At the end of the Civil War, four million former slaves were suddenly on their own — four million people with no political or legal status in America. There were no customs or traditions to determine their place. Race relations depended primarily on individual behavior. Only one thing was certain: Neither the South nor the North believed that Negroes would ever be considered the equal of whites. Even humanitarians and reformists did not foresee social equality.
Thirty years passed before the status of former slaves was addressed. The position of Negroes in America was then clearly defined by law: separate and unequal. The law was enforced through rigid segregation and through discrimination in every sphere of daily living. These restrictions were referred to as Jim Crow laws in reference to a particularly offensive stereotype of the day. The laws on the books, however, represented only a fraction of the discrimination that was actually practiced.
There were vocal dissenters – both white and black – to the repression of the Jim Crow laws. The dissenters fell into two intellectual traditions. The first approach favored a social science model to bring about economic equality. The roots of the social science model were firmly anchored in individual economic betterment. Black intellectuals, social theorists, and white philanthropists led this group. Social theory gave rise to the Social Work approach i.e. the immediate elimination of suffering. Social Work, as a discipline, sought to deal with the effects of the system rather than change the system. The immediate goal was to improve the status of individuals through improving working conditions in industry, increasing wages, obtaining better housing and gaining health care. The Urban League grew out of this social work model.
The second approach was based on a philosophy of self-help and racial solidarity. Negroes alone would determine their future. This model favored using the law to effect social change and bring about social equality. Its proponents believed that the attainment of the legal right to education, job skills and property would automatically bring with it social and economic equality. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) became the heir to this intellectual tradition. Throughout the early part of the century, the Niagra Movement, which preceded the NAACP, was viewed as radical and separatist while the social work organizations that preceded the Urban League were viewed as conservative.
These theoretical discussions among intellectuals had not anticipated the reality of the massive migration of Negroes to Northern cities at the turn of the century. Three-quarters of the black population in the North lived in urban areas in 1910, a higher ratio than that of immigrants. This was an immediate concern that temporarily outweighed the issues of the protest movement. Urban racial reformers had to forego the crusade for political and civil rights in favor of jobs, housing, education, and sanitation.
Although today, the Urban League Movement has a dual mission of providing social services and advocating for true racial equality, it had a single purpose when it began. The National Urban League was founded in New York in 1910 as a collaboration between the city’s most prominent professionals, businessmen and reform leaders of both races. They embraced three fundamental principles:
* interracial cooperation
* assimilation and integration of Negroes and immigrants
* individual economic advancement through educational and vocational skill development.
Although mutual aid societies have always existed within African American communities, the Urban League was different from other attempts in that it was designed as a nation-wide organization from the beginning. A national system was key to meeting the challenge of the growing northern migration. The Urban League decided early on that it would not duplicate the work of the Niagra Movement, later the NAACP. It would forego the crusade for political and civil rights to focus on the needs of individuals as seven hundred thousand blacks migrated North between 1910 and 1920 looking for work.
From the white point of view, it was important to finance the work of the Urban League to prevent “black problems” from spilling over into the white community. From the Black point of view, if you were going to train African Americans to work in a job, there had to be jobs available and employers ready to hire them. Cooperation offered a temporary, practical solution — a trade-off designed to combat poverty, joblessness and disease.
With the outbreak of World War I in 1919, jobs suddenly became available. Due to the labor shortage caused by the war, white employers reluctantly employed black workers. But when the war ended, those workers found that their jobs were now reserved for returning white veterans. As the economy slowly improved, the demand for household help increased but jobs for men without skills decreased.
The Urban League established an Industrial Relations Department to redistribute the concentration of black workers in northern cities and to directly encourage industry to hire black employees. It required considerable power of persuasion and conciliation to maintain the organization at a time when racial issues were not a national priority.
By 1928, there were 42 Urban Leagues including Minneapolis and St. Paul. In Minnesota, the Negro community was active and growing in the first two decades of the century. At least five civil rights organizations were founded before the Urban League. Wendell Jones, a postal clerk on Washington Avenue, was among the first to pay the fee to become a charter member of the Minneapolis-St. Paul affiliate in 1926. “At that time,” he said, “there was no office, no paid staff — just a meeting in a church.”
Although there was no segregation by law in Minnesota, it was impossible for a black man to be served in a restaurant in Minneapolis. The Twin Cities Urban League was terminated in 1938 and Minneapolis and St. Paul became separate affiliates. Reports from early executives of the organization show that they were given unusual opportunities to address community groups on different aspects of race relations.
The Urban League Movement was now recognized by mainstream America. The Saturday Evening Post, the most popular magazine of the time, stated “The great work of such an organization lies in the amelioration of race prejudice and race envy and the development of the custom of acting together without regard to one another’s color”.
Few adhered to that point of view after the stock market crashed in 1929. As early as 1927, Negroes were displaced from their jobs to make way for white workers. Machines were taking away jobs as fast as the economy. The old jobs were gone forever. African Americans soon found themselves in competition with whites for jobs that whites once regarded as beneath them. By 1929, Blacks were at the end of an unemployment line that was 15 million people long.
The tide appeared to turn with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. Roosevelt promised salvation to the unemployed through the development of massive public works projects such as roads, bridges and dams. But, Urban League officials had learned a lesson from the layoffs after World War I and the early displacement of black workers before the Depression. They knew that politics would determine who benefited from Roosevelt’s programs.
Urban League leaders became members of Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet” and succeeded in getting nearly 50 Blacks appointed to high-level federal positions. Many more served on commissions and committees. Despite this representation, Blacks were not entering the workforce in significant numbers. The Urban League turned to organizing African American workers themselves to prod unions, industry, and the government into giving them jobs.
Among the country’s Black leadership, tension remained between the legal rights philosophy and the social service model. By 1940, the assessment of the Urban League Movement and its thirty years of service were mixed. White publications hailed its “moderation, intelligence…, and workable programs.” But some Black leaders viewed the Urban League as middle class conservative and naive to think that racial cooperation — the foundation for the Urban League — was a solution to the race problem. The League was faulted for putting too much trust in the goodwill of America’s white majority. Both views were correct. While the Urban League had worked effectively to relieve the suffering of poor, urban blacks, its leadership had gravely underestimated white resistance to the growing numbers of African Americans moving to Northern cities.
It is likely that the debate would have intensified but for the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Suddenly, nearly every factory in the country needed workers. Opening up the defense establishment became a top priority for the Urban League. Over 500,000 blacks could have been hired for war production but were barred from jobs because of discrimination in both the industry and the unions. The government became the Urban League’s target because Washington controlled the country’s defense contracts. It was only the intensity of the war effort that finally forced a crack in hiring discrimination. Black workers got their first real opportunity at skilled trades and factory work. Still, there was no assurance of employment once the war was over.
The League received little response to its drive for permanent jobs until race riots broke out in five cities in 1943. The League moved in to find ways to prevent future riots. Its 1943 National Conference became the largest and most publicized interracial meeting in U.S. History. By the end of the war, more than 1.3 million African Americans had been admitted to the unions, over 300,000 Blacks were civil service workers at the federal level and countless more at the local level.
In 1945, World War II ended. Once again, white G.I.’s returned home from the war in search of jobs, housing and education. Once again, many of the gains that African Americans had made were lost. Southern blacks who had moved north during the war years were now tightly packed into segregated sections of the inner city while whites discovered a new place to live: “the suburbs”.
In Minneapolis, in the late 1940s, African Americans were the largest minority yet the school system did not have one Black teacher. The Minneapolis Urban League was still a small operation utilizing mostly community volunteers and coalitions among churches and other groups.
By 1950, race was not on the agenda as a factor in American life. The Eisenhower administration was not interested in either social problems or race relations. Whites viewed segregation as the natural order of things, even in Washington, D.C. Still, the Urban League focused on opening up higher skilled job opportunities and obtaining training in scientific areas.
Then came Brown vs. Board of Education. This historic Supreme Court decision decreed that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Much of America was not ready to accept the Supreme Court’s decision. Brutal and humiliating segregation and discrimination were still the norm across the land supported by local laws and customs and enforced by local police. Within days of the decision, the Urban League called for immediate public school integration. For the first time, the existence of the Urban League as a bonafide national organization was seen as a threat.
Not even the Urban League’s “conservative” social work approach was compatible with southern views on the race question. Cooperation between blacks and whites was a basic tenet of Urban League thinking and organizational structure. Forty years earlier, it had been virtually impossible to set up boards of whites and blacks in most southern cities. Further, any attempt to bring rural Blacks into a national organization with a national consciousness threatened the dominance of whites.
After the Brown decision, racists throughout the South sought to destroy the Urban League by conducting smear campaigns and cutting them off from support by their local Community Chest (now known as the United Way). Without that support, they could not survive. At a critical time, the movement was in a weakened state both financially and as a leader in the civil rights movement.
As the decade of the sixties began, the entire nation was forced to come to grips with the results of its long toleration of unchecked segregation and discrimination. For the Urban League, the old way of conducting relations between the races was dying. The League now had to meet the demands coming from its own people. Despite the hundreds of thousands they had helped over the past 50 years, the Urban League was now perceived as not aggressive enough for the new civil rights movement.
The League elected Whitney Young, Jr. to lead a bold new strategy. Young believed that the Urban League needed to re-establish its national identity. It needed a rallying point for its members. In his first speech, he said, “. . . we will be at war – at war against prejudice and discrimination, against apathy and indifference, against rationalization, greed, selfishness and ignorance — and we will not hesitate to identify our enemies in this war, whether they be Negro or white . . . ”
Members of the Urban League met with President John Kennedy in 1962, a meeting that opened the door to a new relationship with the federal government. From now on, the government would contract with the Urban League to carry out its programs for the disadvantaged. This was followed by a grant from the Ford Foundation for an eight-city housing program. A true success story was the Skills Bank, a national clearinghouse for highly skilled African Americans. Another was the on-the job training program which placed more workers in skilled jobs than anyone had ever expected. However, the basic problems afflicting black communities across the country – unemployment, lack of economic opportunity, inadequate education and substandard housing had not changed since the days of Reconstruction. Whitney Young believed that special efforts were needed for black citizens and by black citizens if they were to ever catch up.
This was the transition point. The Urban League had moved from being an organization that relied on persuasion and conciliation in race relations to one engaged in aggressive advocacy for social change. Yet, it had not sacrificed its commitment to helping individual people in need. In August of 1963, executives of the Urban League in white shirts and ties were accompanied by freedom fighters as they marched on Washington. Many felt, as they had when Roosevelt was elected, that now the tide was surely turning.
On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. It was feared that the momentum for civil rights would be lost in the grief that the Movement and the rest of the country shared. However, President Lyndon Johnson declared his own commitment to the fight. His support of civil rights legislation would be the cornerstone of the Great Society. Grassroots Black leadership would be able to use federal programs in employment, civil rights and anti-poverty legislation. It looked as though four hundred years of racial injustice were about to be corrected.
That was before the Vietnam War. Suddenly, no one was talking about poverty programs and civil rights anymore. Liberals who had historically fought for domestic social programs were now obsessed with Vietnam. Others used the war as a convenient excuse to cut back their commitment to programs for minorities.
The tension created by the interruption of the civil rights movement and the introduction of the Vietnam Protest movement destroyed families and communities – both black and white – and threatened to destroy the country itself. The summer of 1967 was the most violent in the history of American race relations. The Kerner Commission reported to the President that white racism was the root cause of the separate societies that existed in America.
When Martin Luther King was assassinated the following April, there was no turning back. Riots broke out in 125 cities across the country including Minneapolis and St. Paul. Whitney Young proposed that the primary responsibility of the Urban League Movement should now be nothing less than to help halt the nation’s self-destructive course. There were then 85 local Leagues that assisted more than 500,000 people every year.
The Urban League would shift gears from its traditional strategy of removing the barriers for individuals to bringing about change in the social, economic, and political arenas. The fundamental goal of the Urban League was now the equalization of life results between black and white America. Young called it the “New Thrust”. The League would use three tools to change the system: community organization, direct confrontation, and the strengthening of the internal power of the ghetto.
By the end of 1968, local Leagues had opened storefront operations to organize the people to change their environment. The Minneapolis League was one of the first to move from its location in the downtown business district out into the neighborhoods. Affiliates established Street Academies, launched voter education drives, undertook community health programs and neighborhood improvement programs. They demanded that white institutions respond. Social services alone could not eliminate the problems. Only changing the system would suffice. Yet blacks were more segregated, more concentrated in a physical space than ever before. The difference at the end of the sixties was that the inhabitants were now volatile, informed citizens who were not afraid of white political or economic power and they occupied key sections of the nations most important cities.
By returning to the slums and organizing its residents, the Urban League had gone back to its beginnings. The Urban League became the convener, the agent that put together the coalitions to force change while at the same time being the working partner of business, labor, government, social and civic organizations. In the years following 1968, the Minneapolis Urban League founded its own Street Academy, one of the few that exist today, and greatly expanded its employment and youth programs.
To many people in the early 1970s, it seemed as though real progress was occurring. The election of Richard Nixon proved that progress was an illusion. His administration reflected those who had elected him — “the silent majority”. Those voters believed that Blacks had come too far, too fast and had to be slowed down. Despite the victories of the sixties, nearly half of all Blacks lived below the poverty line and unemployment for African Americans was at Depression levels. Racism was still alive and well. It had merely changed its form. In 1970, Whitney Young Jr, the able leader who had changed the vision of the Urban League, declared the League would continue to mount a full-scale attack on the causes of racism and poverty.
Whitney Young died in a drowning accident a short time later. His death was yet another blow to the civil rights movement. Under the new leadership of Vernon Jordan, the Urban League Movement was able to continue in the direction set by Whitney Young. Jordan re-emphasized the tradition of scholarship and fact-finding that had been the hallmark of the Movement. The Urban League published a new body of work on the conditions faced by African Americans. It inaugurated the annual State of Black America, which assessed the status of Blacks every year and made public policy recommendations. Vernon Jordan was able to confront the Jimmy Carter administration, which proclaimed itself attuned to African Americans, and call for a new urban policy.
By the end of the 70′s, there were 116 affiliated organizations in cities across the country with combined annual budgets of nearly $100 million making it possible to serve more than a million people a year.
The Minneapolis Urban League grew along with the national organization. Under the leadership of Gleason Glover, who would serve as its Chief Executive for 25 years (1967-1991), the Minneapolis League achieved national prominence. Gleason Glover was recognized throughout the Urban League Movement as an effective leader who could work across all elements of the African American and majority communities. He was one of the executives brought in when League policy was debated. Glover was instrumental in bringing together Black leaders and the leaders of the Minnesota State Legislature and was able to re-establish the Black/Jewish dialogue that had flourished during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. At the beginning of his tenure as CEO, the Minneapolis Urban League had a small office with a staff of three and a budget under $50,000. When Gleason Glover retired in 1991, the organization had grown to 90 employees and an annual budget of over $3 million.
By the mid-1990s, the Minneapolis Urban League reached over 25,000 people each year through education, employment, individual client services, and public policy advocacy. The staff included over 100 full or part-time employees most of whom lived in the areas they serve. The work of Gary Sudduth, named CEO in 1992, placed Minneapolis in the forefront of the Urban League Movement especially on the issue of youth achievement. Gary Sudduth died suddenly on July 28, 1997.
For the year following Mr. Sudduth’s death, Laura Scott-Williams, a twenty-year veteran of the Minneapolis Urban League staff, served as Interim President/CEO. Clarence Hightower was selected to become the new President of the Minneapolis Urban League in August of 1998 after a nation-wide search. Mr. Hightower re-structured the organization according to the 1997 Long Range Plan and launched a $6 million Capital Campaign, the first in the Minneapolis Urban League’s history. As a result of the campaign, all of the direct service programs will be expanded and services will be delivered more efficiently.
In August 2008, Mr. Hightower was replaced by Interim President/CEO David Oguamanam.
Although the Urban League has changed over the years, Minneapolis has changed very little for African Americans. Minneapolis has a higher concentration of nonwhite, poor people than any other major city in the country. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (1992), the unemployment rate for African Americans in Minneapolis is the worst in the nation. Substandard housing and inadequate health care are still the norm for poor Black families. In countries all around the world, many of the gains that were made by minority populations in the last forty years have been lost and others are now being challenged in the courts. Although much has occurred on paper, the reality of life for many African Americans is much as it was during the first half of the century.
Where is the Urban League headed? The Urban League still embodies the belief in the equalizing power of a steady paycheck. But its goals have gone far beyond that. On the national level, the focus is on youth academic achievement and the creation of wealth in the African American community. In the words of Vernon Jordan, speaking in 1973, “…the advances of the sixties formed but a prelude to the righting of racial inequities and to believe anything less is an illusion fraught with danger.”
Note: The Minneapolis Urban League wishes to thank the Hennepin History Museum, the Minnesota Spokesman-Records, and the Minnesota Historical Society Collections for their generous assistance and for the use of their photos.