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The Genius Of Ella Jo Baker

Before There Was A Civil Rights Movement, She Organized Black People To Form Cooperatives To Help Themselves.

Ella Jo Baker will be inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame as an “Unsung Hero” at a ceremony at the National Press Club on Oct. 6 in Washington DC.

Ella Baker is well-regarded as a giant in the Civil Rights Movement, known for her unique participatory grassroots organizing style and also for her ability to galvanize young people to bring a militancy in the struggle to end segregation. But Baker is less known for her innovative organizing prowess before the 1960s – forming a network of self-help cooperatives to bring economic relief to black people during the Depression.

“Ella Baker was one of the most effective, original and masterful organizers of the 20th century,” one scholar noted about the woman who became a Civil Rights legend (Tutashinda, 2010, p. 33). However, Baker first used her talents and creative genius to organize cooperatives, starting during the Depression and continuing for about 45 of the 60 years that she was an organizer. As national director of the Young Negroes Co-operative League, Baker helped to organize a network of consumer cooperative enterprises across the country, and even a worker cooperative, in the 1930s and 1940s. Even when the demands of a raging Civil Rights Movement begged for her leadership, Baker continued her work on a smaller scale with cooperatives into the 1970s. It was her early work organizing cooperatives that likely inspired and honed the ideas about participatory grassroots leadership strategy that she is so loved and well known for, and she used those insights to inform her organizing for many other causes in the next 60 years of her life (Gordon Nembhard, 2014, p. 125).

Baker’s early cooperative organizing work in New York caught the attention in 1930 of the Cooperative League of the USA, predecessor of the DC-based National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International. Obviously, CLUSA leadership saw her potential and made a visionary investment in her in 1931, awarding the 27-year-old a scholarship to attend the Cooperative Institute of CLUSA at Brookwood Labor College. That investment, believed to be the first scholarship awarded to an African American, was an early starting point for Baker to become such a well-respected and effective leader that a U.S. postage stamp was made in her honor. Her work also inspired one filmmaker to make a film about her, and Bernice Johnson Reagan, founder of the famed Sweet Honey in the Rock group, made a song for the film in her honor. In addition, today many organizations, schools, universities chairs, and scholarships, even a Washington DC housing cooperative bear her name, or pay tribute to her in some way.

Baker Grew Up In A Close And Collaborative Community

Ella Josephine Baker was born in 1903, in Norfolk, Va., a mere 38 years after the enslavement of black people legally ended in the U.S. In reality, enslavement of a less obvious kind continued to hobble African Americans economically, despite being physically unshackled. Like many blacks looking for a new life, Blake Baker had moved to Norfolk from North Carolina to find a job. Georgiana (Anna) Ross, a teacher in Littleton, N.C., joined him in Norfolk in 1895. He found work was a waiter on a steamship and they were married in 1986. Ella Jo, as she was called, was the second of three surviving children born to the couple in Norfolk. Ella Jo had an older brother, Curtis, and a younger sister, Maggie.

In 1910, when Ella Jo was seven years old, Anna (as Georgianna was called) Ross moved her children back to North Carolina, without her husband. Furious that a black man, Jack Johnson, had bested a white man, James Jeffries, in a boxing match that was dubbed “The Fight of the Century (Ransby, 2003, pp. 23-30),” whites all over the country attacked and killed blacks. In Norfolk, two black workers in the shipyard were killed in that 1910 attack on African Americans, and that was enough for Anna Baker. With her husband being away working on a ship for days at a time, she wanted the safety and security of her hometown, the more rural community near Littleton, in central North Carolina, close to the bigger city of Warrenton. She took the children back home while her husband Blake stayed on in Norfolk to earn money for the family (Ransby, 2003, pp. 23-30).

Back in North Carolina, Ella grew up in a close black community called Elams where black people pooled resources to helped each other survive the aftermath of institutionalized economic exploitation. There the grocery, ice cream, and the fish store owners were all black, making for an insulated and close-knit community. Ella Jo’s paternal grandfather, Teema Ross, was a landless tenant farmer, who was believed to be an activist. Her paternal grandmother, Margaret Ross, often told stories of how her own mother had resisted slavery by refusing to marry a man that the plantation owner had chosen for her, and pretending to be crazy. Ella grew up hearing all these stories, and often recounted them when she was older.

The Rosses – Baker’s maternal family – were more well-off than most of the other blacks. Ella’s maternal grandfather, Mitchell Ross, had in 1888, purchased 50 acres of land at an inflated price of $5 an acre of land. This was just 23 years after he was freed from slavery. As a result, Ross, a Baptist minister and his wife, Josephine Elizabeth Ross (Ella’s namesake), owned their own farm. Acting in the spirit of pooling resources and collective care, the Ross family deeded a portion of their land to the church to set up the first school for black children in the area in central North Carolina. Twice, through the years, the Ross family also took out loans to help feed families less fortunate than they.

Baker’s mother, Anna, was a teacher, and was a firm believer in education. She taught her own children before they went to school. Anna Baker was also member of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs movement, which believed in the “Lift as We Climb” philosophy. Anna Baker and other church members put that belief into practice with service to others less fortunate. Ella Jo herself joined her family in helping out in the community. When the mother of another family died, Ella Jo went by the house every day to bathe the children, comb their hair and to bring dirty clothes home for her mother to wash. As a child, Ella Jo internalized lessons about helping others from both sides of her family (Ransby, 2003, p. 19).

In the community where Ella Jo grew up, she recalled how the black farmers in Warren country cooperated with each other by sharing goods, services, and expensive farming equipment

“There was a deep sense of community that prevailed in this little neck of the woods. It wasn’t a town, it was just people. And each of them had their 20-, 30-, 40-, 50-acre farms, and if there were emergencies, the farmer next to you would share in something to meet that emergency. For instance,…if there was a thresher around, you didn’t have each person having his own. So, you came to my farm and threshed.” (Ransby, 2003, pp. 37-38)

With parents who spoke their minds and were leaders in the community, Ella Jo was also assertive and adventurous, a “tomboy” who loved to play baseball. “I’d rather play baseball than eat,” she told an interviewer (Grant, 1998, p. 21).

At age 15, Ella Jo’s family sent her to Raleigh, N.C. to attend Shaw Academy and University, the first black institution to open its doors to women (Ransby, 2003, p. 45). There, she became the youngest writer for the school newspaper, a leader on the debate team and a spokeswoman for the female students when they had grievances about school policies. She had a reputation for being articulate and fearless. Ella challenged stereotypical customs and did just enough to avoid expulsion at the strictly conservative religious institution. At Shaw University, she realized that she was expected to follow the prescribed path of women during that time — to become a teacher. However, at Shaw she noticed that teachers had little power and had to do what men dictated. She did not want that for herself. After graduating as Shaw valedictorian, Baker instead moved to New York in 1927 with her newly earned B.A. to forge her own unique path in the world.

Refusing To Be Limited; Baker Moved To New York

Baker moved to New York at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. In this gateway city to the U.S., she was exposed to new ideas, and met many activists for all kinds of causes. This was also just two years before the stock market crash of 1929, the effects of which profoundly affected her.

Baker moved in with a cousin who lived in a railway flat in Harlem. Her first job was as a waitress in New Jersey. Once she got settled in New York City, which she described as “hotbed of political activity,” she realized how “ignorant” she was of politics. On street corners, Baker heard the many stump speeches of leftists, black Muslims, black nationalist separatists, and socialists. It was from hearing those new ideas that Baker began to formulate her own worldview, that would inform her work for the next 50 years.

Soon, Baker was able to use her writing skills to work as a reporter at several black newspapers. She became an office manager at the Negro National News published by George Schuyler, who was only three years older than she was. Schuyler, 30, was a socialist intellectual who talked of the need for Black economic power (Grant, 1998, p. 28). Baker and Schuyler became good friends. She joined his political circle, often visiting his house where other writers, artists and activists discussed politics long into the night.

The Young Negroes Co-Operative League, An Early Cooperative Federation

Schuyler also was a columnist for The Pittsburgh Courier, and used that black newspaper, in 1930, to publish an “Appeal to Young Negroes,” a call for young militant black people interested in “economic salvation” to establish a new organization to achieve it. The Young Negroes’ Co-operative League would explore the use of cooperatives to more effectively advance the race.

Thirty people responded to Schuyler’s call and paid their own way to the first YNCL conference in Pittsburgh on Oct. 18, 1930. Six hundred people attended, despite the Depression being in full swing at the time. The thirty delegates came from New Orleans, Columbia, S.C., Portsmouth, VA., Phoenix, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, Washington, DC, New York, and Philadelphia. Baker spoke on “What Consumers’ Co-operation Means to Negro Women,” foreshadowing what would be a major theme of her cooperative and civil rights activist work. One of the resolutions of the YNCL conference was “that we seek to bring women into the League on an equal basis with men,” a radical idea during the 1930s. Recognizing that not all women worked, housewives were encouraged to join.

Membership was restricted to people between the age of 18 and 35, though older people could be admitted by a two-thirds vote of the membership. “This measure is designed to keep the control of the organization in the hands of young people,” Schuyler wrote in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine about the conference (Schuyler, 1931, p. 456-472). “We consider most of the oldsters hopelessly bourgeois and intent on emulating Rockefeller and Ford on shoestring capital.”

That first conference of the YNCL also pledged to organize Children’s Guilds to teach them about cooperation at a young age as a part of each local YNCL chapter, and to involve children in their cooperative organizing by creating children’s guilds and boys and girls clubs. It also agreed to adopt a defense strategy to protect “the Negro masses” (Gordon Nembhard, 2014, p. 114).

The conference participants also agreed to remain separate from the Cooperative League of the USA, but resolved to associate with CLUSA and attend some of its conferences and trainings.

Schuyler was elected the first president of the YNCL, and Baker was unanimously elected as its national director. Together, the two leaders designed a bold strategy, and a plan to seed Black self-help by developing a federation of local and regional cooperatives. The YNCL had an ambitious five-year plan which included training 5,000 co-op leaders by 1932, who would establish buying clubs. The next steps were grocery co-ops and credit unions; then establishing regional cooperative wholesale outlets by 1933, and even co-op factories by 1935. The plan also included financing an independent college by 1937 (Ransby, 2003, p. 84; and Gordon Nembhard, 2014, p. 114). Groups that couldn’t start their own buying clubs, or just hadn’t yet, were encouraged to shop at Colored Merchants Association grocery stores. The CMA was a marketing co-op of independent black grocers.

YNCL Emphasized Cooperative Education

The YNCL placed great emphasis on internal discussion and member education. Educational programs were required after each meeting of the local councils (Schuyler, n.d., p. 8). The resolution declared that “each council should follow a well-planned educational program, emphasizing at all times the inclusiveness and far-reaching effects of consumer co-operation on the Negro’s social and economic status.” The organizing plan for that first year was to be devoted to “the study of history, principles and the methods of Rochdale consumers’ cooperation” (Gordon Nembhard, 2014, p. 114).

The educational plan also included an analysis of the relationship of the cooperative movement to larger national and international issues. The founders insisted “we must be trained before trying to lead people” and to make this happen in the first year “each council [will be] engaged in extensive educational work.” The importance of education in grassroots organizing was a key piece of Baker’s philosophy that she took from her cooperative work to her larger organizing in the Civil Rights Movement.

The Cooperative League Was A Coalition Of Cooperatives And Buying Clubs

The YNCL was organized as a coalition of local cooperatives and buying clubs which were networked with nearly two dozen League councils throughout the U.S. Each was independent, but contributed money to the national office based in New York. Two of the most successful cooperative operations were a grocery store employing four full-time workers in Buffalo (“doing a business of $850 a week”) and a “co-operative newsstand and stationery store” in Philadelphia (Gordon Nembhard, 2014, p. 122). By 1932, YNCL had local councils in 22 communities from New York to California, and a membership of 400. Finances were not strong, but the country was devastated by a Depression.

The YNCL masthead said its principle purpose was “to gain economic power through consumer cooperation, (Ransby, p. 80). She recognized that in Jim Crow America that all black organizations were “necessary modes of self-help and group empowerment, yet they did not preclude working with predominantly white or multiracial organizations simultaneously, or in the future” (Ransby, p. 157).

Baker’s Penny-A-Day Fundraising Plan To Promote Consumer Cooperation

Baker had a particular interest in consumer education and activism. In her job as the League’s National Director, Baker developed a fundraising strategy in January 1932 called the “Penny-a-Day Plan” (Grant, 1998, p.34; Ransby, 2003, p. 84-85; Gordon Nembhard, 2014, p.117). The goal was to find between 5,000-10,000 people in 20 cities who would raise or contribute a dollar over a three-month period to finance “the promotion of Consumers’ Cooperation among Negroes.” The plan also included an intent to “stimulate interest in existing cooperatives, and to lay the basis for a more permanent consumer program in schools, colleges, churches, and civic organizations” (Grant, 1998, p. 34; Ransby, 2003, p. 84).

In its first year, the YNCL focused on education, particularly the history, principles and methods of consumer cooperation. Baker took this goal seriously and issued a series of informative, educational and inspirational newsletters and reports for the first two years of the organization’s existence. One report, “On Promoting Consumers’ Clubs,” provided step-by-step instructions for how to start a buying club. In addition, she traveled around to all the chapters, and to groups that invited her, to speak and teach about cooperative economics – and to spread the vision of the YNCL.

The YNCL encouraged the formation of buying clubs, to pool money to buy items collectively in bulk at a cheaper price than if a person bought them at retail price. These buying clubs, sometimes called consumers clubs, were a way to organize community members – especially in places where the 25 members were not available to form YNCL chapters – and often were the start of a co-op society and co-op grocery store. The Harlem buying club, for example, was started by the Dunbar Housewives’ League in 1935 to buy and distribute milk. It soon became a full-fledged cooperative, called Harlem’s Own Cooperative. This cooperative continued to function into the 1940s, and at least one Civil Rights Movement leader came directly out of this cooperative. Bob Moses, who later worked closely with Baker, and became a key civil rights movement leader in Mississippi, was a milk cooperative delivery boy in the early 1940s in Harlem’s Own Cooperative (Grant, 1998, p. 36). He credited Ella Baker with teaching him about cooperatives.

Consumer Cooperation Was Baker’s Passion: “From Economic Planning Must Spring Our Second Emancipation”

Baker, who seemed to have a passion for consumer cooperatives, hoped to have cooperatives control the supply and distribution of the necessities of life and eliminate the profit motive from trade. “Consumer cooperation is revolutionary, for its ultimate aim is to create a better social structure by making unnecessary the present form of government which is operated by and for the privileged class,” Baker wrote (Ransby, 2003, p. 86). YNCL was not linked to any socialist or communist party, but Baker and Schuyler saw cooperatives as a way to not only create a better life for ordinary people, but to have America live up to its democratic rhetoric. She proclaimed: “from economic planning must spring our second emancipation.” (Ransby, 2003, p. 87), For the rest of her life, Baker challenged the economic inequities in US society.

Baker was an early contributor to consumers’ cooperation, but is not acknowledged by blacks or whites for the leadership and fresh analysis that she espoused regarding cooperative consumer organizing. Ransby reports that Baker saw consumers as workers at the other end of the production process, and the struggle for consumer power as similar to the struggle for worker power in factories. In what appears to be an ingenious and novel comparison, Baker’s syllabus from when she taught at the Worker Education Project of the Works Progress Administration office in 1936 made connections between workers and consumers:

“All work is but a means to the end of meeting consumer demands. The ‘real wage’ is what the pay envelope will actually buy. The wage-earner’s wellbeing is determined as much at the points of distribution and consumption as at the point of production…Since recurrent ‘business slumps’ and the increased mechanization of industry tend to decrease the primal importance of the worker as producer, he must be oriented to the increasingly more important role of consumer.” (Ransby, 2003, p. 95).

Seven months after Schuyler’s call to organize cooperatives for self-help, Baker was blessed with an opportunity to go to co-op school. In July 1930, the Cooperative League of the U.S. awarded Baker a scholarship to attend The Cooperative Institute’s training at Brookwood Labor College, a trade union-supported academy in New York. Baker was head of the New York chapter of the YNCL at the time of the scholarship award, according to the Aug. 8, 1931 issue of The Afro American of Baltimore. The paper noted she was the first African American to receive the award, and that Baker was in charge of the organization while Schuyler was in Africa and Europe. The scholarship was also reported by the Pittsburgh Courier on August 1, 1931.

Young Negroes Cooperative League Sought Young People And Women To Make Change

Three months after the CLUSA co-op school, and 10 months after Schuyler’s call, the YNCL held its first conference on October 31, 1931 in Pittsburgh.

The second annual YNCL conference took place in April 1932 in Washington, DC. The Depression was taking a toll on the work. The economic inequities that Baker decried were part of the reason that YNCL could not survive. One of the issues discussed was the challenges of fundraising and dues collection. By September of that year, the national office was forced to close because of the lack of financial support from local councils. Not expecting a salary, Baker continued to serve as unpaid executive director of the YNCL, answering correspondence, accepting speaking engagements, and coordinating weekly meetings of the New York Council, of which she was president. They held meetings at the offices of the NY Urban League. Another possible reason for some of the financial shortcomings was George Schuyler’s public attacks on black preachers and middle-class blacks. Schuyler’s biographer Michael Peplow, states that Schuyler’s often inflammatory remarks about the black church and the black middle class created too many enemies. That alienation might have had a partial effect on the YNCL’s ability to gain economic stability.

YNCL Had A Ripple Effect

Gordon Nembhard states that although YNCL only lasted officially for three years, it was one of the first African American co-op federations of its kind. In addition, she concludes that the YNCL appears to have had a ripple effect because cooperatives continued to develop from the models started through, promoted by, or related to the YNCL work, or by people who were a part of or influenced by the organization (Gordon Nembhard, 2014, p. 121).

Below is a table showing the known cooperatives that Baker founded and/or participated in:

Baker Worked On Cooperatives, Even While Doing Civil Rights Work

In addition, there is evidence that Baker used her knowledge to organize cooperatives even while she did the larger work of responding to attacks on the civil rights of African Americans. In 1956, while attending an NAACP conference in San Francisco, Baker learned about 40 Black farmers who were trying to form an agricultural cooperative. Always the educator, Baker emphasized the importance of understanding the scope and history of the cooperative movement, so she arranged for a representative of the group, Orsey Malone, to do what she had done some 25 years earlier – attend a Cooperative Institute (this one was held at Bard College in New York) (Ransby, 2003, p. 168).

Baker also worked with African American attorney and former Congress of Racial Equality director Floyd McKissick in November 1969 to set up “Soul City” in Warren County, North Carolina (where Baker grew up) which would be fueled by cooperative enterprises (Hunt, 2020, p. 854). These examples suggest that Baker never gave up her belief in the power and necessity of cooperatives and the work to achieve them, but continued to direct energies when possible in that direction, despite the demands of her jobs in larger civil rights organizations. Baker was even involved in organizing a cooperative bank in Jamaica (Hunt, 2020, p. 854; Schomburg Library, n.d.).

Baker never sought the limelight; she preferred to work behind the scenes and do what she called “spade work,” making the flyers, organizing the community meetings in churches, beauty shops and backyards that was necessary to bring political change, just as digging up dirt in a garden was necessary to soften the group for successful growth. Dr. Martin Luther King and other black male Civil Rights leaders made the speeches and headlines in newspapers, while Baker did the day to day organizing that made the campaigns successful.

She is quoted as remarking on the state of black male leadership at the time:

“You didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news articles about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.” (Ella Baker, Women in the Civil Rights Movement, p. 54).

After YNCL’s failure, Schuyler left the cooperative work and ironically became an arch conservative. He continued as a Pittsburgh Courier columnist and put many years into writing what is believed to be the first Afro-futuristic novels such as Black No More, Black Empire, and Slaves Today: A Story of Liberia, as well as short stories published in the Courier. He later became the business manager of the NAACP, and ended up opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, Ella Baker continued to throw everything she had in continuing to organize cooperatives and participating in those already organized. Even when there was no money to get paid, and not even an office to work in, Baker carried on the work without Schuyler in her apartment.

After YNCL fell apart Baker took on different jobs to survive: at the NY Public Library, publicity director of the National Negro Congress, and teacher and assistant project supervisor at Works Progress Administrator, and later an NAACP field secretary, among others.

Baker Tried To Organize Cooperatives With The NACCP

She is believed to have tried unsuccessfully to organize cooperatives through the NAACP. Baker, when she was working for the NAACP in 1941, did write then executive director Roy Wilkins a memo entitled “Consumers’ Cooperation Among Negroes” which described 11 active black cooperatives around the country and ten African American credit unions (nine in New York City) that had been started in the 1930s (Gordon Nembhard, 2014 p. 125). It is not clear how many of these cooperatives that Baker herself might have had a hand in starting since she was based in Harlem.

Baker devoted a full life to cooperative organizing and the lessons that she learned as a result of that work. Having devoted most of her life to organizing, she likely did not have many assets when she died on her birthday after 86 years, most of them serving humanity. However, she left thousands of “children” who loved her and considered her the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement. She took many of these lessons to her work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the early 1960s, which she helped to found at her alma mater Shaw University, when the Civil Rights Movement started to take off.

Baker’s biographer, Barbara Ransby, notes that Baker believed that any movement for social change must transform those involved. She concludes:

“The cooperative movement offered organizers a way of working with people on a protracted, day-to-day basis. The process of setting up co-ops, establishing common priorities for those involved, solidifying democratic methods of decision making, and building communications networks encouraged people at the grassroots to engage in social change and transformation, changing themselves, each other, and the world around them simultaneously.” (Ransby, 2003, p. 90).

Her Cooperative Work Informed Her Civil Rights Work

Gordon Nembhard notes that Baker’s cooperative organizing gave her experience that she used in her Civil Rights work, and that Baker’s influence goes beyond the YNCL:

“Ella Jo Baker certainly cut her teeth with the YNCL, and she continued her involvement in cooperatives for most of the rest of her life, though much more quietly. Most impressive is how her leadership and experience with the YNCL helped to develop her unique style of community organizing and leadership. I assume that being a member of the Young Negroes’ Co-operative League had a similar effect on many other members, and thus may have been more influential than we have been able to gauge thus far.” (Gordon Nembhard, 2014, p. 125)

Baker’s genius is part of what makes her a cooperative hero: Baker helped the YNCL to form plans that envisioned long range goals, and produced a strategic plan for both the education and training of cooperative organizers, and to develop co-ops, credit unions and cooperatively-owned factories. She continued to work on national causes, such as supporting the Puerto Rican Independence Movement and other causes and movements the rest of her life – from cancer, to human rights, freeing Angela Davis, and attempting to develop a black cooperative-run city in North Carolina called “Soul City.” She was never as well-known as King, but among organizers she is known for her participatory grassroots organizing style that showed that the ordinary person could organize and make changes in their lives.

Baker never retired from the movement. She died on her birthday in 1986 at 83, leaving hundreds who were inspired by her genius and many institutions who honored her though naming of schools, chairs, and awards after her. A few of them include The Ella Baker School, a school in Manhattan that provides child-centered education and where collaboration is encouraged; The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, in Oakland; the Ella Baker Education Project of North Carolina, run by a cousin, which gives awards to young people; and a housing cooperative in Washington DC, the Ella Jo Baker Intentional Community Cooperative, believed to be the only cooperative named for her.

Baker To Be Inducted Into The Cooperative Hall Of Fame In October

On October 6, the Cooperative Development Foundation will induct Ella Josephine Baker into the Cooperative Hall of Fame as an “Unsung Hero.” The ceremony will be in Washington, DC on Oct. 6 with a celebratory program in her home town organized by the Ella Baker Education Project. Hopefully this will help others to appreciate Baker’s first rate organizing, the sort of “spade work” that helped her refine her skills, and her beliefs about the power of young people’s courageous work in the SNCC and the Civil Rights Movement in general.

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