Co-ops & Civil Rights

When asked to imagine a co-op market your mind may conjure up images of fresh verdant local veggies, dewy organic fruit, and bulk shelves as far as the eye can see. From the produce to the average co-op customer, you’re likely to assume a middle-class parent, maybe a grandparent or high-school teacher, in Durham perhaps a local professor.  As an active owner, you may picture specific services, not unlike the special ordering or hot bar amenities we offer at the Durham Co-op Market. However, what may not cross your mind in relation to co-ops are member loan programs, let alone rooms for travelers, basketball courts, or voter education classes. For one Black farming community, that was very much so the reality.

Cooperatively ran grocery stores have a deep history of providing workers and their communities basic services that governments overlooked, were restricted from, or refused to provide, dating back to the late 1800s. Not only could owners find easier access to quality food and products, but for the many southern Black farming communities and disenfranchised working communities of Europe, co-ops were one more tool in battling the many injustices faced at the hands of capitalistic markets, greedy businesses, and racist laws.

Resources in addition to the food and goods available on-shelf were offered not because of a bottom line or with the intention of attracting more customers, but rather were community services offered because co-ops in Black southern towns post-slavery were addressing the needs of the people. Much like anything Southern, too often the historical connection to slavery is overlooked along with the institutional racism that supported it, but it cannot be disentangled from history and its impact upon the present-day.

The southern landscape is held together by the scaffolding of racism. As slavery brought both the human labor and tools that white men in power would use to build their framework for the America we know, that framework too was cemented in destabilizing Black community and removing knowledge, control, and agency over the very land Black communities lived and worked. Prevented from owning land, setting the price standards for crops, and perhaps most importantly removing the ability to advocate for change via voting restricted Black communities from prospering and those hardest hit were small rural farming communities of the isolated south.

Isolated by circumstance, many rural Black farming communities often had no choice but self-sufficiency or be forced to associate and sell to their white neighbors. The latter often meant they were guaranteed unjust treatment and compensation for their work and goods, especially in comparison to their white farming neighbors. 

Many Black farming communities opted to be self-reliant, establishing internal systems of trade and bartering, relying on neighbors, friends, and families when plows were in need of replacing or mules were no longer capable. However, cooperation via systems of trade often meant low cash flow for larger needs like new roofs, larger homes, and even access to seed for crops. If someone were to fall ill, a doctor may not be available and even more likely, payment for their services was not accessible.

The historical Gullah Geechee corridor of the North American coast is a broad community founded by slaves, their lineages, and freed Blacks that grew up almost in seclusion on the coast of the Carolinas and the Deep South. These islands and their seclusion made them a perfect area for this community of the Black diaspora to grow up and take root. Despite the harsh realities of being an isolated Black community, one community of Johns Island off the coast of South Carolina recognized the aforementioned social and homestead issues and dreamed of more expansive community sufficiency. The Black farming community of Johns Island created a co-op to do just that.

Founded in 1948, the co-op known as the Progressive Club began in a former church on Johns Island and was created to address the lack of markets, the unjust compensation of goods, and to increase access to food and supplies through combined buying power as a community, establishing the essence of some of the earliest examples of co-op groceries and businesses. The founding Black farming community recognized not only the broader need for support within community, but the potential of community empowerment established by these relationships of support that were already functioning organically. Their efforts began with addressing the financial inequities in the rural and racist South but would ultimately expand to provide many avenues of education and collective community power.

This essence of co-ops can be found dating even further to the start of the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th/early 19th century and an ocean away in Rochdale, England. There textile factory workers gathered to form the Rochdale Co-op as factories compensated workers with low wages and vouchers to factory stores, which did little to improve quality of life and give proper value to their labor and grueling work. These factory stores were responsible for providing basic necessities for workers and their families, but often items were moldy, soiled, or options were limited entirely. Workers found themselves barely able to live off their wages, even while living in factory owned accommodations that too were far from ideal or even sufficient. Finding no recourse through their employer, some 28 workers banded together initially to create the Rochdale Co-op for the workers and their families using what little money their wages allowed in order to purchase basic necessities. 

Not surprisingly, workers were met with resistance to their efforts aimed at improving access to basic necessities and increasing quality of life. Factories hired security and paid individuals to burn down the initial co-op store fronts and botch any efforts of the Rochdale factory workers. Despite the opposition, the co-op founders continued to be moved by the injustices experienced by the community of workers and sought to make their dreams of quality community owned and regulated goods a reality formally establishing their co-op in 1844. Their efforts sparked a movement that saw almost 1,500 co-operatives established throughout the UK by 1900.

We see then as we have seen through the years that the creation of co-ops across time and geography had a similar foundation: to increase access to healthy food and provide quality goods to communities that were largely neglected and restricted. These efforts often expanded to provide many needed community resources. 

In similar fashion, it was not lost on the community of Johns Island that their strength wasn’t simply IN community, quite literally it IS community.  The opening of the Progressive Club meant a fair market, a meeting space, a community center, and perhaps most importantly, a bank. The co-op’s biggest amenity was its ability to make loans.

Co-op membership required paid dues which was pooled into a common fund to provide small loans which could then be distributed to neighbors. When a member was in need, funds could be applied to purchase a new tractor, fix a roof, or purchase more seeds if mold or pest had ruined their supply. Prior to the establishment of the Progressive Club’s bank, accessing funds required leaving the safety of Johns Island for a trip to the mainland and a visit to a white-owned bank. More than likely this visit included interactions with racist bank teller or manager, if one even made it that far. Due to the services of the Progressive Club and the co-operative model, these many layers of institutional barriers were no longer the impactful factors to the Black community of Johns Island they once were.

Though most co-op groceries aren’t making many loans, community investment, support, and a cooperative approach remains the essence of the co-op business model. Loans may not be categorized as local produce or artisanal goods, but for the Progressive Club, they were a unique and necessary way to expand the offerings of support to community members. In fact, the Rochdale Co-op included a library in later co-op iterations, as the founders recognized education and access were key to empowering future workers as well as finding new members to carry on the spirit of the co-op model.

The Progressive Club too did not stop with loans and soon found itself supporting education initiatives similar to the Rochdale Co-op. Their motivations were not just for the sake of education, but for the sake of the Black right to vote. Knowing that the ability to vote would give Black farmers and their community more agency and power, poll taxes and literacy tests became standard practice to prevent Black people from voting and having a stake in their community for positive change. At the time it was compulsory for Black citizens to pass a literacy test to prove they were literate and “worthy “of voting.  However, many questions on this already discriminatory test were arbitrary, did not relate to voting or literacy, with some questions made up on the spot, and other times were not even true questions.

It was reported sometime around 1950’s when Esau Jenkins, founding member of the Progressive Club, a resident of Johns Island, and local entrepreneurs,  was driving his bus escorting one of his regular passengers home that he was approached about pursuing voting. Ms. Alice Wine, a regular of Jenkins’ route, wanted to vote like the young people of her community, but didn’t feel confident in passing the literacy test that prevented most Blacks from voting and looked to Jenkins for support. After working with Ms. Wine, Jenkins began passing out copies of the literacy test on his routes, aiding his riders in preparing for the restrictive and discriminatory test in order to cast their vote. The influence of the Progressive Club and the community investment it helped nourish saw ripple effects through the efforts of Jenkins and the many Black community members of his route who were able to pass the literacy test and gain access to voting.

Years later, Septima Clark, who worked at the world-renowned Tennessee Highlander Folk schools, now known as Highlander Research and Education Center, a communal education school based off of the Danish Folk Schools, would be influential to the voting rights efforts of the social justice movement. Restricted from teaching in her hometown of Charleston due to her race, Clark found work on Johns Island and became a passenger on Jenkins route. As a witness to his efforts while too pursuing and providing increased education and literary access for her community of all generations, Clark found herself at Highlander Folks Schools and shared her knowledge of Jenkins and the Progressive Club.

Clark transported students from the Sea Islands and Charleston to the Highlander School in Tennessee, Jenkins included, and together along with Jenkins cousin, Bernice Robinson, combined methods of education and civil disobedience taught through Jenkins and the Highlander Schools respectively. These efforts led to the creation of what we came to know as Citizenship Schools.

Progressive Club was already 400 members strong by the time Septima and Jenkins began to collaborate and came up with a plan to sponsor a Citizenship School at the co-op. There, they and other local volunteers, like Jenkins’ cousin Robinson, would work to teach community members how to pass literacy tests and vote. With such a large number of members and interest in the Citizenship School’s offerings, a larger building was undoubtedly necessary. With the Progressive Club looking to expand as well, the timing lined up.

Unfortunately, despite the success of Jenkins’ students and considering the size of the Progressive Club’s membership, many residents refused to attend the Citizenship Schools out of fear. Due to highly aggressive interactions with racist white individuals, police, and KKK members paired with laws preventing the gathering and educating of poor Blacks, the Progressive Club was forced to seek more creative approaches. With support from the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, land was purchased to build a larger co-op with a designated meeting space to house the Citizenship School. Not unlike the second-floor library of Rochdale Co-op, the Progressive Club knew that voter education was as crucial to community prospering as loans for basic farming equipment.

This new building included dormitories for residents who traveled to the sea island in pursuit of their classes. This structure also provided indoor basketball courts for leisure and joy and most importantly a large, windowless store room in the back that doubled as a safe space for Citizenship classes to be held in private.

Many civil rights leaders would come to frequent the Progressive Club to see the Citizenship Schools in practice and eventually carry the model to other parts of the South. Clark herself would go on to be an influential civil rights leader, educating Rosa Parks at the Highlander School before she made the historic refusal of her bus seat.

We know that the collective spirit of co-ops and its often overlooked or unknown history has a place in the movements we see today. Many co-ops in North America were established as a first wave following the Great Depression, instilling in many the value of stewardship to land just as early European co-ops were intrenched in the labor movement. Co-ops in this country have now found themselves embracing the organic food movement as another wave in the produce and market industry. As this has transpired, individuals have come to unfortunately associate co-ops not with community but class and financial inaccessibility as it relates to food. In terms of our local history, prior to the opening of the Durham Co-op Market, the first iteration of a local co-op, the Durham Food Co-op, was coined the Intergalactic Food Conspiracy and stood not more than a block away from our current location operating from 1971-2009. As a co-op genuinely devoted to fresh, local, and organic foods, with emphasis on alternative foods, it would inevitably be the disconnect from community that led to its demise.

These issues are not unique to that first Durham Co-op/Intergalactic Food Conspiracy or our own Durham Co-op Market and similar establishments across the country. We work to actively answer the question of how we can increase access to healthy and quality foods every day, while reminding ourselves that we are accountable to our community and their needs. We must never stop asking who they are and listening to what they share with us.

When we imagine co-op markets, our minds are quick to think of organic produce, locally sourced goods, or even possibly the local farmers. We often forget about the core parts of the co-op missions and values, our foundation and its spirit, which separate us from a conventional store. 

Now more than ever it is crucial to recall the history of co-op markets and cooperative business. The history of co-ops calls to us to leverage the power of community to invest in community empowerment. This was the reality for the factory workers in Rochdale, England as it was for Esau Jenkins and the Johns Island community that founded the Progressive Club and beyond into our current time.

History reminds us that cooperatively ran markets and business have been a part of social justice movements globally and in especially in the US South, which has always been rooted in food, power, and Black rights.

As we approach Juneteenth, a time in which we recognize a community of enslaved Black people living in Galveston, Texas, deceived and kept in their bondage and from their freedom after the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the Emancipation Proclamation, we must confront the many ways we both take our freedoms for granted but also how we take community for granted.

The ability of cooperative movement and community work in advancing the disenfranchised, voiceless, and in need is evident in the work of social justice and the efforts seeking to renovate the old frameworks of both the South and the broader American landscape. Let us be moved by the historical cooperative movements to prevent both old and new injustices and spark progressive and radical actions to re-establish communities and reclaim power. To do this requires more than a history lesson but honesty about the reality of our community’s past and its future.