Nannie Helen Burroughs believed that cooperatives offered Black communities a viable alternative to the hardships of the Great Depression, and provided Black women, especially, safer and better paying jobs than domestic service. She took inspiration from the Rochdale Co-operative Society of the District of Columbia. Already well-known as founder and acclaimed leader of the National Baptist Women’s Convention (1900) and founder of the National Training School for Women and Girls in Washington DC (1909), Ms. Burroughs also co-founded the Northeast Self Help Cooperative in 1936, a worker cooperative for women in Washington, DC.
As president of Northeast Self Help, Ms. Burroughs won a grant from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to expand the cooperative by purchasing agricultural land in Maryland. Now with a co-op farm in addition to the integrated set of industrial cooperatives in DC, the co-op also added a consumer store, and became a multi-stakeholder cooperative called Cooperative Industries. Cooperative Industries eventually included a community medical clinic, broom factory, sewing unit, canning department, grocery store, furniture manufacturing unit, and a cooperative farm and produce market. Cooperative Industries operated for four years at the tail end of the Great Depression.
Committed to teaching others about cooperatives, Ms. Burroughs attracted new members through education on Cooperative Values and Principles. She utilized the National Training School as the organizational base for her educational and political endeavors, as well as having the school share space with Cooperative Industries. This enabled the school’s students to experience firsthand the cooperative’s daily operations, as well as provided co-op training for co-op members. The National Training School was later renamed the National Trade and Professional School where Ms. Burroughs created a course entitled Cooperatives: The New Program for Economic Security. In addition, Ms. Burroughs was a member of CLUSA DC and often gave speeches promoting co-ops on behalf of the chapter.
Thanks to Ms. Burroughs' efforts in harnessing the cooperative business model and the multi-stakeholder structure, Cooperative Industries helped meet the needs of working mothers in her community. Transformed by her own experience of discrimination, disappointment, and financial hardship, she fostered economic empowerment and created a safety net for Black women and children - and ultimately served more than 6,000 residents of Northeast Washington, DC.