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  • Writer's pictureCalla Norman

Celebrating Cooperative Economic Models and Black-Owned Businesses in History

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

This Black History Month, we wanted to take a look at some examples of Black figures in history forging paths for entrepreneurship and cooperative economic models. Black communities have historically been overlooked, especially by financial institutions that many small Black-owned businesses relied on, and this marginalization occurs to this day.

Take a look at some historical examples of Black entrepreneurs and activists who historically empowered their communities who we’ve been thinking about lately, and maybe they’ll inspire you as they have us.

Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Farm Cooperative

Fannie Lou Hamer speaks to a crowd of people from a megaphone

Fannie Lou Hamer was a civil rights activist, farmer, and community organizer who started the Freedom Farm Cooperative in 1969. She grew up a sharecropper in Mississippi and knew the financial and physical hardships that many of her neighbors faced, and local government and agricultural departments wouldn’t give them the help they needed.

With a $10,000 donation from Measure for Measure, Hamer purchased 40 acres of land in the Mississippi Delta, and invited her neighbors to join the Freedom Farm Cooperative for as little as $1/month. The Freedom Farm’s mission was to build up the economic prospects of the area’s poor Black farmers, and they did so through grassroots organizing and cooperative farming.

One shining example of the Freedom Farm was its Pig Bank. When the co-op bought a herd of pigs, they held back a few in order to breed and give to impoverished families so they could begin raising their own livestock. This was just one way in which Hamer helped people gain economic control of their lives and encouraged black-owned businesses to develop.

If you want to learn more about Hamer and the Freedom Farm Cooperative, we highly recommend Monica White’s book Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement.

Madame C.J. Walker

Portrait of Madame C.J. Walker

Madame C.J. Walker, who was born Sarah Breedlove, was America’s first female millionaire, full stop. She was born on the plantation where her parents were enslaved, and as an adult moved to St. Louis, where she began to develop and sell hair products for Black women.

She moved to Indianapolis in 1910, where she built a factory, salon, and a second beauty school (her first was in Pittsburgh). Throughout her career, Walker employed 40,000 African American sales representatives, hair experts, and factory workers. As her business grew, she became more interested in activism and philanthropy, contributing money and time to the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign.

Recently, Netflix released a fictionalized limited series on Walker’s life, which is worth a watch called Self Made. This is also based off of a book written by A’Leila Bundles, Walker’s great-great-granddaughter!

Greenwood, Tulsa: Black Wall Street

Black and white photo of people lining the streets of Greenwood

100 years ago, the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Oklahoma was a booming area for Black-owned businesses. Partly because segregation wouldn’t allow Black customers into white businesses, but also partly because of a deep connection to supporting community entrepreneurship, this neighborhood was one of the wealthiest predominantly Black neighborhoods in the country.

Greenwood was the platonic ideal of what we mean by community wealth making a difference and staying in the community. It was said that a dollar would change hands 19 times before ever leaving the district, the businesses were that closely knit.

However, Greenwood is also infamous for a devastating massacre that occurred there in June 1921, when the neighborhood was essentially leveled to the ground by violent white lynch mobs, ending in around 300 deaths and millions of dollars in property damage.

Greenwood came back though, and by 1942 had 100 more black-owned businesses in the area. If you want to learn more about Greenwood, Black Wall Street by Hannibal Johnson is a great place to start. Greenwood has also inspired many Black small business owners, such as the team behind Greenwood Whiskey, who took the name in honor of the entrepreneurs who came before them.

Celebrating those who came before and uplifting those to come

Honeycomb is committed to helping to build community wealth, especially among marginalized communities. In 2020, 24% of our campaigns were minority-owned businesses. As these entrepreneurs and communities remind us, our businesses are only as strong as our neighbors, so why not lift up them both?

Check out this blog post about how to invest in black-owned businesses to see how you can support today’s black entrepreneurs and their communities:


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