Co-operation – Part Four

October 8, 2017
By Mickey Friedman

In “Black Reconstruction,” W.E.B. Du Bois asks and answers: “What did it mean to be a slave? It is hard to imagine it today … One estimate is that the maintenance of a slave in the South cost the master about $19 a year, which means that they were among the poorest paid laborers in the modern world. They represented in a very real sense the ultimate degradation of man … Slaves were not considered men … They could own nothing; they could make no contracts; they could hold no property, nor traffic in property; they could not hire out; they could not legally marry nor constitute families; they could not control their children; they could not appeal from their master; they could be punished at will.”

Acknowledging this, you can more fully appreciate the need for, and embrace of, Co-operation.

Sadly, as Du Bois reminds in “Economic Co-operation Among Negro Americans,” the white Christian Church drove their Negro members away. Until most of the Negro population found themselves in their own churches. While in 1787, there were two ministers and 42 members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.), by 1903, there were 5,838 ministers and 759,590 members.

Despite emancipation, members of the black community despaired in 1877 “that the whole South – every state in the South – had got into the hands of the very men that held us slaves … [from] the constable up to the governor.”

In 1879, representatives from all over the South declared: “Our toil is still unrequited … [and] we are sadly oppressed by poverty and ignorance, and consequently prevented from enjoying the blessings of liberty … but with a fair adjustment between capital and labor, we as a race, by our own industry, would soon be placed beyond want and in a self-sustaining condition.”

Du Bois writes: “freedom meant schools first of all. Consequently, schools immediately sprang up after emancipation …” By 1907, the AME church had twenty-five schools. The Negro Baptists supported 107 schools throughout the nation as well as Africa, serving over 16,000 students. Black people are “establishing private schools and consolidating with the public schools nearby; they are building independent private schools …” And in almost every instance: “in the years 1870 to 1899 the Negro school systems of the former slave states have not cost the white taxpayers a cent.”

Meanwhile, the black churches branched out into publishing, insurance, burial societies, banking and hospitals. The National Baptist Publishing Board purchased seven printing presses to publish nine million pamphlets and books for its missionary work and 15,000 Sunday Schools. Unfortunately, white bookbinding establishments wouldn’t take young Negroes as bookbinding apprentices, “hence there was nothing left for us to do but to undertake the tedious and expensive task of manufacturing bookbinders before we could manufacture books by Negro artisans …”

As the Rochdale Pioneers discovered, one successful co-operative venture led to another: “to operate both a steam and electric plant, [we] must, therefore, keep on hand a corps of firemen, engineers, machinists and electricians. This institution has been able in the last ten years to husband and organize all these skilled laborers, composed exclusively of Negro artisans, into a harmonious, well drilled working force.”

Du Bois writes: “the precarious economic condition of the free Negroes led to many mutual aid organizations …” This included between 75 and 100 homes and orphanages, 40 hospitals conducted and supported wholly or largely by Negroes and a Negro cemetery in almost every town in the South.

There were co-operative grocery stores; the Golden Chest and Freeman Mining Co. in Denver; the Lewis Cigar Co. in Philadelphia; the Colored Railroad, in Wilmington, N. C.; and 43 black drugstores, with 516 employees in black communities. The Colored Longshoremen of New Orleans had 1,400 union members with their own drug store, and several physicians to attend their sick. 

Du Bois openly acknowledges the challenges of black cooperatives: the lack of sufficient capital, trained managers, and the temptation to launch without being completely prepared. While these businesses met with marked success for short periods of time, they ultimately failed.

But he makes a central point about process, about the deeper significance of the effort itself: emphasizing that “the patronage of the colored people, both as stockholders and consumers, has never been withheld from any business, launched by colored men, that showed the slightest stability or promised reasonable values for money expended. Indeed the faith of our people in standing by co-operative enterprises in face of the signal failures of co-operative undertakings among us here, is most remarkable.”

At the end of the day, both Du Bois and I believe these are worthwhile failures. Because the efforts to find common ground and work together in the face of difficult odds, and to create independent, commonly owned democratic institutions are acts of individual and community transformation.


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

Black reconstruction; an essay toward a history of the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860-1880
W. E. B. Du Bois

Mickey Friedman’s Berkshire-based I Ching mysteries, “Danger” and “Folly”, as well as his non-fiction “A Red Family” are available on His films can be seen at

“Co-operation: Part Four” was first published on September 21, 2017 in The Berkshire Record.

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