- Advocate for Black Economic Power In the 1920s, when Halena Wilson joined the Chicago Chapter of the Ladies’ Auxiliary to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), she envisioned a more impactful purpose than hosting tea parties and organizing fundraisers. Wilson was determined to use her leadership position to organize and educate other Black women. She wanted to show them how to fight a racially discriminatory economic system by building financial security for their families and their communities.
- Co-op Educator Wilson demonstrated budgeting and smart buying practices with the wives of Pullman porters, showing them how to stretch their husband’s salaries while supporting their community with their purchasing choices. She wrote many articles promoting labor-conscious consumerism, and published them in the union platform The Black Worker. Her speeches, workshops, articles and pamphlets became part of a well-rounded co-op curriculum. BSCP President A. Philip Randolph encouraged the Chicago Ladies’ Auxiliary to amplify their message by forming study groups across the country, from Washington, DC to Los Angeles.
- Co-op Creator Halena Wilson participated in start-up cooperative efforts across sectors in Chicago. She served as chair of the Consumer Cooperative Buying Club, the only such club founded and controlled by Black women. When the club dissolved in 1950, Wilson proposed using the proceeds to open a credit union. In 1951, Wilson co-founded the Chicago Union Cooperative Optical Center, which made low-cost eye care available to more than 60,000 trade union families.
Past President, Ladies’ Auxiliary to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
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 U.S. 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.