September 20, 2017
By Mickey Friedman
Home, and to the work of Great Barrington’s native son, W.E. B. Du Bois, and a chapter in the history of Co-operation that few appreciate. And, thankfully, in these days of Charlottesville and racism revived, Du Bois offers us another opportunity to acknowledge black, and of course, our real American history.
“Economic Co-operation Among Negro Americans,” his 1907 study, attempts to answer the question: “How far is there and has there been amongst Negro Americans a conscious effort at mutual aid at earning a living?”
Du Bois illuminates the challenges facing black Americans who: “unwittingly stand hesitating at the cross roads – one way leading to the old trodden ways of grasping fierce individualistic competition, where the shrewd, cunning, skilled and rich among them will prey upon the ignorance and simplicity of the mass of the race and get wealth at the expense of the general well being; the other way leading to co-operation in capital and labor, the massing of small savings, the wide distribution of capital and a more general equality of wealth and comfort.” To DuBois, the choice was clear: capitalism, which enriched the few over the many or Co-operation which could bring economic equity to the overwhelming majority of Americans.
Du Bois recount the traditions and skills of his African forebears: the accomplished herders, iron workers, weavers, merchants and artists. He quotes Buecher’s “Industrial Evolution” – “In the more thickly populated parts of Africa these fields often stretch for many a mile, and the assiduous care of the Negro women shines in all the brighter light when we consider the insecurity of life, the constant feuds and pillages …” David Livingstone is more graphic about lives lived in the midst of ongoing slave raids: “the people are lying about slain, the dwellings were demolished; in the fields, however, the grain Avas ripening and there was none to harvest it.”
And yet Co-operation was evident. A Belgian traveler to the Lower Congo writes “The native villages are often situated in groups. Their activities are based upon reciprocality, and they are to a certain extent the complements of one another … One [group] carries on fishing, another produces palm wine; a third devotes itself to trade and is broker for the others, supplying the community with all products from outside; another has reserved to itself work in iron and copper, making weapons for war and hunting, various utensils, etc.”
Wrenched from their homes, Du Bois tells us, “in the continental colonies the remembrance of the African organization and society was more and more lost sight of. The Negroes had become Americans, speaking another language and forgetting much of the past.”
Yet Co-operation flourished under slavery: “in every city of any size in Virginia” with “organizations of Negroes having as their object the caring for the sick and the burying of the dead. In but few instances did the society exist openly … History shows that no matter how the oppressed and enslaved may have been watched and hedged in, there was always found a way by which they could get together.”
Emancipated Negroes in Philadelphia in 1787 formed The Free African Society to care for each other, and should “we apprehend it to be necessary that the children of our deceased members be under the care of the society, so far as to pay for the education of their children, if they can not attend the free school; also to put them out as apprentices to suitable trades and places …”
Du Bois writes: “When it comes to Co-operation, first and foremost there is the Negro Church: We must remember that in the United States today there is a church organization for every sixty Negro families … It was in the church … that many of the insurrections among the slaves from the sixteenth century down had their origin; we must find in these insurrections a beginning of co-operation which eventually ended in the peaceful economic co-operation.”
Du Bois recalls the slave uprisings led by Cato, Gabriel, Vesey and Turner. And reminds us of the price the Negro churches paid: “It was the fact that the Negro church thus loaned itself to insurrection and plot that led to its partial suppression and careful oversight in the latter part of the seventeenth and again in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.”
So let’s end with a deep appreciation of the stakes that marked a most important effort at Co-operation, the Underground Railroad: the “widespread organization for the rescue of fugitive slaves among Negroes themselves …” While Du Bois notes “The organization is best known from the side of the white abolitionists who aided and sheltered the fugitives and furnished them means … it must not be forgotten that back of these helpers must have lain a more or less conscious co-operation and organization on the part of the colored people.”
For more information:
“Economic Co-operation Among Negro Americans,” edited by W. E. Burghardt Du Bois
Atlanta University Publications No. 12, Atlanta University Press, Atlanta, Georgia 1907
Carl Buechner, “Industrial Evolution,” translated by S. M. Wickett, New York, 1904.
Mickey Friedman’s Berkshire-based I Ching mysteries, “Danger” and “Folly”, as well as his non-fiction “A Red Family” are available on Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Mickey-Friedman/e/B00R4S2MSE/. His films can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/user/bluehillfilms