October is National Co-op Month, a celebration of cooperatives that started in 1964. The month is a time for allied organizations and co-ops to promote cooperative values and advantages. This year’s theme is “Co-ops Commit: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” which supports an important conversation about change and action in the cooperative community.
One step toward making diversity and racial equity not just an intention, but a reality, is forming an inclusive cooperative history. Including African American, Latinx, and Appalachian co-ops in U.S. cooperative history highlights the long tradition of cooperation among Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities and creates an accurate understanding of the movement.
Highlighting the importance of including these histories, I selected three case studies from Appalachia, African American, and Latinx cooperatives, each of which show just the fraction of the communities’ cooperative impact.
Appalachian Cooperative Networks Before Rural Electrification
The growth of rural electric cooperatives in the 1930s and 40s brought electricity and technological advancements, such as water pumps and agricultural machines, to much of rural America. Though these coops created an electrical transformation, cooperation was familiar to many rural areas, including Appalachia. From community care to unions, Appalachians had utilized community networks to cooperate for generations.
Before the rural electrification efforts, community members and farmers in the South and Appalachia, according to the Southern Oral History Program, kept telephone networks up and running for rural areas, which was only possible through cooperation. Dema Lyall, a native Appalachian from North Carolina, born in 1918, said, “I don’t remember when we just didn’t have a telephone.” Farmers and residents worked together to provide telephones to local communities, typically working in networks of 8-10 families. In some cases, telephone lines were widely available to areas that would not see any electrification efforts until the early 1940s. The community networks that supported these local telephone lines may have supported cooperatives’ growth over corporations during the Rural Electric Administration’s campaign the 30s and 40s. The cooperative networks established before rural electric coops highlight a much longer history of cooperation in the Appalachia.
The Freedom Quilting Bee, Alabama 1960s
By 1967, generations of Black men and women struggled under the sharecropping economic system, where white plantation owners often bonded people to the land through debt and labor. With the Civil Rights Movement, a group of Black craftswomen in Alabama sought to leave sharecropping and generate independent income with an increasingly popular commodity: quilts.
Started by a group of Black women near Selma, Alabama, the Freedom Quilting Bee collectively quilted cloth scraps into usable blankets. They hoped to generate individual income for their sharecropper spouses, families, and themselves. However, as Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard found, these women not only supported their families, but also promoted community economic stability. The Freedom Quilting Bee bought 23 acres of land, provided housing for evicted farmers, formed childcare cooperatives, and supported community solidarity, fostering growing support from within the cooperative and the community.
The Freedom Quilting Bee Coop highlights how Black women regained economic control through cooperation. When the traditional socioeconomic parameters oppressed these craftswomen, they mobilized collective power for themselves and the community. By including the quilting bee cooperative in the American cooperative movement’s history, the real economic advantage and community stability that cooperation offers to members becomes clearer.
Exploring Latinx Cooperatives
In a recent study, the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives explored the growing cooperative movement in Latinx communities. In Latinx Co-op Power in the U.S., Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard and Esther West reveal a rich and expansive network of 180 Latinx cooperatives. Though Latinx cooperative history has not been studied in the American movement, Latin American communities across North America have a strong tradition of cooperation.
In their sample survey, Nembhard and West uncovered that most Latinx coops are urban and suburban, with nearly 89% located in urban areas. From credit unions to agriculture and food co-ops, there were Latinx cooperatives in every sector. The results also revealed that most coops were younger businesses, with only two Latinx co-ops formed before 2000. Between 2004 and 2020, Latinx cooperative numbers skyrocketed, with 14 developing within the last five years. Though the 180 cooperatives surveyed does not depict the entire Latinx co-op community, the study makes important strides in Latinx co-op development and efforts to integrate them into the national cooperative movement history.
The diversity of cooperatives in the United States has expanded tenfold with recent studies; however, these cooperators are often overlooked in history. Though many are familiar with the Rochdale pioneers, perhaps a more inclusive history of American cooperation should begin with indigenous networks of cooperation, such as John Curl’s For All The People. With the addition of BIPOC and underserved communities, the history of the U.S. cooperative movement becomes both more inclusive and accurate.