donald-bowen_web.jpgThe National Urban League (NUL) was founded in 1910 by a group of black and white people, including Ruth Standish Baldwin and George Edmund Haynes in New York City.

Originally named the Committee on Urban Conditions among Negroes, the organization’s goal was to assist blacks who were transitioning from the rural South to the urban North.
Renamed The National Urban League in 1920, the organization is now celebrating 100 years of advocating for the civil rights for people of color.

One of the NUL’s premiere programs is hosting its annual leadership conference, the Black Executive Exchange Program, (BEEP) in Fort Lauderdale this week, from June 9 to June 11. BEEP is an offshoot of the NUL that, for 41 years, has engaged students at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities 😉 preparing them for leadership roles.

Some of the assistance that today’s NUL and its affiliates provide mirror how the organization helped back in the day.

“They needed help finding jobs and housing,” said Donald Bowen, NUL’s senior vice president and chief programming officer, about the population of migrating blacks during the NUL’s formative years.

“We began to have a presence in places like Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland and Philadelphia,” Bowen said.

Today’s Urban League also has a strong presence in South Florida. The Urban League of Greater Miami (ULGM), out of a need to impact public policies and to provide equal opportunity for jobs, formed in 1943. The league had to “address the deplorable conditions in which blacks were living,” T. Willard Fair, the league’s president and CEO said.

Fair described how the organization, throughout its 67 years of service, recruited and placed the first black airline stewardesses with Eastern Airlines and spearheaded the desegregation of all public housing in Dade County, and during the 1960s sponsored the first integrated sit-down dinner at the Everglades Hotel in downtown Miami.

The ULGM was about 30 years old when, in 1973, the Urban League of Palm Beach County (ULPBC) opened its doors to assist African Americans and other minorities in the achievement of social and economic equality.

Last year the ULPBC began serving Martin County’s residents with foreclosure counseling, its president and CEO Patrick J. Franklin said. For the past two years, Franklin added, the league has changed its focus to foreclosure counseling.

“We’ve gone from how to get people new homes, or to get them into a home, to working on helping them to keep their homes,” he said.

This week, Franklin said, the league is completing its first housing project, the Henrietta Townhome Community.  Funded by $2.5 million in grants from the city of West Palm Beach and Palm Beach County Government Housing and Community Development departments, the 11-unit community is located on a 2/3-acre lot at Palm Beach Lakes Blvd. and Henrietta Ave. in downtown West Palm Beach.

“This project will mean resurgence for this area,” Franklin said.

The Broward affiliate is now celebrating its 35th year. One of the key reasons the Urban League was needed in Broward County, Fort Lauderdale attorney Raleigh Rawls said, was jobs.

“We had to see that kids were qualified and knew the right place to go. They [Urban League] could send them to the right place. There were some employers who would accept a black applicant and the league made that connection. That’s just what the situation was in Fort Lauderdale back then.”

Rawls, the first black person in Broward County to take the Florida Bar exam, has practiced law in Fort Lauderdale since 1957.

Bowen, who served as the Urban League of Broward County’s president and CEO from 1991 to 2006, launched what was called the “33311 initiative” in 1996 in an effort to focus its direct services in an impoverished area of the county.

At that time, Bowen explained, there were 19 neighborhoods in central Broward County that were a part of five or six different cities, many unincorporated.  During that time, Bowen said, there were predominantly black neighborhoods with no major grocery stores or banks.

“Yet there were some banks across the street from 33311, like on the south side of Broward Blvd. or west of State Road 7, but none within the zip code itself.”

A good part of the area, he said, had no sidewalks or sewers.

“But we put 33311 on the map, gave the area a collective identity and people began to understand the needs of its residents.  More resources were put into the area.”

For Germaine Smith-Baugh, president and CEO of the Broward County chapter, the goal, she said, was to stabilize the league from a physical perspective. The building, located at 11 NW 36th Ave. in Fort Lauderdale, had been damaged during Wilma.

In the fall of 2010, the league will break ground for its new Empowerment Center. 

“It will be a huge mark for us in our 35th year,” Smith-Baugh said.

The 28,000 square-foot facility will be located on 27th Avenue adjacent to the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center (AARLCC) on the east side of the street.

The league acquired the 2.5 acres from the county at no charge, in a county that is land-locked according to Smith-Baugh.

“Because of the 33311 initiative, the league became synonymous with Fort Lauderdale and its work in the central area,” she said. “More lives are being transformed as a result of the work that we are doing.”

Photo: Donald Bowen