Washington, DC has had a long history of cooperatives. In part, this was because African Americans have sought to form cooperatives as a way create economic and political freedom. As Jessica Gordon Nembhard has argued, “African Americans have used cooperative economic development as a strategy in the struggle for economic stability and independence.” In 1907, W.E.B. Dubois spoke in favor of a wide range of cooperatives and alternative economic institutions. Cooperatives would remain a key institution in the toolbox of African American social movements. Washington, DC remains a central location for these social movements and thus would have a rich cooperative history.
These attempts were supported in DC by people like Arthur Capper, a Kansas senator who headed the District of Columbia Committee. Upon his arrival in DC in 1919, Capper submitted a Senate bill (S. 3066) to allow the formation and incorporation of cooperation in DC itself. In 33 U.S. states, special laws facilitated cooperative institutions, but DC did not yet have such laws. Capper had hoped that Congress would allow DC residents to create cooperatives functioning according to Rochdale Principles. As a member of the Farm Bloc, he successfully sponsored the Capper-Volstead Act of 1922 and later acts legalizing cooperative marketing and producers’ associations. These laws allowed farmers to form cooperatives to market their own goods, rather than being at the whim of larger corporate distributors. According to USDA (p. 20), by 2000, there were over 3,000 agricultural cooperatives in the United States. However, I think that the Senate Bill S. 3066 did not ever pass.
People like Cornelius “Cornbread” Givens helped to create cooperatives in DC and across the country. Givens was a national advocate for cooperatives, who moved to DC when Marion Barry became mayor. Givens was born in Newark, NJ. He worked in factories and then owned his own company and became the first African American to run for mayor in a major city, Jersey City. In the late 1960s, he became a leader in the Poor People’s Campaign, which he helped form into the Poor People’s Development Foundation (PPDF).
The PPDF sought to help poor communities develop cooperatives. They first worked with farmer cooperatives of tenant farmers in 1971.These cooperatives had formed because, in response to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Southern tenant farmers had decided to register to vote and were, in retaliation, evicted from their tenant farms. Cooperatives were seen as the way to help these tenant farmers survive and also realize the Voting Rights Act and civil rights more generally. As discussed here, Cornbread Givens worked to connect Southern farmer cooperatives with food/consumer cooperatives, farmers markets, health food stores, and collective warehouses, which he set up around Newark, NJ and New York City. Members of the PPDF trucked food up to Newark/NYC to be sold in farmers markets and health food stores.
At the same time, in DC, there was already a tradition of consumer cooperatives in part because food was too expensive for many low-income people and because grocery stores had moved out of the city, leaving what we now called “food deserts.” In 1966, community organizers on Capitol Hill worked with Greenbelt Consumer Coop and later with the Anacostia Buyers Club to create a food buying club involving the poor. Greenbelt, MD had developed an extensive cooperative system since the 1930s. Also, since the 1930s, Capitol Cab Co. was the nation’s largest cab cooperative. In 1970, with the help of Black Markets, Inc, community organizers started the nation’s first food coop in public housing, MLK Cooperative Store No. 2 in Arthur Capper. [It may have lasted until 1995, but I am checking on this.] In 1976, the Women’s Community Bakery Collective was created, which lasted until 1992.
But food cooperatives became more popular across the nation in the late 1970s and early 1980s, due to inflation and the lack of grocery stores in inner cities. During the 1970s, Cornbread Givens worked to put cooperatives on the national Democratic Party platform. Givens envisioned an entire community development plan:
- producer cooperatives for jobs
- consumer cooperatives
- credit unions
- low-income housing cooperatives
- local charity funded by profits from producer cooperatives that would create social action policy
- all of this would be organized by a community-wide cooperative
In 1978, the nation passed a law to create National Consumer Cooperative Bank, for which he had advocated.
And, then, in 1979, Marion Barry became mayor of DC. Cornbread Givens moved to DC to help influence Mayor Barry. The PPDF reported that “the Mayor has indicated that he will use his good offices to establish Washington, D.C. as [a] ‘demonstration’ city for cooperative development.” Cooperatives were one of many items on “The National Black Agenda for the ’80’s.” At a February 1980 conference, the Mayor said:
In Washington, as in every other major urban center in America, we have entire sections of our city which have been abandoned and neglected by the mainstream of economic activity…Although private enterprise has neglected or abandoned some areas of our city, we must not give up the fight. It is time for the citizens of these areas themselves to become owners and providers of the basic services needed for daily life. The cooperative movement is just what is needed to provide this opportunity. Within the next month or two, I will announce the formation of a D.C. Commission for Cooperative Economic Development. This Commission will have as its very practical mission the initiation and organization of an effective network of coops in areas of our city which currently lack basic services…Initially, I think the Commission will help stimulate coop food markets in low and moderate income areas of Washington. Later, the Commission will help stimulate and put into effect energy cooperatives, cooperative housing, cooperative shopping centers, cooperative auto repair centers, and whatever else is lacking and needed in areas of our city which are not serviced by our private economic market.
By May, Barry had established the District of Columbia Mayor’s Commission on Cooperative Economic Development and envisioned cooperatives as way to create jobs and to solve the inner-city food crisis. In an amended Mayor’s Order, you can see who was on the Commission, including Cornbread Givens. The Commission met regularly until around 1986?, but it was formally abolished in 1998. During the 1980-1986 period, several cooperatives were formed, such as the Takoma Park-Silver Spring Food Co-op in 1982.