History: The Charleston Co-op That Transformed the South

Being an avid history buff, I am continually inspired by the many ways in which the cooperative movement in America has enhanced the quality of life for so many. Whether you are talking about farmers pooling money to provide affordable credit, raising funds to deliver electricity to the rural South, or marshaling resources to open a member-owned grocery, the story of each cooperative is the story of collective effort in order to provide to the community what the free market is failing to deliver.

In the case of the now-defunct Progressive Club on John’s Island, residents pooled their resources and efforts and ended up changing the world. The co-op, located outside Charleston, became a hub of education for black citizens who wanted to learn how to pass the state’s literacy test in order to be able to vote.

The literacy test was central in maintaining the repressive political structure of the Jim Crow South. These laws were specifically designed to be vague and subjective in their application so that in the end illiterate whites could register to vote, illiterate blacks could not, and even African Americans who could read and write might be failed on the basis of what amounted to a trick question.

The Progressive Club broke that mold by teaching African Americans how to pass the literacy test and  become eligible to participate in the American political system. The story of the Progressive Club and how it transformed life in America was recently chronicled in the Charleston Post & CourierYou can read about it here.

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