African American Studies National Urban League
Susan Carle
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0107


The National Urban League (NUL) is a historically important policy and social welfare organization dedicated to eliminating race discrimination and helping to empower African Americans and other underserved communities by increasing economic and educational opportunities and engaging in civil rights advocacy. The NUL has been in existence since 1910. Its history can be divided into several eras; literatures exist that explore each era, along with the changing priorities and methods the NUL used in each period. The general historiography on the NUL has largely focused on situating the organization in the broader story of 20th-century racial justice activism. Various other literatures addressing the NUL’s work arise from the fields of social work, education, and sociology, focusing on the NUL’s many areas of substantive focus. Those literatures tend to concentrate on the NUL’s more recent years of activity and will be summarized under the sections addressing these more recent periods of the NUL’s work.

General Overviews

There are several classic treatments of the NUL’s history, each proposing contrasting themes in understanding the organization’s role in the struggle for racial justice in the United States. Parris and Brooks 1971 offers an exposition of the NUL’s institutional development up to 1970, created with the assistance but not the oversight of the NUL; this work contains a detailed recounting of the specifics of the NUL’s founding and development. Weiss 1974 portrays the NUL’s history as part of the more conservative strand of race activism epitomized by Booker T. Washington’s racial uplift philosophy, which he brought to the NUL as an influential founding board member. In contrast, Moore 1981 focuses on the influence on the NUL of structural, sociological perspectives on racial advancement that were different from those of conservatives such as Washington and his close allies, though Moore, too, emphasizes that control of the NUL’s purse strings by relatively conservative white philanthropists limited its potential throughout the period in which white Board members remained in charge (p. 204). Reed 2008 argues that the NUL’s central mission was one of assimilating Blacks into the US mainstream, and that embedded in this goal were views about the superiority of middle-class mores. Smith 2011 is a recent treatment that synthesizes various perspectives. Other works trace the complex history of the NUL and its changing and varied philosophies regarding racial justice reform by concentrating on particular city affiliates (Trotter 2020, Hornsby and Henderson 2005). A large collection of National Urban League records, spanning the period from 1900 to the 1980s, with the bulk of the collection containing the NUL’s documentary record between 1930 and 1960, sits at the US Library of Congress (National Urban League 1900). Other rich collections of primary source materials about NUL affiliates exist in other manuscript repositories, such as National Urban League 1965. The NUL authored a large number of reports and policy papers throughout its history, of which only a small sample will be included here in order to illustrate the many directions of the NUL’s activities in areas that have received less attention from scholars as of yet.

  • Hornsby, Alton, and Alexa Benson Henderson. The Atlanta Urban League, 1920–2000. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2005.

    This volume provides an excellent overview of one of the NUL’s earliest and most important affiliates.

  • Moore, Jesse Thomas, Jr. A Search for Equality: The National Urban League, 1910–1961. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981.

    Moore’s book offers a fresh assessment of the role of the NUL that notes its attention to issues of structural inequality.

  • National Urban League. National Urban League Records, 1900–1988. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 1900.

    This is the most comprehensive archival collection of NUL records and is easy to work with and access. Much of the collection is in microfilm.

  • National Urban League. Chicago Urban League Records. University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Special Collections, 1965.

    This collection of records documents the NUL’s Chicago chapter’s growth and activities.

  • Parris, Guichard, and Lester Brooks. Blacks in the City: A History of the National Urban League. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.

    This early treatment is full of events, personalities, and the NUL’s achievements, and provides an engaging overview more than it engages with theoretical or revisionist debates.

  • Reed, Touré F. Not Alms but Opportunity: The Urban League and the Politics of Racial Uplift, 1910–1950. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.5149/9780807888544_reed

    Reed’s history offers a perspective that both appreciates the NUL’s contributions and critiques its tendencies toward moderate approaches that privileged class advantage.

  • Smith, Alonzo Nelson. Empowering Communities—Changing Lives: 100 Years of the National Urban League and Black America, 1910–2010. Virginia Beach, VA: Donning, 2011.

    This is a largely laudatory recounting of the NUL’s achievements, by an author who is part of a new generation of NUL scholars.

  • Trotter, Joe William, Jr. Pittsburgh and the Urban League Movement: A Century of Social Service and Activism. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813179919.001.0001

    This book focuses on the NUL’s Pittsburgh affiliate, documenting its changing projects and approaches across a century of work.

  • Weiss, Nancy J. The National Urban League, 1910–1940. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

    This work is considered one of the classics of NUL scholarship, which many subsequent scholars engaged with in various ways over time.

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