The early years of the Boston Urban League, now known as Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts (ULEM), and the National Urban League meant fighting for the rights of African Americans and demanding opportunities.
The Early Years.
Jones was aided by a group of concerned citizens led by local activist Butler Wilson, who also helped found the Boston branch of the NAACP. He went on to head the National Urban League for more than 20 years and became one of the seven founders of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate fraternity created by African Americans.
Robert Treat Paine, the first Board Chairman for the Boston Urban League, was a well-known philanthropist and descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Early funding for the League was provided by John F. Moors, co-founder of Moors & Cabot, now a major investment firm in Boston.
In 1919, the Boston Urban League began its affiliation with the National Urban League (NUL), the nation’s largest community-based organization providing direct service, advocacy, and research on behalf of African Americans and other individuals of color.
NUL was formed in New York City in 1910 as a result of the historic migration of African Americans from rural South to Northern cities. This massive relocation was triggered by the 1896 US Supreme Court decision, Plessy vs. Ferguson, sanctioning the doctrine “separate but equal.”
Millions of Blacks headed north to escape brutal economic, social, and political conditions in the segregated South. However, limited training made it challenging for migrants, as well as Caribbean immigrants relocating to cities like Boston, to find jobs and quality housing. While the NAACP worked to end racial discrimination through the legal system, the League focused on securing housing, jobs, and health care.
Matthew Washington Bullock, the Boston Urban League’s first director, led the League through the early 1920s, a time of political backlash and violence against Blacks. “One of the leading colored Republicans of the city” is how the Boston Globe described him. He campaigned against the Ku Klux Klan as it spread in the wake of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film, “Birth of a Nation,” which glamorized the KKK. Bullock ran for Massachusetts State Representative while heading the League and filed a bill to fine or imprison anyone who joined the white supremacy group.
The League lobbied on behalf of Bostonians in need of work. Negotiations with employers led to 800 jobs for Blacks in 1926 and 1,157 in 1927, a substantial increase in employment for a minority population of nearly 16,000.
Most blacks lived in the South End which had high rates of tuberculosis, the major cause of death in the 1920s. The League pressured City Hall for sanitation improvements that, as the Boston Globe reported, “noticeably lessened the prevalence of sickness.”
Matthew Washington BullockThe Great Depression.
First director of the Boston Urban League (in his younger years).
Rates of unemployment in the South End and Roxbury rose 15 to 18% during the Depression. As NUL lobbied for federal assistance, George Goodman, the Boston Urban League President from 1929, applied pressure locally and worked with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and National Youth Administration to place workers in jobs.
Protests over job discrimination increased during World War II. In Boston, African Americans boycotted stores while labor leader A. Philip Randolph pushed the Federal government to open munitions plants to Black workers.
When Randolph threatened to organize a march on Washington by unemployed Blacks, President Roosevelt signed an executive order banning discrimination in munitions plants. In 1942, the League and NAACP placed the first Black in the Raytheon plant in Newton.
Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West, who grew up in the South End, captured the struggles of African American newcomers in a story called The Typewriter, which launched her career and won a prize from the National Urban League’s magazine Opportunity.
As the War ended, the League in Boston scored breakthroughs for women. Negotiations with department stores that only employed Black women as elevator operators, opened doors that led to better paying positions, from sales to management. Cynthia Belgrave, first African American hired as a clerk by a downtown store, paved the way for hundred of others to be hired and rise through the ranks.
The Protest Years.
Under Whitney Young’s leadership, NUL took a new, more aggressive stance. Raising its voice for change at the height of the civil rights struggle, NUL took its rightful place with key leaders, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They hosted meetings with A. Philip Randolph, Dr. King, and other civil rights leaders to plan the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Young addressed an unprecedented gathering of 250,000 protesters at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963.
The spirit of change also inspired a more activist League in Boston under the leadership of Mel King, who later became the city’s first Black mayoral candidate. Grassroots organizers helped tenants fight urban renewal, supported a new generation of Black political candidates, and worked with parents to desegregate Boston schools.
New Times, New Challenges.
In 1992, riots erupted in Los Angeles after Black motorist Rodney King was beaten by White police officers. Unrest spread to other cities, leading ULEM to draft a list of demands the Boston Herald called “the battle cry of a community determined to avoid the carnage in Los Angeles.” By giving the community a voice, ULEM helped Boston through one of the most challenging episodes in modern American history.
Looking to the Future.
Despite impressive gains, grave challenges remain, especially in education, training, and employment for people of color. While many financial and professional services are expanding, factory jobs continue their decades-long decline.
Guided by a new strategic plan, the League is responding with a deepened commitment to education and training for people of all ages and backgrounds. ULEM’s leading edge technology, workforce development and education program continues to advocate for such issues as social justice and neighborhood development.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino appointed the League’s 21st president, Darnell L. Williams, as chair of the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee to help develop 16 acres of land on seven key parcels. ULEM also is preparing to expand its own offices with new construction that will accommodate additional programs and services for clients.