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Consumers' Cooperation in the Early Twentieth Century: An Analysis of Race, Class and Consumption

Consumers’ cooperatives are commonly associated with members of the middle class who use their buying power to support local economies and encourage the equitable production, distribution and consumption of food. However, consumers’ cooperation was initially introduced to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century via labor organizations. Consumers’ cooperation continued to develop as a form of consumer activism during the Progressive Era as the consumer became a more influential figure in American society. One faction of the consumers’ cooperative movement, which sought to transfer power to the working class, was unique compared to consumer movements of the time which were typically led by middle-class reformers who professed to be advocating on behalf of the poor and working class. This movement was also unique in the sense that it was a largely a white working-class movement that did not define class and class conflict in the relations of production, but instead in the relations of distribution/consumption (a definition of class that did not gain meaningful traction in the United States until the post-industrial era). Contemporaneously, another faction of the consumers’ cooperative movement was characterized by black American membership and an explicit and implicit promotion of black self-segregation. The existence of a black consumers’ cooperative movement has largely been ignored or, when acknowledged, treated as part of a single consumers’ cooperative movement. My dissertation treats consumers’ cooperation in the early twentieth century as two distinct movements - one class-based, one race-based - and specifically analyzes both as radical economic development strategies, not as consumer activist reform campaigns more common to the era. The lack of attention paid to segregated black consumers’ cooperation in scholarly literature has had the unintended consequence of limiting sociologists’ analyses of W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois, an early and enthusiastic advocate of black consumers’ cooperation, was a leader of the movement and wrote extensively and consistently on black consumers’ cooperation as a foundation for economic development and salvation for black Americans. His advocacy of consumers’ cooperation played a central role in his eventual promotion of black self-segregation. My findings: challenge the dominant narrative of class transformation in the United States and contribute to a refined understanding of historical and contemporary conceptions and locations of class; complicate the common analysis of black consumer movements as integrationist and expand the literature on black self-segregationist movements; and add significantly to the resurgence in the study of W.E.B. Du Bois, a central figure in the history of sociology, as both a scholar and activist.