The Foundations of a Firm Legacy

By Toni Cornelius

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On a scorching July day in the “Red Summer” of 1919, 17-year-old Eugene Williams jumped into Lake Michigan for a cooling swim. The African American boy made the fatal error of swimming past the unofficial segregated beach ” barrier” at 29th Street – and was stoned to death by a group of white men on the beach.

The outrage at the killing was exacerbated when police refused to arrest those individuals that eyewitnesses identified as responsible. The incident sparked a week of rioting between black and white gangs. The violence, concentrated in the South Side’s stockyard neighborhoods, ended with 15 whites and 23 blacks killed, and more than 500 people injured.

This explosive moment called for the involvement of the then barely two-year-old Chicago Urban League (CUL). At that time the League, founded in June, 1917, had served primarily as a social services agency, assisting blacks who came north during the Great Migration to secure employment, housing and other services. Its stated mission was to promote social and economic advancement for Chicago’s African American citizens – a mission that remains relevant and in place today.

The interracial team that formed the founding nucleus of the CUL in December,1916 included then National Urban League (NUL) Associate Director (and later Executive Secretary) Eugene Kinckle Jones and Industrial Secretary T. Arnold Hill, who became the Chicago organization’s first executive. The group incorporated on June 13, 1917 and University of Chicago Professor of Sociology Robert E. Park became its first board president in March 1918,

This was the group summoned by city leaders at the time who blamed the racial tension on the failure of the black community to “readjust” to the mores of white northern society. It was the first of what history would prove to be a familiar and repetitive challenge – moderating a solution to a highly volatile social issue, balancing the necessity of institutional process with the cry for immediate and justifiable social and economic change.

It was against this socially charged background that the CUL was called to intercede. It was challenged with the often formidable task of balancing its belief that measuredsystematic initiatives to feed the economic and social equity pipelines against, the public pressure for more aggressive, and often more visually impactful means of addressing these issues.

From then on, the organization would repeatedly be challenged with the task of creating and maintaining socially relevant programs and other resources to address the multi-layered barriers inherent in institutional practices that retard the progress of African Americans. At the same time, the messages of self-help and empowerment emphasized the need for the individual and community empowerment necessary to create sustainable results.

In the years following the Great Depression, when the fear of “Communist influence” in the black community and a resurgence of aggressive protest emerged, the CUL took its place as the voice for disenfranchised blacks whose protests over unemployment and substandard housing remained a forefront issue.

It was during this time that the historically “traditional,” and, perceived by some, conservative, organization struggled with its own internal debate, which culminated in January, 1956 with the arrival of the legendary Edwin C. (“Bill”) Berry, who left the Portland, Oregon Urban League to take the helm in Chicago. Berry, who was quoted as describing Chicago as “the most important city in race relations in the world,” was a transformative leader who helped shape the approach of the organization to remain not only relevant, but more progressively proactive than in the past.


A post on the Chicago Freedom Movement website describes the Urban League under Berry as follows:


“With Bill Berry as its head, the Chicago Urban League became one of the “most dynamic Urban League chapters in the country,” [Ralph 10] and played an important role in organizing the Chicago Freedom Movement. Berry and the Chicago Urban League were leading figures in the founding of the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCC0). “


For all of his activism, Berry knew that by charter the league could not be a protest organization. In addition, it was viewed as one of the more conservative participants in the current crisis. But Berry knew that the negotiation skills his staff could bring to the table, combined with his ties to the business community would be key factors in the successful progress of this social initiative.


Through the socially conservative late 80’s and 90’s, the league continued to develop its social improvement agenda. The founding tenets of economic and social development, bolstered by a foundation of self-help and community accountability, remain central to its mission. They also remain the fundamental issues that plague our community today. And in the early days of the millennium and the waning days of the League’s first century it is appropriate to ask – What does history teach us about where the League has been and how does it inform where we are going?


In 2011,then President and CEO of the League, Andrea L. Zopp, wrote the following as the 95th Anniversary approached.


“History whispers clues to us that guides our steps as we move toward a future where our schools are pipelines to empowerment, not prison; where Black business owners can participate fully in government and private sector investments; where the right to vote is truly unencumbered; and where Black boys graduating from high school and college is expected, not exceptional. At the Chicago Urban League, our history is our strength. That’s true for all of us.”

She went on to add “that although we have come far and achieved much, there is still work to be done.”

True words stay true.

Before I was given he opportunity to contribute to this forum I’d spent time with CUL President and CEO and President Shari Runner. During the past two years, we’ve interacted on an increasingly frequent level, as my involvement has increased on both a professional and personal level.

Our most recent interaction was during this year’s launch of the I.M.P.A.C.T. Leadership Development program. Now entering its third year the program combines the benefits of mentorship by minority professionals and a structured leadership development curriculum, created by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, to aid the next generation of African American Leaders in the often challenging business of navigating corporate America,

The combined responsibilities of legacy and leadership are daunting. While researching for this piece, I learned of the extreme challenges those founders and their successors faced promoting a moderate, long term agenda to improve social conditions often in the face of demands for swift and less sustainable solutions.

What courage has it taken to remain true to your mission – often in the face of internal opposition – because clarity of vision was enough to sustain them all through the often contentious waters of change?

The University of Illinois at Chicago houses an exhibit of records and documents chronicling the League’s history. It is a comprehensive record that provides detail on the League’s responses to the social factors of that day that ultimately shaped its purpose over the years.

It is reported on the collection website that following the aforementioned Red Summer Riots, Charles S. Johnson, the Chicago League’s first director of research led monumental studies of the riot’s causes and effects, published in 1922 as The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot. The Urban League became representative of the vision behind the report, which sought to defuse immediate racial tensions while providing employment and housing opportunities for individual African Americans, furthering the cause of long-term interracial accommodation.

It could easily be argued that fundamentally, the mission remains the same as was outlined in that 1922 study. Is this the foundation of its legacy?

That’s the thing about Legacy. The factors that contribute to building it are a firm and consistent set of values and beliefs, and the commitment to ensure that all activities and initiatives are in support of that value set.

Legacy is neither infallible nor immune from challenge. It cannot be static, if it is to remain relevant. But it must be constant in its focus on the factors that drive its foundation and rigorous in its efforts to hold the line against those external factors that can so easily distract one from the goal.

Legacy also carries an element of continuity within it. I wonder how Dr. Robert Park, the University of Chicago professor who was the first chairman of the first CUL board, would respond to the knowledge that the relationship between his academic institution and the organization in which he played a central part in forming still exists. And the hundreds – the thousands of others whose names will never appear in print, and whose faces will never been seen in a photograph – have all contributed in ways that continue to improve the lives of those they touch in the name of the League.

To Shari Runner, who carries the mantle today, all those who have served and all who will – highest congratulations on 100 years of unmeasurable service and all of the good you have done and will continue to do.

And for the rest of us?

What will our legacy be?