The Chicago Urban League (CUL) was one of the first affiliates of the National Urban League (NUL) organized in this country to address the needs of African Americans migrating from the rural South to the northern cities in unprecedented numbers at the dawn of the 20th century. As noted by Arvarh E. Strickland in his History of the Chicago Urban League (University of Illinois Press, 1966), the Chicago affiliate’s establishment was seen as an important step in the NUL’s program of expansion and as a base of operations for movement into the Middle West and parts of the West.
The CUL organizing meeting was held at the Wabash Avenue Y.M.C.A. on December 11, 1916 and led by NUL Associate Director (and later Executive Secretary) Eugene Kinckle Jones and Industrial Secretary T. Arnold Hill, who became the Chicago organization’s first executive. Incorporated on June 13, 1917, the Chicago Urban League’s interracial group of organizers included University of Chicago Professor of Sociology Robert E. Park as its first board president. In March 1918, CUL took the important step of securing headquarters at the Frederick Douglass Center at 3032 South Wabash Avenue, and during its first two years program activities focused upon research, coordinated social services, and industrial relations.
Over the years, the League’s leadership and address changed but its mission of promoting social and economic advancement for Chicago’s African-American citizens remained the same. In January 1956, the legendary Edwin C. (“Bill”) Berry left the Portland, Oregon, Urban League to take the helm in Chicago. Berry once described Chicago as “the most important city in race relations in the world.” (Chicago Defender, November 26, 1955).
During Berry’s tenure, the League purchased a building at 4500 South Michigan Avenue to become its new headquarters. In 1972, James W. Compton became the League’s executive director and was elected president and chief executive officer six years later. The League built a new headquarters at 4510 South Michigan Avenue, which opened in January 1984.
In the fall of 2006, Cheryle R. Jackson became the first woman to be elected president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. In 2007, the Chicago Urban League launched a strategic agenda that elevated its focus on economic development. In September 2010, noted attorney, civic and business leader Andrea L. Zopp was elected president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. Today, under Zopp’s leadership, the Chicago Urban League continues to support and advocate for the educational, economic and social equality for African Americans by building strong and stable communities.
The impact of CUL’s nine decades of service to Chicagoans is beyond measure, but it is illustrated by the fact that upon hearing the name of the organization, community members often comment that they (or a parent or grandparent) got their first job through the Chicago Urban League. Still true to its founding mission of advancement for those who are least advantaged in our society, today the work of CUL focuses upon education, economic development and community empowerment for African Americans, other minorities and the poor. As one of the largest affiliates in the nation, the Chicago organization remains a leader in the Urban League movement.