By Brittany Burkhalter, Lynette Perez, Joe Rygula, and Vince Rygula


Four years after the National Urban League was established, expansion became a priority and the Chicago Urban League was established. Chicago had a rising African-American population and expansion to the Midwest was important for the organization. From 1914 to 1918 the war in Europe had caused a significant change in industrial relations in Chicago. Due to the war, there was a large labor shortage of immigrants. This caused Negro migrants from the south to move up north toward Chicago causing racial tensions and industrial problems. These issues propelled the League’s organization, and many believed they only needed financial support to make a righteous contribution to Chicago’s growing black community.

The national League’s first step was not to attract a large public crowd, but to establish a group of leaders that would organize the Chicago Urban League. Eugene Kinckle Jones and L. Hollingsworth Wood of the National Urban League took initiative in the beginning stages of the league. They held and attended meetings with individual supporters throughout 1916 to spark interest. Another early supporter of the league was Robert S. Abbott of the Chicago Defender. He used his news columns to support the league and its interests. His columns brought publicity to the League idea. Though there were important supporters it took a whole year for there to be enough to propose a recognized organization by Chicago. On December 11, 1916, a large group met to start the organization process. The first order of business to get the organization running was funding for the first year’s activities. They needed to raise $3,000. A man by the name of T. Arnold Hill was in charge of raising the first year’s budget. He did this by reaching out to supporters and reaching out further for more supporters. A large $1,000 contribution from Julian Rosenwald made the first year’s budget possible. In total, the League received $3,131.60 in contributions and membership’s fees. Of those contributions and membership fees, $2,811.45 was from 57 white members and friends. These were the beginning stages of the formation of the Chicago Urban League. The idea may have seemed like just a distant hopeful wish, but with support of both the Negro and white community, the organization was made possible. Today the Chicago Urban League puts most efforts into the education, economic development and community empowerment of minorities and the least advantaged.

The first document looked at was a letter sent to the editors of all the Chicago newspapers in hopes of gaining support for a fundraiser that the Chicago Urban League was putting on for their employment and education programs. They were going to host a football game of Soldier Field and hoped that they could gain money to help fund their programs.  This activity connects to several themes from American Catholic history. For many immigrant Catholics, athletics, particularly college athletics, became an avenue for a greater integration in American culture. Recruiting African Americans in the 1960s and 1970s, however, the Chicago Urban League’s activities also connect to ongoing debates within the Catholic Church over African American leadership. Rev. George H. Clements came out with a “list of dreams” and one dreams of his was “A Church where there is no thought of closing inner-city, black Catholic schools because of money, while allowing suburban [sic] white Catholic schools to flourish.” From this perspective, Chicago’s black Catholics would have supported the League’s efforts.

The second document that was looked at was the “T.W.O Youth Project” papers. These papers are a specific set of goals that the Chicago Urban League had set aside for the educational program in hopes of making their youths’ more eligible for employee opportunities when they had reached the minimum age. Their hopes were that the young African Americans would continue their education and go onto college, where they had set aside a tuition plan for those who did. This emphasis on education also connects to the unfolding developments of Catholic Chicago during this era. The Archdiocese of Chicago was renowned for its success in converting black Southerners to Catholicism through admitting children to Catholic schools. The Archdiocese’s emphasis on education was so central that many called these efforts the “Chicago Plan,” and the Chicago Urban League’s efforts reveals the centrality of education to the African American experience.

The third and final document that was looked at was a list of referrals for blacks trying to make their way into the working world of Chicago. The Chicago Urban League was dedicated to making sure that the Blacks of Chicago could find jobs and would help them in the process. The list features 27 Blacks being referred to different companies and of those 27, eight were hired, four were too young, four weren’t hired due to the job already being filled, three were still pending, five did not show up and two were not referred. Like the previous two documents, the Civil Rights movement was still going on at the time period, thus making it hard for African Americans to find jobs in America in the south so when they started migrating to Chicago there were several African Americans looking for jobs. Although, the Catholics were supportive of the Black joining the church and agreed with equality knowing how it feels, they probably did not like that jobs were being taken away from them in order for African Americans could have jobs too. The Catholics were still debating over contraception in their faith and what counted as contraception that they probably did not have time to notice that the Chicago Urban League was pushing for my African Americans to get jobs in the city of Chicago.

The Chicago Urban League worked hard to ensure that African Americans settling all across Chicago had the same opportunities as the whites and other races did. While during the time that these three documents were produced, the Civil Rights movement was occurring, the Chicago Urban League worked just as hard to educate the young Blacks while trying to provide housing and jobs for the older generation Blacks by doing fundraisers and providing schooling for them.

Further Reading:

Arvah E. Strickland, History of the Chicago Urban League (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1966).