The Urban League is the nation’s oldest and largest community-based movement devoted to empowering those who struggle to enter the economic and social mainstream. Founded in 1910, the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization is spearheaded by the National Urban League, headquartered in New York City. It’s the central link to professionally staffed Urban League affiliates in more than 100 cities in 34 states and the District of Columbia.
Springfield, Illinois, the nationally recognized home of Abraham Lincoln, has historically been a city of divided sentiments, predominantly southern. A smoldering atmosphere of mistrust and intolerance burst into flames during the riots it experienced in 1908. One of the few positive outgrowths of that riot was that it inspired a few influential people of the city to do something, not so much “for” people of color of that time, but “in cooperation with” them.
In July 1925, the Springfield Council of Social Agencies set aside $5,500 earmarked to “do some sort of social work among the Negroes.” In order to ascertain just what needed to be done, the late Dr. Charles S. Jones, Research Director of the National Urban League, and later President of Fisk University, were asked to conduct a survey. The purpose of said survey was to determine local conditions and to identify what needs should be addressed.
After the findings of the survey were submitted, an interracial committee was formed. This committee was informed that the primary finding of the survey was that there was a lack of a central coordinating agency through which the social and economic life of African-Americans in Springfield could find expression. The committee transformed themselves into a Board of Directors and on September 9, 1926, the Springfield Urban League assumed residence in a small cottage located at 1610 East Jackson.
Prior to 1934, many of the programs of the League were recreational in nature. With the onslaught of the Depression, however, things changed. Many of the hotels in Springfield began dismissing African-American employees in order to replace them with White persons in need of work. The Springfield Urban League responded to this trend by taking a much more active role in employment-generating activities for displaced workers.
In 1942, the Springfield Urban League turned its attention to the war effort and the problems connected with industrial conversion. Conferences were conducted with Personnel Directors of several firms, the Chamber of Commerce and State of Illinois officials. The meetings resulted in many employment opportunities being made available by two major industrial employers and one hotel. In addition, the League cooperated with the USO headquarters and many soldiers from Camp Ellis in Lewistown, Illinois, came to Springfield and were able to use the facilities of the League.
During the late forties through early fifties, the League forayed into new areas. In cooperation with the Welfare Council of Sangamon County, the League sponsored its first institute for training new persons for Board membership. In 1952, a space formerly used for gardens was donated to the East End Neighborhood Recreation Committee for use as a place for young persons to play baseball. The League also established a scholarship program in honor of Reverend G.B. Winston, its Executive Secretary.
In the sixties, the League instituted a Labor-Management Conference, generating employment opportunities for many clients. The League also sponsored its first tutorial program for fourth, fifth and sixth grade students and sponsored a Career Day for students from junior and senior high schools.
During the seventies and eighties, the League continued to focus on increasing its programs and expanding its impact. By the mid-nineties, the League's programs met the nutritional needs of infants as well as those of senior citizens who needed assistance completing tax forms.
The needs of the community were assessed through a comprehensive study, "Achieving the Dream." The results of the study led to the development of a separate organization, the Community Development Corporation, whose goal is to build and renovate housing on the city's east side.
The League continues to focus on economic development, workforce training, education, health care, and advocacy.