The URBAN LEAGUE OF GREATER CLEVELAND, an interracial organization incorporated on 17 Dec. 1917 as the Negro Welfare Association of Cleveland, confronts racial barriers to economic opportunities. It has supplemented its early focus on employment with an emphasis on housing, education, and research. The organization was created at the behest of the WELFARE FEDERATION OF CLEVELAND to aid the adjustment of African American workers coming to Cleveland during the Great Migration after WORLD WAR I, intended as a buffer to absorb the culture shock resulting from this move, and to fill a gap in services. WILLIAM R. CONNERS, the group's first executive secretary, directed it from 1917 until his retirement in 1940. The organization worked to acclimate the new arrivals to the city and the factory, to gain acceptance for AFRICAN AMERICANS among employers, and to help newcomers find housing. Already by the 1930s, improved housing was a primary goal of the association. Affiliated with the National Urban League (NUL) since 1930, the Negro Welfare Association changed its name to the Urban League of Cleveland in 1940. During WORLD WAR II the organization concentrated on labor relations, and local employers looked to the league for qualified workers. After the war, the group emphasized vocational counseling for youth.

In the 1950s the league appealed directly for racial harmony through conferences and community planning. It concentrated on housing and on opening public contact jobs to blacks, in such places as department stores and banks. Although considered a conservative body, the league participated in Operation Black Unity, the 1960s boycott against McDonald's restaurants to protest blocks to African American franchise ownership. It set up a skills bank with the cooperation of the U.S. Department of Labor, organized Operation Equality (1966-75) to facilitate residential integration (see FAIR HOUSING PROGRAMS), and worked for fair housing laws. The league also opened a street academy for youth disaffected with public education. The Urban League sponsored the Annual Conference on the African American Family and in 1995 implemented a Job Readiness Lab in cooperation with CUYAHOGA METROPOLITAN HOUSING AUTHORITY. In 1995, with offices at 1255 Euclid Ave., the Urban League offered programs in the areas of education, employment, business development, elderly services, and housing. Membership stood at 230.

The Urban League of Greater Cleveland worked to advance economic prosperity, social inclusion, and equal employment opportunities for minorities by providing a broad range of programs, including job and personal-finance training, employment services, small-business development, student tours to historically black colleges, and GED and computer training. It also hosted the annual Equal Opportunity Day Luncheon, bringing together Cleveland's business professionals and community leaders, and honored prominent local figures with the Whitney M. Young Humanitarian Award. In 2008, the Cleveland chapter received a $400,000 grant from AT&T Inc. to support its Project Ready Program which provided services aimed at keeping youngsters in school, helping them prepare for college and the workforce, and sponsoring corporate job-shadowing.

The Urban League of Greater Cleveland announced that it would close its doors on May 29, 2009 owing to a debt burden and declining annual revenues. The purchase of the agency's $1.7 million headquarters on Prospect Avenue in 2001 had plunged the organization into debt since its capital campaign raised only $660,000 of the purchase price. Also, the revenue sources the agency had relied on for many years, both governmental and private, slowly diminished or disappeared. The NUL intervened to keep the offices of the local chapter open with a reduced staff, while working to secure the necessary financial resources to stabilize operations. A reorganization plan drawn by the national office in cooperation with local leaders to place the venerable agency on a more sound economic footing was approved by the league's board of trustees in August 2009. As a smaller, more focused social agency, the Urban League of Greater Cleveland pursued youth and education programs with solid funding, such as tutoring and mentoring, and relinquished its work in job training and job creation to other local organizations. The Small Business Development Center, a one-stop site for business assistance directed at owners and would-be owners, relocated to the Corporate College East in WARRENSVILLE HEIGHTS and the Rising Tide fatherhood initiative, a pre-employment program offering training, networking, and job leads to unemployed men, was picked up by CUYAHOGA COUNTY.

Marsha Mockabee became the executive director of the Urban League of Greater Cleveland in  2009 and under her leadership the organization celebrated its centennial anniversary in 2017. Since liquidating its debt the Urban League of Greater Cleveland has continued meeting the needs of its constituents with a focus on education and youth development; workforce development; and within the last decade, has launched innovative programs in the area of entrepreneurship, such as the Capital Access Fund. Representing a partnership between the Urban League of Greater Cleveland, Morgan Stanley, and Cuyahoga County, the Fund has given minority business owners access to over $8 million in loans, with the goal of creating a minimum of 300 jobs in three years. According to Mockabee, "Access to capital for minority businesses is not working. We've been looking at the system. How do we address system change that needs to happen?"

Updated by Leonard Moore

Black, white and red text reading Western Reserve Historical Society

View image in Digital Cleveland Starts Here®

Finding aid for the Urban League of Cleveland Records, Series I, WRHS.

Finding aid for the Urban League of Cleveland Records, Series II, WRHS.

Article Categories