A Short History of Black Cooperatives in the U.S.

Written by Nicole Oveisi, Fair Farms Intern

Throughout American history, Black Americans have been denied access to the resources needed to prosper and have been denied equal protection under governing laws and regulations. As a response to a racist system and in an effort to survive, many Black communities used cooperative business models not only as a form of resistance, but as a form of mutual aid and collective self reliance. After the abolishment of slavery, formal mutual aid societies arose so Black Americans could pool their money together to purchase land for collective farming, to have as safety nets, and more. Black-owned co-ops also existed where members could use its services, including housing co-ops, credit unions, and childcare. 

The utility of these co-ops and mutual aid societies was to have control of income generation, assist in wealth creation, and ultimately gain economic independence. Black co-ops became a silent but powerful partner during the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1960s, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives emerged directly out of the Civil Rights Movement and was established to support rural farmers and protect and grow Black land ownership. More recently, Black urban farmers and growers have been looking to co-ops as a way to address food insecurity and establish food sovereignty within their communities. Access to affordable, healthy foods has been a struggle in many BIPOC communities, in part due to a lack of healthy food outlets, but also as a result of inequities in transportation, economic disparities, and an overabundance of junk foods outlets. 

These food co-ops have been emerging in cities across the country, including Washington, D.C., New York City, Oakland, and Detroit. Because the agricultural economic system in the United States is structured to value the farm owner over the farm worker, farm workers hardly receive equity in the farm and are exploited for their labor while their wages do not equate to the current cost of living. Today, 98% of farmland is owned by white people. Cooperatives have been utilized to address such disparities. 

In order to further our knowledge of Black co-ops and how we can reimagine a more equitable food system, Fair Farms joined a webinar hosted by the National Farmers Union, “How Black Farmers Reclaimed Economic Power with Cooperatives,” and a webinar hosted by Prescott College, “Food Systems Friday.” These webinars exposed us to some of the work Black farmers are doing to empower their communities. 

Chris Newman, Founder of Sylvanaqua Farms and enrolled member of Choptico Band of Piscataway Indians, stated many of the benefits of food and farming co-ops. He emphasized that collectivism, over individual ownership, works better to ensure that people are compensated fairly and that land would become more difficult to break up; collective ownership distributes the decision making process across more stakeholders with a common purpose, making it more democratic, and creating more resiliency by increasing longevity of land ownership. Chris eloquently explained the motive of his co-op, “Our organization isn’t so much on saying, ‘How do we make Sylvanaqua Farms as efficient and as profitable as it can be?’ It’s more, ‘How do we create a food system that makes capital available to the farms…?’” In an environment that’s dominated by white men, using a cooperative business model, Sylvanaqua Farms works to not only provide healthy affordable food, but to ensure that land is not only obtained, but kept.  

Raqueeb Bey, Founder of The Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh Co-op (BUGS), started the co-op to address food insecurity in her community. With an increasing wealth gap in Homewood (a neighborhood in Pittsburgh, PA) residents had been raising concerns about how they would afford to pay for their food. Many of these residents were already on nutrition assistance programs, but Raqueeb recognized that there was still a lack of fresh, healthy food options available. The Black-led farming co-op helps to alleviate some of these concerns by providing seasonal, healthy produce directly in the neighborhood. Raqueeb acknowledged that it is “impractical to wait for the system to adjust to meet the needs of the Black community,” making BUGS almost a necessity within the current food structure. BUGS started to turn blighted spaces into a source of food for the communitycreating a festive environment to interact, learn, and grow. 

In order to transform our food system to make it work for everyone, it’s important to learn about the different routes in which farmers take to make that possible. Black-owned co-ops like the two mentioned above are not only making fresh and nutritious food affordable and accessible, they are inherently growing and cultivating food in a way that is beneficial to the land and the environment.