commerce — bartering, where one farmer trades his beans for another farmer’s corn. Bartering, however, can be more than the exchange of one product for another. It includes exchanges of services, caregiving and skills. “If there is a particular kind of repair or construction skill you have, you can use that as a form of bartering within a community,” says Conrad. “It goes back to a kind of cooperative venture notion, but here you exchange services with each other directly.”
Voices of Economic Survival