The Urban League of Greater Little Rock (ULGLR) was an affiliate of the New York–based National Urban League (NUL), which was founded in 1910. Like its parent organization, the ULGLR focused on the problems of African-American urban life in areas such as social work, education, health, and employment opportunities. The NUL under the leadership of Whitney Young was considered one of the “big six” civil rights organizations of the 1960s.
On February 20, 1937, an interracial group of twenty-five people gathered in the Lena Latkin Room of the Little Rock Public Library to meet with Jessie Thomas, Southern Regional Field Director of the National Urban League, to organize an Urban League branch in the city. The prime mover behind the initiative was Amelia B. Ives, an elementary school teacher in Little Rock (Pulaski County), who was concerned about her pupils arriving for classes hungry and poorly clothed. At the meeting, the group adopted a constitution that established the Urban League of Greater Little Rock (ULGLR), and those in attendance became the organization’s founding board of directors.
Southern regional staff member J. Harvey Kearns directed the early efforts of the ULGLR. One of the first tasks of the organization was to assess community needs, which led to the ULGLR sponsoring the research for and publication of Survey of Negroes in Little Rock and North Little Rock in 1941. In 1939, Clifford E. Minton, principal of Hillside Elementary School in North Little Rock (Pulaski County), became the first chief executive of ULGLR. An office was established at 914 Gaines Street. In Minton’s words, the two primary goals of the ULGLR in its early years were: “(1) To address selected issues for blacks and race relations remedies; (2) To strengthen interracial cooperation and unity for greater community efficiency and security during the wartime national emergency.” Initially, this was done with an acceptance of the boundaries imposed by the Jim Crow laws of the time. In 1940, the ULGLR was admitted to the Community Chest, significantly boosting its funding and activities.
Under Minton’s leadership, the Urban League focused “on programs for black character building and family strengthening through group work services while retaining an active service and advocacy emphasis on economic development, employment and race relations activities.” These activities included pressing for black jobs at Camp Joseph T. Robinson, initiating Negro Health Week, and helping to establish a United Service Organization (USO) for black soldiers.
In 1946, William Harry Bass Sr. succeeded Minton as ULGLR chief executive. He advocated for funds to build the “separate but equal” Gillam Park for African Americans to the southeast of Little Rock, to establish Dunbar Community Recreational Center, and to improve black schools in the city.
The racial tensions that arose after the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) school desegregation decision, culminating in the 1957 Little Rock school desegregation crisis, dramatically affected the organization. The ULGLR was removed from the Community Chest for supporting the desegregation of Central High School. This removal of funds almost bankrupted the organization, which came close to voting to shut down its operations entirely in 1962. New chief executive Herbert Tyson steered the ULGLR through these tough times from 1959 to 1962.
As other civil rights organizations, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), focused on nonviolent direct action campaigns in Arkansas in the 1960s, the ULGLR continued its mission to provide services to the black community, especially in the area of black employment. New chief executive George I. Henry, a former instructor and football and basketball coach at Fargo Industrial School in Fargo (Monroe County), and one of the first black salesmen in downtown Little Rock, oversaw its activities. A secretarial training seminar was organized that successfully placed black secretarial staff in white businesses for the first time. The ULGLR also secured funds from the War on Poverty programs initiated by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1966, the ULGLR was readmitted into the Community Chest (by then renamed the United Way). The same year, Henry left to take a job at the U.S. Department of Labor, and Herman Ewing succeeded him as chief executive, continuing many of the programs his predecessor had begun. Ewing left in 1969 to take the chief executive post at the Memphis Urban League.
Amid changes in the civil rights movement that took place in the late 1960s, notably the emergence of a new, youthful “black power” movement, the National Urban League responded by announcing a “New Thrust” policy to allow a greater say in the organization for blacks under the age of thirty. Howard Love became chief executive, and the organization underwent a name change to the Urban League of Arkansas, Inc. (ULA). The change reflected the ambitions of the organization to have more of a statewide reach, although in reality most of its activities still focused on the central Arkansas area around Little Rock.
During his tenure, Love tackled issues such as fair housing access for black citizens, affirmative action programs to increase black employment in previously limited areas such as law enforcement, the advent of busing in the Little Rock School District, and black medical and health issues. In 1977, a fire at ULA offices destroyed most of its local institutional records. It subsequently moved its headquarters to 2200 South Main Street.
In 1987, ULA celebrated its fiftieth anniversary of continuous operation. However, a year later, it became embroiled in several controversies, including alleged financial mismanagement. Love resigned his position at the end of 1988. The ULA struggled to retain the vitality and continuity of its first fifty years. Arkansas native Hayward Battle was appointed temporary chair of the board in November 1989. Carmelita Smith, a Southwestern Bell public relations manager, was appointed interim president and chief executive in January 1991. She left office in February 1992. In 1995, the ULA shut down its operations completely due to lack of funding. In 1996, First Commercial Bank foreclosed on its headquarters. Under the leadership of Ron Woods, attempts were made to revive ULA, including the renting of a new temporary headquarters at 2501 State Street, but this was unsuccessful.
In August 2015, the Urban League ended its twenty-year hiatus in the state by opening a new Little Rock headquarters, with a satellite office in Springdale (Washington and Benton counties).
For additional information:
Dickerson, Dennis C. Militant Mediator: Whitney M. Young, Jr. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004.
Dunaway, Edwin E. Interview with John A. Kirk, September 26, 1992. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Love, Howard. Interview with John A. Kirk, April 30, 1993. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
National Urban League Papers. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington DC.
Reed, Touré. Not Alms but Opportunity: The Urban League and the Politics of Racial Uplift, 1910–1950. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
Stewart, Shea. “Urban League Ends 20-Year Hiatus in State.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 22, 2015, pp. 1B, 7B.
Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration in the States of Arkansas. Survey of Negroes in Little Rock and North Little Rock. Little Rock: 1941.
“Urban League of Arkansas, Inc. Golden Anniversary Celebration, 1937–1987.” Little Rock: 1987.
Weiss, Nancy J. The National Urban League, 1910–1940. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
John A. Kirk
University of Arkansas at Little Rock