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Dr E.E. Nelson: founder of the Buffalo Cooperative Economic Society.

During the several decades following the "great migration" of Afro-Americans to the northern cities, the economic and social problems confronting northern black communities became more intense. In their quest to find solutions to those problems, and improve the quality of life in their communities, many northern black spokesmen concluded that racial solidarity and self-help offered the best hope. The belief in self-help and solidarity among northern blacks during that period drew inspiration from the legacy of Booker T. Washington and the preaching's of Marcus Garvey. Those ideas, coupled with the socialist influences of the depression years, contributed to a renewed interest in the formation of economic cooperatives in northern black communities.

In Buffalo, New York, the most dedicated advocate of black self-help and economic cooperation, during the depression and post-depression years, was Dr. Ezekiel E. Nelson--a local black physician. (1) For more than three decades (1928-1961) Dr. Nelson worked with an almost fanatical zeal to convince black Buffalonians that cooperative economics and racial solidarity would enable the race to escape from poverty and economic oppression. He preached that by working together, pooling their resources, and supporting their cooperative enterprises; blacks could build powerful economic institutions that would enable them to produce many of those goods and services that were needed and desired by the community. He believed that such enterprises would provide employment and income, which would enhance the ability of the community to improve its standard of living. The profits from such ventures were to be reinvested in the community, thus promoting further development and improvement. Such was his dream.

Dr. Nelson was not a native Buffalonian. He was born in Louisiana in 1881. Following his mother's death, when he was ten years old, young Nelson was sent to live with his aunt, and uncle who were sharecroppers. That family later moved to Texarkana, Arkansas where Nelson began his formal schooling at age fifteen. He completed all the grades in the local black school in four years.

Following his graduation from the Texarkana school, Nelson found employment with a local white family who, after recognizing that he was especially talented intellectually, urged him to continue his education. They pledged to assist him financially if he would enroll in the Tuskegee Institute. That school had already gained national recognition because of the work of its founder--Booker T. Washington. Nelson declined their offer because of a longstanding desire to attend Wilberforce University. In 1904, he left Arkansas and journeyed to Ohio where he enrolled at Wilberforce. Initially he enrolled in prep courses before moving into the regular college curriculum. While at Wilberforce Nelson met and courted his future wife--Miss Alberta F. O'Leary, an education major from Jacksonville, Illinois. It was during those years that he also decided to become a medical doctor.

Following his graduation from Wilberforce in 1911, Nelson entered the medical school at the University of Michigan. After completing three years at that institution (Univ. of Michigan) he decided to delay his education because of a lack of funds. After working for a time in Detroit, Nelson resumed his education in 1916--this time at Boston University. He graduated from the Boston University Medical School in 1918. After his graduation he moved to Buffalo, New York where he had worked in the summer of 1917 as a dining car waiter. In 1920, Nelson journeyed to Illinois where he married his college sweethear--Miss O'Leary. The couple decided to make Buffalo their home.

Being financially unable to set up a medical practice following his graduation from medical school, Dr. Nelson continued to work as a dining car waiter with the railroad. That job took him regularly to New York City. The years 1919-1925 represented the peak period of the Garvey movement in the United States. Marcus Garvey's U.N.I.A. headquarters was located in Harlem and Dr. Nelson was frequently in attendance at the Garvey rallies whenever his dining car job took him to New York. Nelson was deeply moved by the Garvey doctrines of race pride, and racial uplift through unity and self-help. He was also impressed with Garvey's style and ability to organize. By 1925, Dr. Nelson was thoroughly convinced that black Americans could improve their economic status through cooperative self-help. In 1927 Dr. Nelson opened his medical practice in Buffalo. The following year he organized the Citizens Cooperative Society. He was now ready to begin implementing some of his ideas regarding self-help and cooperative economics.

NOTE: For More than 30 years (1928-1961) Dr. Nelson worked tirelessly preaching self help and cooperative economics. In the mid-19305 he organized the Buffalo Cooperative Economic Society (BCES). For many years that organization operated a cooperative grocery store. (At various times the store was located at 323 Jefferson, the corner of William and Madison Streets, and on Clinton Street). The idea thrived for a time during the 1940s and even into the 1950s. However, growing prosperity and grocery chains led to the cooperative's demise. During the three decades of their existence, Dr. Nelson and the coop's board of directors kept meticulous records. Following their demise in 1961, Dr. Nelson stored the records in cardboard boxes in his garage at 445 Cornwall Ave. In 1974 the Afro-American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier preserved the records and papers of BCES on three rolls of microfilm. Copies of the film are catalogued at the Frank E. Merriweather Branch Library and the William A. Miles Center for African American Studies, The Buffalo State College Butler Library Archives, and the Buffalo State College Monroe Fordham Center for Regional History.

(1) The remainder of this essay is based on interviews with the late Dr. Nelson, and the microfilmed Papers of the Buffalo Cooperative Economic Society (BCES). Copies of the microfilmed papers are in the Buffalo State College (BSC) Butler Library Archives, the BSC Fordham Regional History Center, and the Frank E. Merriweather Branch of the Buffalo-Erie County Public Library.
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Author:Fordham, Monroe
Publication:Afro-Americans in New York Life and History
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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