In 1910, more than four decades after the abolition of slavery in the U.S., numerous American cities established local ordinances to segregate neighborhoods, from Baltimore to Dallas, Norfolk to St. Louis. The two-year-old NAACP published its first issue of the monthly rights-focused magazine, The Crisis, and named W.E.B. Du Bois its editor in chief. African-Americans made up ten percent of the U.S. population, and they were on the move, mostly northward, in search of work and new homes.
Enter the National Urban League, established in 1910 to help African-Americans in New York City find jobs and housing resources in the face of discrimination, and help the southern-born assimilate into urban life. Its predecessors were The National League for the Protection of Colored Women, The Committee for Improving the Industrial Conditions for Negroes in New York, and the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes in New York, each of which was focused on similar work, housing and other social service goals.
The more things change, the more things stay the same, and nine decades later, native Wilmingtonians still needed a level of support black migrants reaching New York in 1910 did. So, in 1999, some citizens of Wilmington, including founding president James H. Gilliam, Sr., established a local affiliate of the Urban League.
The Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League’s mission is to empower people of color to achieve economic self-reliance, parity, power, and civil rights. Yet, standing apart from many of its sister chapters, MWUL constructively diverges from the standard of direct services to citizens. MWUL does work with existing service providers but mainly focuses on developing leadership from within the community and working toward legislative solutions to inequity, which includes research and providing relevant data to lawmakers.
Since its founding, MWUL has seen some of Delaware’s best talent take the helm. Board and staff leadership has included Patrice Gilliam-Johnson, Governor Jack Markell, Mayor James Baker, Tony Allen, and Lisa Blunt Rochester, Delaware’s United States Representative. Eugene Young was tapped as President in 2017, shortly after an electrifying near-miss in Wilmington’s mayoral election.
It was a no-brainer for MWUL put its faith in Young, with his recent history of advocacy work for the Delaware Center for Justice, service to the Delaware legislature and election support for New Jersey Senator Cory Booker when he was the mayor of Newark. Having founded two nonprofits, Network Delaware (a statewide grassroots coalition with a mission to activate change agents) and Delaware Elite (a nonprofit he co-founded to support student-athletes in becoming successful in college), Young demonstrated a passion for elevating people who show interest and potential as leaders.
As one of roughly 90 Urban League affiliates, MWUL is tied to a membership structure that can support both traditional Urban League direct services work as well as MWUL’s particular focus. Each affiliate has two auxiliaries: a Young Professionals group, people ages 40 and younger, and a Guild, people over 40. Each helps the organization through fundraising, but each also holds volunteer events to get people energized and engaged.
While it has not been uncommon for MWUL to drive or partner in social and networking events for young professionals, host school board candidates forums, offer scholarships and arrange community cleanups and toy drives, and its Lions and Legends keynote event and awards ceremony (this year planned for April 4) is a longstanding annual tradition, under Young’s tenure, the focus has been on creating leaders and advocating against inequity.
Young says, “I feel like the Urban League’s role in our state is to focus on a lot of the upstream issues that lead to the downstream problems. Oftentimes in a state where we have so many nonprofits, it goes back to the analogy that the family is coming down the river and the nonprofits jump in to save them, but we have to figure out why they are coming down the river in the first place.”
Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League is participating in Delaware’s Giving Day: Do More 24 Delaware on March 5th and 6th, an initiative from United Way of Delaware and Spur Impact, designed to INspire residents of the First State to get INvolved with their local nonprofits! Like what you read here? Consider supporting MWUL during this 24-hour giving period.
Other participating organizations are IN the Spotlight over on our blog! Get the full list here.