An Incredible History: African American Cooperatives – Detroit Community-Engaged Research Program

An Incredible History: African American Cooperatives

I’ve had to do quite a bit of reading and research for my program on the topic of cooperative economies. The information is absolutely mindblowing and incredible – it’s inspiring as a fellow human to learn the stories of people who’ve been up against the greatest odds and created something wholly new and all their own, and no one can match the courage and ingenuity of the freed slaves after the Emancipation.

One document I read was African American Cooperatives, an academic essay by Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Ph.D. of John Jay College, City University of New York;
and Grassroots Economic Organizing Collective. I learned so much about the post-slavery Black economy from this article – As a white person of privilege, I never put much thought into how difficult it must have been for the post-slavery Black community to live in a country that wanted it to fail as a kind of revenge against them just for being free to live without being enslaved. The free Black community, though, knew how to survive because that very (deranged) culture had inadvertently, against their best interests, taught them to become experts at surviving in spite of the great odds against them. They took to the uninhabited areas, a kind of voluntary segregation away from the exploitative, discriminatory, and exclusionary mainstream culture and economy, and built their own communal societies, mutual aid societies, business enclaves, and more (Gordon Nembhard pg 2) – where they could live happily and truly thrive in the way they always should have been able to. In this practice, they created their own portion of the world that was all for them and all for each other, where the mainstream needn’t be an influence at all. The Black community could maintain economic dependence and control. Life could have been great, and the way they were doing it was incredible, and organized, and worked in a well-oiled symbiotic relationship that granted access to resources that fed the community as the community fed the businesses in a thoughtful cooperative ecosystem.

Unfortunately, the mainstream culture wasn’t having that. As Black people built themselves up, the white majority threatened, attacked, and even killed members of this blossoming vision for the future, simply because they didn’t want to see them doing well! And yet, the Black community kept doing their thing and growing anyway. Today, the cultural climate is not terribly different from post-Civil War America, but there are more laws and “protections” in place that make murder and violently attacking people have far more consequences (because that always stops the problem). Gordon Nembhard’s article is an exciting triumph as far as academic essays go, and if you don’t want to track it down here is a video of her talking about it. If you’d like to read the article, check it out here. I see she has a book, too, so let’s buy that and support her mission to educate.

Reading this article got me thinking of the ways the Black community in Detroit’s residential sectors are bringing back their community in a setting that doesn’t do much to help them thrive. The rebellion in the Summer of 1967 left the city in rubble and ruin, with a dark cloud that hung over the neighborhoods for decades. And yet… and yet… despite the odds, despite their local government doing nothing to help the issues of blight, poor resources, and general squalor, despite the difficulty they face when they try to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” despite corrupt police, despite the gross gentrification downtown, these neighbors are finding their own ways to thrive, much like the “Freedmen” of post-Emancipation Proclamation. From community gardens, and churches that provide more outreach services than your typical church, to an explosion of cooperative businesses, Detroit is finding its own footing and building its own structures in ways Dan Gilbert and the Illitches can only imagine, since we know they’re not paying attention.

The spirit and heartbeat of Detroit have always been its community and insistence on survival. When I look around in the forgotten shadows of the residential areas, I see instead shining lights. I see communities working together, supporting each other, and looking out for each other. My father saw this kind of tight-knit community when he was growing up on the east side of Detroit at Harper and I-94 before the ’67 rebellion, and I see it today. And more than anything, I’d like to be a part of it. As an outsider, I wonder if I have any place to desire this.

I’m proud to work with the DCWF because they are a part of this courageous and tenacious growth, and they embody the buoyant spirit found in these neighborhoods. They are strong and independent and have a vision for the city much like what I’d love to see. The co-ops I got to meet at the five-year anniversary party for DCWF had so much heart and spirit, and tons of goodwill. That’s always been the Detroit I’ve known in my heart. It’s not downtown, with the glitz of skyscrapers, the opulence of Whole Foods, or the hipness of Starbucks and bike shops. It’s in the places the suburbs have forgotten about: where Detroit’s people live, love, and breathe no matter what is in their way. I see the strength and courage of their ancestors smiling through them. I’m so proud of my local big city, and truly moved by all who’ve survived and lived there through everything Detroit has been through.

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