The 2023 Unsung Cooperative Hero, Halena Wilson, was a selfless and tireless crusader for co-ops, a co-op organizer, educator, and advocate. Born in Denver in 1897, she was conscious of a benevolent streak from an early age.
After moving to Chicago as an adult, she found an outlet for her compassion, joining several social and civic movements and served as a Worthy Matron of the Order of the Eastern Star, a fraternal, non-profit mutual aid organization open to both men and women. Similar to experiences she had leading mutual aid societies, Wilson found a place for herself in the Ladies’ Auxiliary to The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) where according to Paula Pfeffer, “she could be of real service in a cause that was seeking to liberate a much-exploited people.”
It was through her involvement in the Auxiliary, where she served as president of the Chicago chapter until 1953 and president of the entire International Ladies’ Auxiliary until 1965, that Wilson realized her potential as a consumer cooperative educator and organizer. As president of the BSCP’s Ladies’ Auxiliary, she helped to start and support at least 17 co-op study groups in BSCP chapters in major cities in the US and Canada, and was a cofounder of two or more co-ops, including The Brotherhood Buying Club and the Cooperative Union Optical Center in Chicago. She also supported the development of the BSCP’s Walker Credit Union in Montreal.
For years she regularly contributed articles to the Black Worker and created pamphlets on cooperative economics and consumer co-op strategies. Understanding the economic role of women in the household, the buying power of women, and the need to recirculate resources (especially good union wages) within the Black community, she raised the awareness of cooperative alternatives in Black communities around the country for decades.
One of the few Black women to be elected to serve on the national Consumer Cooperative Council, she represented important alliances between the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the cooperative movement.