A Century of Helping African-Americans

After 100 years, the Urban League of Westchester still aims to end discrimination and fight for the rights of minorities and the disadvantaged.

What eventually became the National Urban League was founded in 1911 in New York City by Dr. George Edmund Haynes, the first African-American to earn a PhD from Columbia University, and Ruth Standish Baldwin, a white New York City philanthropist from one of the nation’s oldest families.

The organization’s initial goal: find housing and jobs for the millions of African-Americans who fled the Jim Crow South and made their way north to cities like New York and Chicago as part of the Great Migration. 

The Urban League traces its roots to three groups — the Committee for the Improvement of Industrial Conditions Among Negroes in New York (founded in 1906), the National League for the Protection of Colored Women (founded 1906), and the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes (founded 1910) — that merged in 1911 to form the National League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes. By 1920, the national organization had assumed a shorter name: the National Urban League.

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In 1918, Eugene K. Jones began his decades-long leadership of the national organization and a major expansion of the Urban League’s efforts to break employment barriers for African-Americans.

That same year, the White Plains Urban League, an affiliate of the national organization, was launched, housed in modest headquarters opposite the White Plains train station with a staff of two. Decades later, the organization expanded to the rest of the county as the Urban League of Westchester County, Inc. (ULW).

From the 1920s through the 1940s, the mission of the Urban League movement, nationally and locally, was “to enable African-Americans to secure economic self-reliance, parity, power, and civil rights.” The ULW’s 1952 Annual Report outlines the need “for increasing cooperative and understanding relationships between white and Negro Americans” and defines its “working philosophy” as follows: “Let us work not as colored people nor as white people for the narrow benefit of any group alone, but together as American citizens for the common good of our common community.” 

Focusing on securing nondiscriminatory housing and employment for African-Americans locally was a priority from the start. “In July of 1952, Mary T. was hired as a bookkeeper by a large Westchester bank,” according to the 1952 Annual Report, citing the accomplishments of the League’s Industrial Relations Department. “A fairly routine story? It might be, yes, were it not for the fact that Mary was the first Negro to obtain a ‘white collar’ job in any bank in the county.” 

The 1960s were a heady, activist time for the National Urban League and its community affiliates, including Westchester. As national president from 1961 to 1971, Whitney M. Young Jr. encouraged the group to be one of the strongest forces in the American civil-rights struggle.

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Throughout the 1960s, ULW initiated countywide voter registration drives, “aided by research grants and by the enthusiastic cooperation of its volunteers, who range from high school age up,” according to a 1968 article in The Herald Statesman, the former Yonkers daily paper that is now part of Gannett’s The Journal News. In 1964, the National Urban League adopted the ULW project, which also included registration services ranging from transportation and babysitting to assistance in completing forms, as a model for its national campaign.

In 1964 alone, ULW’s countywide voter-registration efforts yielded 14,000 African-American registrations, “an increase of more than 100%,” the organization reported. That same year, a full-time education director was added to the local staff, and approximately 200 job applicants were placed in positions throughout Westchester.

A 1964 ULW luncheon, including Rodman Rockefeller (standing), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (seated right), and Jackie Robinson (seated left).

The Herald Statesman also highlighted the local group’s responsibility for other important community projects, including the White Plains Neighborhood Youth Corps and the Yonkers Multi-service Center at four sites in Yonkers in 1968. Its Economic Development and Employment Department provided on-the-job training, small-business development, special industrial training, and summer-job programs. Similarly, a 50th-anniversary article in 1968 in The Daily News of Tarrytown (also now part of The Journal News) cited the Urban League’s sponsorship of the Yonkers Street Academy, “designed to reclaim drop-outs.”

In the early 1960s, the Urban League’s Teacher Recruitment Committee was able to place 29 African-American teachers, 24 of whom had a master’s degree or graduate credits, in 17 Westchester districts for the 1962-1963 academic year, followed by another 21 African-American teachers placed in 14 Westchester districts in 1964, noting, “Four of these were the first Negro teachers in their districts.”

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Westchester has also played a strong hand in the National Urban League. In 1994, longtime New Rochelle resident Hugh Price became president and CEO of the national organization, serving until 2003. Price played a key role in reviving the National Urban League and making it a leading organization in social-justice activism. Price reoriented the National Urban League’s goals from primarily preparing rural African-Americans for urban life to three initiatives: education and youth-development programs, economic empowerment, and inclusionary programs.

Today, the Urban League of Westchester has a staff of 29 and a budget of more than $5 million, says Sorraya Sampson, president and CEO. “Our basic goals have not changed, just the efforts and the tools.

“We have expanded what was historically our target audience — African-Americans,” she adds. “We now serve everyone who is disadvantaged.”

Eons ago, Bill Cary majored in history at Duke University. These days, he writes about local history whenever he can.

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