An Interview with Jessica Gordon Nembhard
By Beverly Bell and Natalie Miller
Photo courtesy of Jessica Gordon Nembhard
For National Co-op Month, we present a three-part series from an interview with Jessica Gordon Nembhard who is Professor of Community Justice & Social Economic Development at John Jay College, CUNY; and an Affiliate Scholar at the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. She serves on the following boards: Grassroots Economic Organizing, the Association of Cooperative Educators , and the US Solidarity Economy Network; and is a founding member of the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy, and the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives. Gordon Nembhard’s acclaimed new book is Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice.
Black cooperative history closely parallels the larger African-American civil rights and Black Liberation movements. After more than 10 years of research, I’ve found that in pretty much all of the places where Blacks were trying to assert their civil rights, their independence, their human rights, they also were either practicing or talking about the need to utilize cooperative economics in one form or another.
I’ve put together a continuous record of collective economics and economic cooperation [practiced by U.S. Black people] from the 1600s to the 21st century. They span informal pooling of money to more formalized mutual aid societies and other kinds of economic collective relationships, to what we would now call actual cooperative businesses.
Initially, people pooled resources to buy each other’s freedom when we were enslaved. This was simple, but meaningful, as we didn’t own ourselves. Most people didn’t have a way to earn money, but sometimes there were skilled laborers who were allowed to earn a little extra money on a Sunday. We have some records and some testimony of African-Americans who talk about saving that money – first buying themselves, then buying other family members, or contributing to helping someone buy themselves. Enslaved African Americans also gardened together on small plots of land in the slave quarters to add fresh vegetables to their meager rations.
After this, we became much more formal with mutual aid societies, which are some of the earliest independent Black organizations. The first Black mutual aid society started in Newport, Rhode Island in 1780. Then, the Free African Society in Philadelphia – the same group that started the African Methodist Episcopal Church – was formed in 1787 as a mutual aid society.
The earliest cases usually started with burial mutual aid. Enslaved, even freed people, can’t often afford to bury their dead. The African American community revered their dead as joining the ancestors, and needed to properly bury them. With a mutual aid society everybody puts in a small amount per year and then there is a pool of money. When somebody died in your family, you could go to your mutual aid society and they would cover the burial. The second type of beneficiaries of mutual aid societies were widows and orphans; and then all kinds of other needs.
A lot of the fraternal organizations (brotherhood and sisterhood societies such as Masons, fraternities and sororities) and churches either sponsored mutual aid societies or developed out of mutual aid societies. Many of the early social, political, and community activities during enslavement were all connected in this way - sharing resources to do the things that would make you human. At a time when people were enslaved and dehumanized in every other way, these were ways that they worked together to have the money that would allow them not just to survive, but also to assert their humanity.
Another interesting connection with mutual aid societies is that they were places/spaces where Black women were able to have leadership. By the early 1800s, most of the mutual aid societies were started and run by women. This leadership was then able to keep developing in other areas, continuing past the Civil War. For example, Callie House organized the Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, a group that called for reparations of back wages for formerly enslaved people. They called back wages pensions, and they fought for the right to receive pensions for the work they had done as enslaved people. The association was a full mutual aid society pooling members’ resources to provide for many daily needs, in addition to engaging in political lobbying for the pensions.
The Underground Railroad was another example of people pooling resources, in this case often to help others they didn’t know – and an inter-racial effort. There were basically three components: First, you had to have safe houses properly equipped with a secret basement. Second, you had to have people who were able to secretly get people from one house to the next. Finally, you had to have a coded language so that people knew when it was safe to run away and how to get to the first safe house, without the wrong people knowing. People would give money to make sure that the safe house was properly built and equipped, and had food to feed the fugitives, clothes for them, and blankets, etc. So this was economic cooperation.
Some of the money that people shared was for the conductors – the people who shepherded fugitives through the woods and from one house to the next. The conductors needed a wagon, a horse, some food, and a gun. There aren’t a lot of records about how this was done, but we know that people donated. That is what we would call a gift economy. It’s not clear that it was a donation of outright cash, but you shared your wagon, horses, food, and the knowledge of how to get North/to Canada. This Underground Railroad -cooperation, intercooperation and planning among an interracial group of people for Black liberation - is another example of early tendencies toward a cooperative and solidarity economy that transcended racism, sexism and classism.
An important part of the Underground Railroad is the underground sharing of the quilts. Certain patterns of quilts had codes that indicated when somebody was going to be there to conduct you away or which path to go on to get out of town. A quilt hanging out in the backyard might have one pattern that would tell you “Not today, but tomorrow,” or another pattern would say “It’s going to be tonight, but take the left fork.”
These systems had to work in town after town throughout the South when people just had to get to Philadelphia, New York or Boston. After a while, you needed this to happen in the North, too, because people had to get all the way to Canada, because the laws were strengthened so that if fugitives were caught anywhere on U.S. soil, they would be sent back to enslavement. The collective language, in addition to the shared resources, made the “railroad” work.
The gifting came from slaves in the South and their allies, who were free Blacks or white people. One of many interesting stories is of one Jewish merchant in Memphis, which was on one of the routes to Canada. He secretly built a cellar under his house. He did this by building a slaughterhouse next door. While everybody’s attention was on the slaughterhouse construction, he had trusted people digging his underground cellar and a tunnel to the Mississippi River. This all depended on connections between people who could trust each other; and knowing who would help and could be trusted, who couldn’t, who would dig a cellar and not tell. This was all about sharing and pooling resources to the mutual benefit of many.
Each of these examples show how crucial the sharing of resources was to survival and to augment and leverage what any one person or family had. They are also examples not just of finding ways to survive, but also of cooperating to benefit the entire community. Pooling of resources enabled people to leverage what they and their community had in order to provide more, AND to solve problems such as hunger, how to bury your dead, to help the sick, to escape enslavement. Economic cooperation also contributed to enabling African Americans to assert their humanity, fight for their freedom, and argue for political/civil rights. Also these examples establish a legacy of economic cooperation among African Americans and show that they have early and continuous cooperative traditions just like Europeans. African Americans have a long and strong tradition of economic cooperation, even during enslavement. There is a Black cooperative movement in the US.
Revisit this site on October 21st for the next article in the series, where Gordon Nembhard further discusses the Black co-op movement and its links to civil rights struggles.
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