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Founded in 1917 by William H. Ashby, The Urban League of Essex County (ULEC) was one of the first affiliates of the National Urban League (NUL). Ashby a graduate of Lincoln University and Yale Divinity School recognized the plight of African Americans and was frustrated by the limited scope of career options for them. In 1917, he was chosen by the National Urban League in New York to start a Newark affiliate, becoming New Jersey’s first black social worker. A friend of W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, Ashby was committed to doing everything he could to improve conditions for the rural Southern poor migrating into Newark and its surrounding areas.
Initially the agency concentrated on placing migrants in domestic service jobs, but eventually, they were engaged in placing educated Blacks in positions that provided real opportunity. During the Great Depression, the League focused on the essentials –food, clothes, jobs and decent housing. ULEC’s efforts finally came to fruition thanks to Prudential and the Newark Housing Authority, and the Douglas-Harrison Apartments were born. As the Depression resolved into post-war boom, the agency focused on jobs and training, and many firsts were established in industry and government. As African-Americans began to attain meaningful positions, the League helped form neighborhood improvement groups to resolve racial tensions.
The civil rights efforts of the 1960s propelled the Urban League into conference rooms everywhere, as the League was uniquely positioned to work with business leaders based on its long history of employment opportunities. While other organizations took to the streets, the Urban League was swamped with requests from businesses needing to hire minorities and from minorities eager to take advantage of newly accessible opportunities. Forming the Business and Industrial Coordinating Council with business and industrial leaders, the League helped this pioneering organization close the gap between the skilled job and the unskilled African American potential employee. The League operated the most successful Skills Bank in the nation, placing 2,500 people in jobs.
Over the years, the League’s leadership has changed but its mission of promoting social and economic advancement for Essex County’s African-American citizens remained the same. Under the leadership of its current President, Vivian Cox Fraser, the league is still true to its founding mission of advancement for those who are least advantaged in our society, focused on education, economic development and community empowerment for African Americans, other minorities and the poor. As one of the oldest affiliates in the nation, the Essex County organization remains a leader in the Urban League movement.