Throughout history, grassroots activism has played a key role in addressing racial and socioeconomic oppression, exploitation, and segregation. The cooperative movement formed in direct opposition to corrupt business practices to address food and social justice issues, economic independence, product quality standards, labor conditions, and methods of ownership. Oftentimes, the consumer co-op story begins in mid-19th-century England with the founding of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society. This group of 28 British citizens is regarded as having successfully opened the first truly cooperative grocery business. At the time, this was a radical departure from exploitative practices they faced at company grocery stores provided by their textile factory employers.
The consumer co-op scene in Minnesota grew from the roots of formal cooperative business efforts taken by the Rochdale Pioneers and 19th-century Finnish and Scandinavian immigrants in Northern Minnesota. These British citizens and European immigrants made impressive contributions to the co-op movement. However, if we stop there, the story remains incomplete and inaccurate. To truly understand the power of cooperatives, we must recognize, share, and celebrate contributions to the movement by a multitude of races and cultures, especially those that have been historically marginalized.
In her 2014 book Collective Courage: A History of African-American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard describes critical aspects of black cooperative history, expanding the narrative to be more historically accurate, inclusive, and representative. Dr. Nembhard’s research expands on W.E.B Du Bois’ efforts to catalogue African-American co-op efforts. According to Dr. Nembhard, Du Bois’ 1907 survey showed how black cooperative economics were used as a form of social solidarity in the face of extreme racial discrimination. Dr. Nembhard further highlights informal cooperative economics serving as a civil rights tool used by mutual aid societies that brought endangered slaves freedom through the Underground Railroad and by organized black labor after the Civil War.
By the mid-20th-century, multiple first wave food co-ops had opened in the Twin Cities. According to recent research conducted by Seward Community Co-op, five food co-ops that started here in the 1940s were predominantly African-American owned and operated. These local first wave food co-ops preceded the “new wave” ones of the 1970s by nearly three decades. A few shared neighborhoods with current-day co-ops, including the Sumner Cooperative near today’s Wirth Co-op in North Minneapolis; Co-ops, Inc. near Seward’s Friendship Store serving the Bryant/Central neighborhoods of South Minneapolis; and Credjafawn Co-op near Mississippi Market’s Selby-Dale store. The Credjafawn Social Club, a pioneering African-American social institution in Saint Paul, started the Credjafawn Co-op in 1946. Mississippi Market proudly serves as Credjafawn Co-op’s successor and is honored to carry on its legacy as a community-owned and -operated store where everyone is welcome, and anyone can shop.
Cornell, Kari and Cumbie, Patricia. Growing with Purpose: Forty Years of Seward Community Cooperative. Seward Community Co-op. 2012.
Flanders, Laura. Solidarity Economics, a Forgotten Practice of the Black Radical Tradition: An Interview with Jessica Gordon Nembhard. Truthout. April 9, 2014. Web.
Gordon Nembhard, Jessica. Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. The Pennsylvania State University Press. 2014.
Nzinga Ifateyo, Ajowa. “Black Co-ops Were a Method of Economic Survival.” Grassroots Economic Organizing. March 14, 2014. Web.
Seward Community Co-op. “A Cooperative Legacy.” Feb. 15, 2017. Web.
Seward Community Co-op. “The Legacy of African Americans in Co-ops.” Feb. 9, 2015. Web.