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Urban League

Urban League





The National Urban League is a Progressive Era organization formed in New York City in 1911. It grew out of the cooperative efforts of black and white social reformers, who founded the organization and its precursors to confront the economic and social problems of African Americans, particularly those in the nation’s northern cities. Many observers have noted that the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) essentially divided up the task of advancing the interests of African Americans, with the NAACP fighting for legal rights and the Urban League focusing on providing blacks with a stake in the American economy. Colloquially, the Urban League was often called the “State Department” of African-American affairs, while the NAACP was known as the “War Department.”


The Urban League emerged as a response to the lack of economic opportunity for African-American men in U.S. cities. New York City became the focal point for this effort because it had the largest population of African Americans of any city outside of the South. During the first decade of the twentieth century, the city’s black population increased by 50 percent, and by 1910 there were about 75,000 blacks living there. This pattern of growth in the black population would be repeated in New York and other major cities as well during the Great Migration of the 1910s and 1920s. By 1930, for example, the black population of Harlem, New York, had grown to 165,000. In Chicago, the black population grew from 44,000 in 1910 to 110,000 in 1920. Cities such as Cleveland and Detroit saw similar growth rates. Most of those moving to these northern cities came in search of economic opportunity and to try to escape the blatant and legal racism of the Jim Crow South. With the growth of the black population in these cities, the Urban League grew to twenty-seven affiliates by 1919, all but one (in St. Louis, Missouri) east of the Mississippi River. While most were in the Northeast industrial corridor, a few appeared in cities in the South, such as Atlanta. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Urban League has 115 affiliates in thirty-four states and the District of Columbia, with 50,000 members and an annual budget of $45 million.

One of the major problems this burgeoning black population experienced was a lack of jobs, particularly in the professions and the industrial sector. Black men were often unable to find work because they lacked job training and skills, and because of entrenched discrimination in the labor force. Because they were unable to find work, their wives were often forced into the labor market, for women were able to find employment in domestic service and similar sectors. During this period it is estimated that 59 percent of black women in New York held jobs outside the home (in contrast to white women, whose labor participation rate was 24.6 percent, and foreign-born women at 27.2 percent). Additionally, blacks had the lowest percentage of home ownership of any U.S. city with a black population of 2,500 or more, a death rate one and a half times that of whites, and an illiteracy rate twelve times that of whites (Weiss 1974, p. 12). Meanwhile, the increased mechanization of labor often forced black men out of those jobs they were able to secure, while the labor unions, eager to protect the jobs of white men against both blacks and new waves of foreign immigrants, remained resistant to admitting African-American members.


The Urban League was formed from the consolidation of a number of organizations, including the Committee for Improving the Industrial Condition of Negroes in New York (CIICN), founded in 1906; the National League for the Protection of Colored Women (NLPCW), formed in 1905; and the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes, formed in 1910. The chief goals of the CIICN, reflecting the ideology of Booker T. Washington, were to provide blacks with industrial and commercial training and then provide them access to jobs. For instance, it persuaded the New York Board of Education to offer evening programs in vocational education in black neighborhoods.

The NLPCW, with chapters in New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., was particularly concerned about the large proportion of black women in domestic service—in New York City, some 90 percent of working black women—who typically labored long hours for low and sometimes uncertain pay. Many of these women had been lured North by unscrupulous labor agents in the South, who preyed on them by offering them hopes of prosperity that almost always went unfulfilled. They arrived in the cities with no place to stay, no money, and no job. Members of the NLPCW met these women at train stations, provided them with lodging, and developed a network of social agencies that provided them with help and information.

Although the Urban League was formally founded in 1911, its members often trace its founding to 1910 and the formation of the Committee on Urban Conditions, the Urban League’s most immediate precursor. That year, the leaders of the three leading organizations met with the goal of joining forces and consolidating their efforts. After some initial resistance from the Committee on Urban Conditions, the organizations agreed to join, and on October 16, 1911, the National League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes was born. The organization took its current name, the National Urban League, in 1920. The NLPCW and the Committee on Urban Conditions remained as standing subagencies of the Urban League.

The principal goals of the Urban League were to provide employment opportunities in the private sector, break down the color line in organized labor, and promote vocational and occupational education. For the first two decades of its existence, its focus remained primarily on the private sector. The organization struggled financially, and not all of its programs, such as scholarships for undergraduates to study social work at black colleges, were entirely successful. The league did, however, succeed in persuading colleges and universities to include economics, sociology, and urban studies in their curricula, and it was able to place a large number of black social workers in social service agencies. Additionally, the league promoted such welfare services as charitable agencies, settlement houses, and immigrant-aid societies. It also promoted such values as proper dress, sanitation, personal hygiene, health, punctuality, and homemaking skills, and it sponsored summer camps, daycare centers, kindergartens, community centers, and the like.

Reliable data about the number of job placements attributable to the Urban League are hard to find. Some African-American men obtained industrial jobs because of labor shortages during World War I, while others obtained jobs without the help of the Urban League. Nevertheless, the organization did succeed in finding decent jobs for thousands of workers, particularly during the boom years of the 1920s. It was also successful in opening up industrial plants that had previously been closed to African Americans. The organization claimed, for example, to have placed some 15,000 workers in Chicago in 1920. In connection with these efforts, the league stressed the scientific investigation of the conditions of urban blacks, much of it reported in its journal, Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life, which was published from 1923 until 1949. This focus on investigation has continued in the league’s current flagship publication, Opportunity Journal; an annual report titled The State of Black America, published since 1976; and the organization’s twenty-year retrospective volumes, the last published in 1990.


With the coming of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the Urban League turned more of its attention to the public sector. It sought to have blacks included in the federal recovery and relief programs of the New Deal. By the 1940s and 1950s it was successfully attacking segregation in the defense industries and the military, though its primary mission remained education rather than civil rights. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, however, led to calls for a change in the Urban League’s mission. Under the leadership of Whitney Young, the league shifted its focus to civil rights and played an integral part in organizing the 1963 March on Washington and the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. The league called for a domestic “Marshall Plan” (the plan for financing the reconstruction of Europe after World War II), and it sponsored voter registration drives, help for black veterans, open-housing campaigns, adoption programs for hard-to-place black children, and similar projects. Young also initiated such programs as the Street Academy, which helped prepare high school dropouts for college, and New Thrust, a program that developed the leadership skills of urban blacks with a view to identifying and solving urban social problems.

This emphasis on a more activist approach continued into the 1970s, under the leadership of Vernon Jordan, and beyond. In the 1970s the federal government contracted with the Urban League to provide social welfare programs and government employment. The organization continues to work closely with Congress and other federal agencies to address such social problems as poverty, failing schools, teenage pregnancy, crime, gun violence, and households headed by single women. Affiliated organizations such as the Urban League of Young Professionals of Pittsburgh tap the leadership skills of African-American professionals to solve urban problems.

SEE ALSO Civil Rights Movement; Labor Market; NAACP; Poverty; Social Problems; Washington, Booker T.


Hamilton, Charles V. 1976. The Struggle for Political Equality. New York: National Urban League.

Moore, Jesse Thomas, Jr. 1981. A Search for Equality: the National Urban League, 1910–1961. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Parris, Guichard, and Lester Brooks. 1971. Blacks in the City: A History of the National Urban League. Boston: Little Brown.

Weiss, Nancy J. 1974. The National Urban League: 1910–1960. New York: Oxford University Press.

Michael J. O’Neal

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