Group formed 100 years ago now the St. Louis Urban League

February 23, 2018

ST. LOUIS (AP) — It was a small item, appearing deep in this newspaper 100 years ago.

“Negro Aid Society Formed” was the headline, announcing that a branch of the Urban League would be started in St. Louis “to work for the improvement of negroes in the city in matters pertaining to health, employment, education, housing, recreation and delinquency.”

As the article noted, the action was prompted to assist the growing number of black people migrating from the South to seek industry jobs. The article appeared June 9, 1918, and was published three months after a series of meetings were held to discuss ways to garner national publicity that would “wipe out the bad impression made by the East St. Louis race riots.”

Those violent clashes occurred the summer before. During a 48-hour period in July 1917, at least 300 homes and businesses were burned. The official death count landed at 48 although news accounts put that number five times higher.

At that time, the National Urban League was still a young agency, formed in 1910 in New York and initially known as The Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes. There were just a handful of chapters when St. Louis joined, compared to 90 today, but the mission a century ago is essentially the same as now: creating economic equity.

“In the past, it’s been about jobs. In the present, it’s about jobs. In the future, it’s about jobs,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and a former New Orleans mayor. “We were founded to help people transition from rural, agricultural jobs to industrial jobs. Now we are helping move people from industrial to technology fields, providing job training programs to navigate this brave new world.”

Nowhere is the agency’s priority of jobs more evident than in Ferguson. Last year, the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis opened a job center on the spot where a QuikTrip once stood. The convenience store on West Florissant Avenue was burned down after the shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014 and became known as ground zero for the months of unrest that followed.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the opening in July of the new building, officially known as the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center, served as the kickoff event of the National Urban League conference, which drew more than 25,000 people to America’s Center in downtown St. Louis. It also served as a venue to promote the local chapter’s centennial, which will officially be marked at a gala next month. The keynote speaker will be Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis.

Mike McMillan, president of the local affiliate, said the job center, co-owned by the Salvation Army, stands as an example of what is possible when minority workers are given a chance. At least 75 percent of contractors and employees who built the $4 million facility are African-American. The center houses the agency’s Save Our Sons program, providing workforce training for young men, and an after-school tutoring program dubbed Readers to Leaders. They are among the 30 programs the Urban League offers, serving more than 100,000 people a year in St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Clair County.

The Urban League, which bills itself as both a social service agency and a civil rights organization, does not endorse political candidates but does weigh in on public policy issues and major events. For example, the local affiliate put out a statement after the September acquittal of former St. Louis police Officer Jason Stockley on murder charges.

“The results of this case and other cases of police shootings across this nation show that there are often no consequences to law enforcement for killing African Americans,” the Urban League wrote. “These verdicts breed the hate, distrust and fear that we work to overcome daily. With all of the efforts to move our community forward in the past three years after the events in Ferguson, this is a major setback to improving racial relations in the St. Louis community.”

Activism was something McMillan’s predecessor, James Buford, brought into the local chapter, arguing that it was too docile an organization. In 1999, he and the Rev. Al Sharpton were among a group of protesters arrested for blocking Interstate 70. They were there highlighting the lack of minorities hired to do road repairs.

Buford also organized three busloads to the Million Man March in Washington in 1995, an event not endorsed by the national Urban League. Despite his deviations, the local Urban League board stood behind him.

Morial said the Urban League, like many long-running civil rights organizations, has to broaden its reach to remain relevant. That includes bringing in a new generation of leaders.

In 2004, the agency started the Urban League Young Professionals, an auxiliary group that more than two-thirds of affiliates now have, including in St. Louis. The group has monthly meetings to talk about ways to have a stronger, unified voice in the community.

“We’re trying to be a big tent,” Morial said. While it is great that young people are taking to the streets to protest, there is more to fighting injustice.

“It’s an essential tactic,” Morial said of the uprisings that followed after the events in Ferguson and the Stockley verdict. But making change takes work on multiple fronts and doing it only through protest “is a narrow view.” Changes in attitudes and public policy must also be done in boardrooms, where heads of corporations have the money and influence to make a difference.

Buford headed the local Urban League for nearly three decades before retiring in 2013. As he was winding down his final year, he told the Post-Dispatch that his early years at the helm were looked at with apprehension by those his agency was charged with serving. He went to private school in a city where the majority of blacks get a public education. And he is a Republican in a city full of Democrats. But his political affiliation ultimately helped him, he said.

“Everybody in high places is Republican,” he said. And it’s those with money that he had to work with to ensure those struggling have a voice, Buford said.

Morial said the generational handoff of the local Urban League chapter from Buford, who was 68 when he announced his retirement, to McMillan, who was 41 when he took over, has proven a successful one.

“James Buford was the guy who really built the modern Urban League and Mike McMillan has not missed a beat in terms of continuing the momentum,” Morial said.

McMillan points to the opening of the Ferguson center and hosting the National Urban League conference as both highlights and examples of the push to keep the agency in the forefront of making changes in a region that suffers from racial disparity in major quality of life issues, including housing, education, jobs and criminal justice.

“If you look at what happened in Ferguson, it exposed the racial inequities and government public policies that need to be corrected,” McMillan said. By continuing to build programs that help minorities get access to jobs and education, the Urban League will help erase the stark differences holding minorities back, he said.

In the current political environment, that will remain a challenge for all social service agencies and civil rights organizations, Morial said.

“We’re in the age of Trump, the age of significant pushback,” he said. That includes continued efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, voter suppression legislation and little desire to reform the criminal justice system, he said.

“We have to resist, resist every effort to turn back the hands of time,” Morial said. “We have to protect our progress.”


Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com

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