Encyclopedia of American Urban History

Encyclopedia of American Urban History
National Urban League
Contributors: David Kenneth Pye
Edited by: David R. Goldfield
Book Title: Encyclopedia of American Urban History
Chapter Title: “National Urban League”
Pub. Date: 2007
Access Date: August 13, 2018
Publishing Company: SAGE Publications, Inc.
City: Thousand Oaks
Print ISBN: 9780761928843
Online ISBN: 9781412952620
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781412952620.n293
Print page: 518
©2007 SAGE Publications, Inc.. All Rights Reserved.
This PDF has been generated from SAGE Knowledge. Please note that the pagination of
the online version will vary from the pagination of the print book.
The National Urban League is an interracial civil rights organization historically aimed at aiding
the acculturation of African Americans during their move from rural to urban areas beginning
in the early 20th century. Initially founded in 1910 as the Committee on Urban Conditions, the
Urban League was part of the Progressive Movement that sought to merge new social science
methods with practical social work in the everyday lives of the urban poor. The League offered
free counseling services to individual migrants and families while funding major academic
research projects to illuminate the issues affecting the lives of migrants. Realizing that the
steady migration of African Americans from the South into crowded tenement conditions in the
North risked the health of all concerned in the cities, Progressive leaders wanted to improve
the quality of life for migrants to the benefit of the common good.
With its roots in New York City, a central stop for African Americans in their Great Migration
from the South, the Urban League had allies in the Progressive Movement at Columbia
University who were both prominent in the social sciences and leaders in the League. Many of
these social scientists served on the Urban League Board of Directors, which from its
inception remained interracial. Given the goal of the Urban League, and many Progressives,
of aiding African Americans in a manner that served the best interests of all Americans
simultaneously, the League desired to have a leadership that reflected the multicultural nature
of the cities the migrants entered. The first executive secretary of the group (now called the
president) was Dr. George Edmund Haynes, who was the first African American to receive a
doctorate from Columbia University. Haynes possessed a remarkable résumé, having earned
degrees from Fisk University (B.A.) and the Yale University Divinity School (M.A.). It was the
doctoral thesis that Haynes wrote at Columbia, The Negro at Work in New York City, that
became the catalyst for the organization that became the Urban League.
Scholars often compare the origins and politics of the Urban League with those of the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Both groups began in
the first decade of the 20th century. Likewise, both had racially integrated boards of directors.
Nevertheless, some observers emphasize that while the NAACP involved itself in direct legal
action against racial discrimination in American life, the Urban League, in comparison,
remained somewhat nonpolitical. In fact, it is true that many board members explicitly refused
to endorse the call from some African American leaders to address race discrimination in an
organized, political manner. Instead, the League hoped to improve African American lives
“from the bottom up.” This dichotomy of views has led some to conjure up the W. E. B. Du
Bois-Booker T. Washington debate that dominated African American thought in the early 20th
century. Du Bois advocated for immediate racial integration and aggressive agitation by
African Americans for political inclusion. In contrast, Washington thought it prudent for African
Americans to disregard politics while continuing to work toward increasing the wealth of
average working persons.
Using this debate on political objectives as a basis, these scholars came to view the Urban
League in a manner similar to the perception of Washington and his agenda among
contemporary historians. This view portrayed the League as nonconfrontational. Since the
1980s, however, there has been additional analysis on the work performed by the Urban
League and the NAACP. Neither group is a militant organization. Nor is either group satisfied
with the status quo for people of color in the United States of America. The Urban League has
its roots firmly in the Progressive Movement, thus its desire to aid poor African Americans
huddled inside often unkind northern inner cities. Moreover, the African Americans in these
areas often suffered from de facto racial segregation rather than the more visible variety
evident in the South. Given that many Americans refused to acknowledge the reality of this
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Encyclopedia of American Urban History
brand of discrimination, which relegated African Americans to the lowest rungs in housing,
employment, and health, direct confrontation was not an option for the Urban League in some
cases. The first priority of the Urban League has always been to solve the day-to-day
problems facing these often underserved people while using the newest social science
research to forward this agenda.
The First World War increased the need for African American workers in northern cities.
Pulled to these cities by the opening of jobs in factories and pushed out of the South by the
oppressive Jim Crow system of racial segregation, African American migrants used the
services of the Urban League to smooth their transition. During the Second World War, the
Urban League became more openly political, as evidenced by its support for the threatened
March on Washington, D.C., by union leader A. Philip Randolph. This planned march helped
encourage President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802, which officially
banned racial discrimination in all federal defense plants. During the war years the League
received able leadership under Eugene Knickle Jones, who replaced Dr. Haynes in 1941, and
Lester Granger, who led during the Second World War period.
After the wars, African Americans became much more resistant to racial segregation
throughout the United States of America. The organized Civil Rights Movement had begun in
full force by the early 1960s, and the Urban League added its support to the cause. Then led
by Whitney M. Young Jr. the Urban League called upon the federal government to institute a
domestic Marshall Plan which would provide the financing necessary to bridge the gap
between the resources of whites and blacks. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who often
met with Whitney Young for consultation on the best ways to improve the lot of urban African
Americans, eventually began this initiative, labeling it the “War on Poverty.” A succession of
influential leaders since the 1960s, including Vernon E. Jordan, John E. Jacob, and Hugh B.
Price, have kept the Urban League central in the fight against racial inequality in the United
States. Early in the 21st century, President George W. Bush made national headlines by
choosing to address the annual National Urban League Convention while in the midst of a war
in Iraq and a hectic campaign season. Clearly this act displayed the continuing influence of
the National Urban League in the debates on progress of people of color in the United States
of America.
David KennethPye
See also
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
Race Riots
Further Readings and References
Dickerson, D. C. (1998). Militant mediator: Whitney M. Young, Jr. Lexington: University Press
of Kentucky.
Jordan, V. E. (2001). Vernon can read! A memoir. New York: Public Affairs. Moore, J. T. (1981). A search for equality: The National Urban League, 1910–1961. University
Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
National Urban League. (1988). Black Americans and public policy: Perspectives of the
National Urban League. New York: National Urban League. Weiss, N. J. (1974). The National Urban League, 1910–1940. New York: Oxford University
Press. Weiss, N. J. (1989). Whitney M. Young, Jr. and the struggle for civil rights. Princeton, NJ:
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Princeton University Press.
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Encyclopedia of American Urban History

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