Building Cooperatives In the Rural South

The following article was written by Wendell Paris for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives’ 25th Anniversary in 1992. Wendell was the first director of the Federation’s Rural Training and Research Center in the 1970’s. He will join us at CoopEcon 2013 on the opening keynote panel.

Wendell Paris

Wendell Paris

I was a third generation Paris at Tuskegee Institute and studied economics and agriculture. My Granddaddy studied at Tuskegee under Dr. George Washington Carver and my Daddy also studied agriculture there.

I was first involved in the cooperative movement as a student at Tuskegee Institute in the 60’s where I was active in the civil rights movement and a community education program called Tuskegee Institute Community Education Program. That organizing work evolved into a cooperative group called the Southeast Alabama Self-Help Association. We set up a feeder pig project and also a credit union, which exists even today and is still involved in self-help housing. From those first experiences I continued to work in the cooperative movement in the South.

The cooperative movement was an outgrowth of the civil rights movement. A number of us recognized that something more than social action was called for. We needed economic development to sustain our communities that were coming under attack now that many had ventured to change their social condition. For example, in Tennessee in a four county area close to Memphis a number of Black farmers decided to register to vote. When they did, the fuel suppliers refused to sell them gasoline so they had to bootleg it. They were forced to drive into Memphis and bring back cans of gas in the back of their cars so they could plant their crops. So that’s how they set up the first cooperative in the area with the farmers selling each other gasoline.

What happened to those farmers in Tennessee who organized a cooperative to protect their economic well being was repeated all over the South.

Ultimately, I joined the Federation staff at Epes in the early 70’s to manage the Panola Land Buyers Association in Sumter County, Alabama. These folks had been evicted from their land when they registered to vote. The Federation, along with five other organizations, was helping them buy land, grow crops and develop other agronomic and cooperative enterprises including a beef cattle herd and a feeder pig project. That’s when I moved to the Training Center at Epes. I was 25 at the time.

Then came the Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway Project and I went on staff of the Minority Peoples Council, which was spawned by the Federation. The proponents said the Tennessee Tombigbee would be a panacea for the poor so, of course, we wanted to get involved in it. The Minority Peoples Council worked to get an affirmative action program for hiring Black people and local folks. The other thing is that the Army Corps of Engineers was buying our farmers land along the course of the waterway for close to nothing in three of the states where we were working – Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama. The government was coming and telling folk “we’re going to buy your land and you might as well not fight us.” So, people were taking the first offer. They were not told they could take two offers and then if they weren’t satisfied could go to court. When we questioned the government about this – why they didn’t tell people about their options – they said their job was to buy the land as cheaply as possible. So, we not only educated landowners about options, but also trained people for jobs.

In cooperative ventures we were making business decisions at an early age – decisions that white males were generally making when they got into their late fifties and sixties. In the United States, there are four types of businesses – individual proprietorship, partnership, corporations and cooperatives. All successful businesses are based on four ingredients – land, labor, capital and management. Even in our 20’s, as owners of cooperatives, we learned finance and management. We had to read balance sheets and understand bonding and basically the different financial arrangements necessary to capitalize the needs of the particular business we were involved in.

At the Federation, we worked with the poorest of the poor in the rural South – we worked with people who were never supposed to be able to help themselves but with our support they did. Although the Federation as an organization may not have a lot of resources in terms of capital wealth, it has done more to help in the development of the people in the Southern region than anything you could imagine.

Wendell Paris lives in Jackson, Mississippi.

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