Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle

  • By Mary T. Henry
  • Posted 1/29/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8470

The Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, formerly the Seattle Urban League, is a community-based social service organization dedicated to improving the lives of African Americans, other people of color, and the poor.  Its programs and services have focused on housing, education, employment, and health and welfare. Most of its financial support is from the United Way of King County with additional funds from membership dues, contributions, government and private sources.  It is one of 102 affiliates of the National Urban League located in 35 states and the District of Columbia.  The national organization was founded in New York in 1910, and its first president and co-founder, Ruth Standish Baldwin, set the tone of the  organization in her statement “Let us work not as colored people nor as white people for the narrow benefit of any group alone ... but together as American citizens for the common good of our common city, our common country.”  Traditionally the boards of the League affiliates have been interracial.

Highlights from the Past

The Seattle Urban League was established in 1929, and incorporated in 1936.  It started in a one-room office in the Mission Building at 919 3rd Avenue with an all-volunteer staff.

Joseph S. Jackson served as director from 1930 until 1938 and took on as his first challenge finding employment opportunities for black workers.  He made significant headway through communication with the Civic Auditorium, Puget Sound Power & Light Company, and the Mayor’s office.   Through the years the Urban League has initiated creative programs to address discrimination in housing, employment and education and has joined hands with government and private agencies to promote racial equality.   
1940s through 1950s
In 1947 the black population expanded from 3,749 in 1940, to 15,000 in 1947, due to employment opportunities in the World War II industries.  After the war industries were reduced in force and  there was significant unemployment.  The league focused on other job opportunities by making visits to employers and  to authorized representatives of  unions.  They helped some employers take the first step in hiring black people. 

By the mid 1950s housing became a most serious problem with areas north of Lake Union to the city limits still closed to non-whites and black people confined to the Central Area.  The Seattle Public Schools were faced with de facto segregation with some schools having more than 79 percent non-white students.  “Where discrimination was flagrant the Urban League attacked the problem working with employers, unions, department stores, hotels, motels trailer camps, government agencies, public school system, churches, cemeteries, real estate agents, banks, community clubs, social agencies and institutions of higher learning” (SUL Annual Report 1958).
1960s through 1970s

During these years, housing and education continued to be problems and the civil rights movement was in full force. The league worked with the Seattle Public Schools to achieve the voluntary racial transfer in 1963, and  in 1964 introduced, the “Triad Plan,” a proposal for reorganization of the schools that served as the basis for the school district’s program to desegregate middle schools in the late 1960s. 

The league also assisted in the election of the 16-member board of the Central Area School Council in 1969, through a grant from the national office.  In 1967,  Operation Equality was launched with financial assistance from the Ford Foundation to bring together property owners who would rent or sell to anyone on an equal basis and those members of minority groups who were seeking housing outside the Central Area.  The rise of black militancy prompted the league to raise its profile in the minority community and in 1973, it moved its offices from the Smith Tower in downtown Seattle into the old St. George Hotel at 14th Avenue and Yesler Way. 

Legacy of Edwin T. Pratt

Edwin T. Pratt (1930-1969), the executive director from 1961 until 1969, was shot and killed in his home in Shoreline in January 1969, by an unknown assailant.  Judge Charles V. Johnson (b. 1928) and his wife Lazelle were close friends of the Pratts and were among the first to arrive at the home to support Pratt’s wife Betty.  His death was a shock to the city because his was a calm and reasonable voice in the midst of the civil rights movement.

Pratt was a strong supporter of integration and his efforts had been successful in eliminating some racial barriers in housing and education.  He had served on the influential Central Area Civil Rights Committee composed of the leaders from the NAACP and CORE.  After his death the Urban League requested that the park at 17th and Yesler be named in his honor.  The art center located in the old Wonder Bread Bakery was named the Edwin T. Pratt Fine Art Center. 

The League renamed its annual award the Edwin T. Pratt Award in recognition of  contributions to furthering equal opportunity.  Recipients of the award have included, Judge Charles Johnson, Dr. Blanche Lavizzo, Dorothy Hollingsworth, Judge Charles Z. Smith, Bob Watt, Pat Wright, Rev. Samuel McKinney (b. 1926), Norm Rice (b. 1943), Dr. Charles Odegaard, and Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000).  In 1970, the Education Department began offering the Edwin T. Pratt Scholarship in an effort to encourage minority students to seek higher education.
1980s through 1990s
When R. Y. Woodhouse became the first female CEO of the league, holding this position for 14 years, she faced “the most hostile environment for the mission of the league” because of massive government funding cuts (McElroy).   Corporations and those in the political arena were encouraged  to assist. There was an increase in visibility of the league with the inauguration of programs addressing new needs in the community such as the rise of gang violence, single parents, and the incidence of AIDS.  

Among those programs were The Even Start Program, which provided parenting and literacy skills.  The MAN ( Members Against Negativity) and Safe Haven programs were designed to offer alternatives to gang involvement. The league also became part of The People of Color Against Aids network.  In 1991, the Seattle Urban League changed its name to the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle.  
2000 through  2008

The Contractor Development and Competitiveness Center was launched in 2002 with financial support from the City of Seattle. Its mission is “to empower minority, women, disadvantaged, and emerging small construction firms in becoming more competitive by improving their business operations skills and by providing access to contracts with private and public owners, developers, and prime contractors” (ULMS Newsletter, Fall 2005).  

In 2003 Colman School was purchased from the Seattle Public Schools for $800,000. 

Northwest African American Museum

It had been the dream of the African American community to have a heritage museum. A group began a sit-in 1985, when Colman School closed, to call attention to the need. Almost 20 years later the Urban League stepped in and bought the building for a Northwest African American Museum. 

Colman School and the family name had a direct link with the African American community. The school opened in 1910, and was named for James Murray Colman (1832-1906), a Seattle pioneer who operated the Yesler sawmill and built Colman Dock terminal for Washington State Ferries. It had been one of the seven Central Area schools designated by the Urban League as having a disproportionate number of minority students. 

Another Colman family member, Kenneth Burwell Colman (1896-1982) owned property at 23rd and East Olive streets, known as the Tennis Club, and which black people used for recreation. In 1936, they requested that the property be deeded to the YMCA, and the family consented. It is now the site of the Meredith Mathews East Madison YMCA. 

The museum opened in March 2008, with three galleries, a learning center, classrooms, and apartments. Carver Gayton (b. 1938), the museum’s first executive director, helped to secure key sources of  funding. Barbara Earl Thomas is the curator and Brian Carter is the education director.

Stormy Times

In January 2011 James Kelly stepped down as president and chief executive citing personal and health concerns. Tony Benjamin then took over the reins of the organization as chief executive but left April 2011, and Kelly returned in July 2011 to serve in a temporary capacity. He returned to an organization under fire for alleged financial irregularities.

In February 2011 an audit report on Seattle Public Schools revealed improper activity in its small-business contracting program. The Urban League was the single largest recipient of  $1.8 million in scrutinized contracts, having received nearly $600,000 that was subsequently labeled as a "questionable use of public funds" by the auditors. Although its leaders insist the organization had done nothing wrong, additional contracts with the school district were cancelled.

The scandal has plunged the Urban League in a financial crisis (July 2011). There is new management with a transition board working on a turnaround plan partly under the direction of the National Urban League, and veteran leader Kelly will assist in helping the organization find a new permanent chief executive. 

Urban League Executives 1930-2008

  • Joseph S. Jackson 1930-1938
  • Bernard E. Squires 1939-1943
  • Dean E. Hart 1943-1947
  • Napoleon P. Dotson 1947-1950
  • Lewis G. Watts 1950-1961
  • Edwin T. Pratt 1961-1969
  • Jerome Page 1969-1981
  • Spruiell D. White 1981-1984
  • R. Y. Woodhouse 1984-1998
  • Ahndrea Blue (interim) 1998-1999
  • James A. Kelly 1999-January 2011
  • Tony Benjamin January 2011-April 2011
  • July 2011 James A. Kelly returns as interim leader.

Urban League Headquarters, 1931-2008

  • 201 Mission Building, 919 3rd Avenue, 1931
  • 326 Railway Exchange Building, 619 2nd Avenue, 1933
  • 421 E Pine Street, 1948
  • 605 Lowman Building, 107 Cherry Street, 1959
  • 1620 Smith Tower, 506 2nd Avenue, 1960
  • 1709 Seattle Tower 1218 3rd Avenue, 1973
  • 105 14th Avenue, 1974

Sources: Jack Broom, “Home with Old-School Charm,” The Seattle Times, January 11, 2008; Jack Broom, “Dreams of Museum Wouldn’t Die,” Ibid., January 20, 2008; Mary Henry, Tribute (Seattle: Statice Press, 1997); “Linda Keene, “Bigotry is Gaining, Says Urban League Leader,” The Seattle Times, May 23, 1990;  HistoryLink.org the Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Kenneth Burwell Colman” (by Paula Becker) http:/wwwhistorylink.org/ (accessed April 13, 2006); Paul McElroy, Bridging the Divide:  The History of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, (Seattle:  Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, 2005);  Nile Thompson and Carolyn J. Marr, Building for Learning, Seattle Public School Histories, 1862-2000,(Seattle: Seattle Public Schools, 2002);  Seattle Urban League, Annual Reports, 1947, 1948, 1949,1951,1956, 1958,1959, 1962, 1963,1964, 1965, 1966,1968, 1969, 1972, 1973, 1978, 1988, 1992, 1998;   “Urban League Chief Retiring After 14 Years,” Skanner, January 28, 1998; “ULMS/CDCC (Contractor Development and Competitive Center),” Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle Newsletter, Fall 2005; Jim Bruner, "Woes Deepen for Urban League," The Seattle Times, May 3, 2011; Linda Shaw and Jim Bruner, "Another Urban League School Contract Under Fire," Ibid., June 30, 2011.

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