Mutual aid societies are a large part of Black American history that is rarely mentioned in textbooks. Mutual aid societies were communities where members offered resources and used their skills to help each other sustain themselves. It was a give-and-take exchange that allowed many enslaved and free Black people to stay alive in particularly physical and financial hard times. A big component of mutual aid societies is the absence of reliance on the State (in this case, the United States). For Black people in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, relying on the United States government for financial well-being wasn’t really an option, as Black people were not seen as people and were not entitled to such help.
These mutual aid societies brought services, such as medical care, food abundance, education, burial services and much more. For example, The Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers, the first Black bank in the United States, started as a mutual aid society in Richmond, Virginia, and helped Black people open businesses in the late nineteenth century. Another mutual aid society was the Independent Order of St. Luke, which was a burial society for Black people who were denied death claims and funeral services. The Free African Society provided sick benefits to its community members, kept records of marriages and established the first Black cemetery.
These societies taught Black people how to rely on their communities and practice self-determination. As Black people became integrated into society and began to pay taxes to the government, many mutual aid societies disappeared, leaving Black people to gather resources and services from government welfare programs. Although most of the mutual aid societies have been dismantled, some Black leaders are still continuing the tradition of mutual aid today through the practice of cooperative and solidarity economics.
Here are the Black societies that are banding together to meet the economic needs of its people:
1. Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN)
Founded in 2006, this network was created to combat a lack of healthy food in the Detroit community. 79% of Detroit’s population is Black. Studies show that neighborhoods with the lowest amount of Black people tend to have more food sources, such as grocery stores and supermarkets, than neighborhoods with a large percentage of Black people. DBCFSN is fighting back with agricultural projects that are building community reliance. They have seven acres that grow over 30 different fruits and vegetables, as well as a rainwater retention pond that they operate for access to clean water and a solar energy station for consistent electricity. DBCFSN also fought for the creation of the Detroit Food Policy Council, which pushes for policies regarding food security and food justice.
2. East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (EBPREC)
This cooperative is fighting for Black people’s right to own property in the Bay Area, a place that has rapidly changed due to gentrification and the displacement of Black people. The cooperative helps Black people organize strategically for the purchase of the property residents live on. Their goal is to have residents take ownership of their own land, living on it without having to pay landlords. EBPREC believes that housing is a right and not a commodity. They restore the power to the people, while reimagining a new economic system that allows Black people to own real estate.
3. Cooperation Jackson
This radical network has been a forerunner for creating a solidarity economy for Black people. With a strong belief in empowering Black people to take ownership in their economy, Cooperation Jackson is building a network between cooperatives, while assisting workers in starting their own. They educate working class people on economic democracy and cooperative economics through workshops and seminars. They also train workers on how to start, operate, finance and manage their own cooperatives.
4. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (FCSLAF)
When we talk about Black economic autonomy, this association is one of the top dogs amongst the Black cooperative community. FSCLAF specializes in protecting the land of Black farmers who use their farmland and produce as a means of income and food supply. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, about 3% of Black farmers have lost their farmland since 2012 compared to 0.3% of white farmers. All throughout the South, FSCLAF has membership bases filled with farmers, landowners, cooperatives and credit unions. They also mediate disputes between farmers and USDA agencies and own over 1,300 acres of land for the purpose of housing and training.
These may not be mutual aid societies like they were in the past, but these networks have helped build community wealth and resources for Black people. These organizations and cooperatives have used the mutual aid strategies of past Black communities and are continuing to protect the economic interests of Black people. With the skills they've acquired, they are fighting against the exploitative nature of the State and capitalism by creating new systems for access to housing, food and more. Through the practice of community building and sharing, Black people can get to self-determination and meet the needs of their people in the struggle.