The Urban League of St. Louis was organized in June of 1918, in response to the East St. Louis race riots of 1917, and has been affiliated with the National Urban League since 1937. The major objectives of the Urban League were to improve the socio-economic and cultural conditions of the Negro and to bring about better understanding and cooperation between Negro and white citizens. Since the Urban League was a professional social welfare agency concerned primarily with improving the living standard of Negro citizens in St. Louis, there was a natural tendency for the community to look to the League for any and all services required by Negroes.
During the League’s first ten years, the Negro population in St. Louis increased from 69,00 to 93,000. Many of these people were immigrants from the deep South. The League worked to meet their needs by:
• opening an employment placement service
• organizing evening adult education classes in public schools
• stimulating the Board of Education to introduce vocational education into Negro schools
• establishing a school for Negro handicapped children (Turner Branch School)
• building 5 new playgrounds for Negro children
• organizing neighborhood civic and social clubs
• cultural events, such as sponsoring exhibitions of the works of local Negro artists
• organizing and operating a day nursery for working mothers
Inflation in the late 1920s, combined with depression in the 1930s resulted in large scale unemployment (70% by 1933) in the Negro community. The Urban League sought to meet this new challenge by:
• founding, in 1932, the block unit movement. Block units were organized civic groups composed of people living on both sides of a street in a single block. The aim of the block units was to promote cooperative self-help efforts and sharing of common resources. By 1959, 389 such units had been organized, serving over 30,000 residents.
• sponsoring garden projects, whereby vacant land and garden seed were made available to the needy for growing food
• proving instruction in the canning of food, so that food grown could be stored.
• supporting action for low-cost housing projects for Negroes
• leading the fight for more community centers in Negro neighborhoods
• working for expansion of health care facilities for Negroes, an effort which culminated in the building of St. Mary’s infirmary and Homer G. Philips Hospital
• encouraging the milk and laundry industries and retail merchants to employ Negro drivers in Negro neighborhoods.
During the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Urban League sponsored and housed Work Projects Administration (WPA) programs in cooking, domestic service, literacy, conversational English, and art appreciation. During this period, the League succeeded in getting federal housing officials to require builders to use skilled Negro mechanics in the construction of government financed low-cost housing projects. The WPA issued a minimum living standard, and some defense planted accepted Negroes for limited upgraded employment. Many Negroes left WPA to return to traditional “Negro jobs” which they had lost to whites during the Depression and which white were now leaving to take better paying jobs in defense industries.
When World War II ended, defense industries shut down or re-tooled for a peacetime market, while an estimated 33% of the Negro labor force was out of work. The League provided special counseling services to returning Negro veterans who sought aid under the G.I. Bill. Block units in the city’s worst slums were organized and a voluntary Mayor’s Race Relations Commission was set up. After the war, St. Louis University, along with Catholic elementary and secondary schools, dropped racial segregation. In the late 1940s Washington University desegregated its schools of medicine and social work, and by 1952 all departments of the university were open to Negroes.
During the 1950s, eighteen civic, fraternal, social welfare, religious, and women’s organizations asked the Missouri State Legislature to pass a Fair Employment law and outlaw public school segregation. The Urban League led successful efforts to end discrimination in city parks an playgrounds. Prior to the integration of St. Louis’s public schools in 1955, the League carried out a comprehensive program of counseling to 7th and 8th grade students, in order to help in their adjustment to an integrated environment.
In the 1960s, federal funding from President Johnson’s “Great Society” programs resulted in 11 new programs in areas ranging from housing for the elderly to family planning. Much of this funding was cut off by the Reagan administration. Today 1/3 of the League’s budget comes from Civic Progress, Incorporated; another third comes from the government, and the rest from the United Way and member dues.
Since 1985, the Urban League has been led by James Buford, Executive Director.
M. Leo Bohanon, “ The Urban League of St. Louis, Inc.: An Appraisal of Forty Years of Service” (February 1959)
Patricia Rice, “The Urban League: A Broker for Help” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 25, 1993
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This material was placed with the University Archives by the Urban League of St. Louis in 1971 and 1978.
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Scope and Contents: This collection documents the work of the Urban League of St. Louis to meet the needs of the city's African American population. Of particular note are the files of the executive directors of the League, as well as files from the League's many projects and programs.