Above: The Wedge Food Cooperative in Minnesota, from African Americans in the Twin Cities Coop Movement.
“There exists today a chance for [Blacks] to organize a cooperative State within their own group. By letting Negro farmers feed Negro artisans, and Negro technicians guide [Black] home industries and [Black] thinkers plan this integration of cooperation, while [Black] artists dramatize and beautify the struggle, economic independence can be achieved. To doubt that this is possible is to doubt the essential humanity and the quality of brains of [Black People].”
W.E.B. DuBois, 1935
Atlanta Black Star
In parts of West Africa and the Caribbean an ancient version of cooperative economics exists, called “susu.” As one of the oldest forms of microfinance in Africa, the practice is run by one of Africa’s oldest financial groups, susu collectors. They run their businesses from kiosks in the marketplace and act as mobile bankers.
Clients make low but regular deposits on a daily or weekly basis over the course of a month into a susu account. At the end of this period the susu collector returns the accumulated savings to the client but keeps one day’s savings as commission. Susu collectors may also provide advances to their clients or rotate the accumulated deposits of a group between individual members.
Today, susu collectors provide many West Africans who would otherwise be denied credit with access to money they need to start up small venture projects that in many cases benefit the community as a whole. In the United States, Black immigrants from the Caribbean have enjoyed one of the highest economic growth rates using a form of the susu and leveraging this practice to establish successful credit unions.
Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union (CFACU)
The Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union was formed in 1886 in Texas. Despite the fact that both Black and white farmers faced great difficulties due to the rising price of farming and the decreasing profits that were coming from farming, the protective organization known as the Southern Farmers’ Alliance didn’t allow Black farmers to join.
A group of Black farmers decided to organize their own alliance, to fill their need. The CFACU operated under fear and harassment by white farmers, but managed to operate several cooperatives in the late 19th century before having to disband.
Members of the CFACU shared agricultural techniques and innovations, and coordinated cooperative efforts for planting and harvesting. The Union promoted alliances between farmers and laborers, and was active in local and regional politics in order to maintain rights for African Americans after Reconstruction. It’s estimated that the CFACU had 1.2 million members and was the largest Black organization of its time.