THE BEGINNING - 1940's
In the wake of World War II, after fighting for freedom overseas, thousands of African Americans came home to be greeted by segregation and recession. In addition to Jim Crow laws, which blocked them from even applying for certain jobs, many veterans and their civilian counterparts needed to upgrade their skills in order to compete in the emerging job market.
In 1946, a group of prominent black and white citizens, concerned with the challenges Jacksonville’s African Americans faced, met to discuss establishing an organization dedicated to responding to those needs. The meetings resulted in sending an emissary to New York to talk about the possibility of forming a National Urban League affiliate in Jacksonville.
Representatives of the National Urban League (NUL) then came to Jacksonville and met with community leaders and representatives of the Community Chest Planning Board, the forerunner of today’s United Way. These discussions resulted in the formation of the Jacksonville Urban League in August 1947.
From the outset, the Jacksonville Urban League has promoted equality of opportunity through the Three “E” strategy: Education, Employment and Training and Economic Empowerment. While focusing on African Americans, JUL has kept these programs open to all Jacksonville residents regardless of their race or creed.
Levin W. Armwood served as the first permanent Executive Director of the Jacksonville Urban League. For next nine years, the JUL successfully carried on vocational guidance, industrial relations, job placement, recreation, health and child welfare, and education programs. Active participation in these programs underlined their importance in meeting vital community needs.
HALF CENTURY - 1950's
During the latter part of 1956, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, an alleged remark by the National Urban League’s Executive Director, Lester Granger, resulted in local hate groups attacking the Jacksonville Urban League. In this negative and volatile environment, the Community Chest (CC), fearing its own demise, delivered an ultimatum to the JUL: sever ties with the National Urban League or lose funding.
A courageous JUL Board of Directors decided to retain affiliation with the National Urban League. The subsequent loss of funding put the JUL on the brink of extinction. Yet, with aid from the community, the League survived, integrity intact, and grew in importance.
FIGHTING POVERTY - 1960's
In January 1965, under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the Jacksonville Urban League, in partnership with the National Urban League and its Tampa and Miami affiliates, initiated the first statewide anti-poverty conference to emphasize the need for local anti-poverty programs.
At the conference, Jacksonville Mayor Louis Ritter announced the city’s intent to begin a community action program. Thus was born the Greater Jacksonville Economic Opportunity or GJEO, Inc. The GJEO later evolved into what is now the Northeast Florida Community Action Agency (NEFCAA).
As the Voting Rights Acts went through Congress and the civil rights movement swept across the South, Lewis Carter became Deputy Director for GJEO. After Mr. Carter’s departure, Clanzel T. Brown served as acting director of the JUL before becoming the agency’s sixth Executive Director.
Under Clanzel T. Brown’s direction, the League broadened its scope in meeting community needs. The JUL became a full-service agency emphasizing full employment and manpower programs.
Mr. Brown and his colleagues laid the foundation upon which the Jacksonville Urban League builds today. In introducing innovative concepts and community driven programs, he wrote a new chapter in Jacksonville’s history. One major accomplishment was the identifying and training of men who would be among the first African Americans to join a post-segregation police department.
The Jacksonville Urban League became a designated housing counseling agency, and opened the doors to more African Americans owning homes. During this period, the JUL developed a successful apprentice programs for a variety of skilled professions.
In the mid-1970s, the Arab Oil Embargo and post-Viet Nam war recession slowed the reintegration of Viet Nam veterans into the workforce. The Jacksonville Urban League played a key role in opening doors to training and employment and transitioning veterans into civilian life. The agency aided veterans, with special attention paid to handicapped vets and civilians.
While advising veterans on housing, employment and other issues, JUL participated in and organized conferences in Jacksonville and other areas of the State in order to improve veteran services. The League partnered with Edward Waters College and other non-profit and government agencies to meet the need of veterans and civilians alike.
By 1980, the percentage of women working outside the home had grown, for the first time in USA history, to over 50 percent. (Today that number is about 70 percent.) As Jacksonville moved through a major economic correction, the Jacksonville Urban League felt it was time to do a survey of working women in order to better serve the community. In cooperation with Edward Waters College and the University of North Florida, JUL did a groundbreaking study of views and perspectives of women on their roles and treatment in the workforce.
The recession-plagued economy of the early 1980s continued to slow the economic progress of Jacksonville’s African American community of both sexes, and the need for a variety of social services grew. Yet, in the midst of higher unemployment, and the need for retraining, the federal government reduced its involvement at the local level.
In response to growing needs and shrinking government participation, the Jacksonville Urban League developed other reality-driven solutions for its expanding group of clients. In 1982, as JUL expanded programs to meet the escalating needs of the community, tragedy struck: Executive Director Clanzel T. Brown died. More than a few JUL supporters feared that his death might curtail JUL’s ability to carry out its mission.
Yet, within the ranks of the Urban League there has never been a shortage of leadership. Viet Nam Veteran Ronnie A. Ferguson, serving as vice president of programs, became interim president and then president. One of Mr. Ferguson’s first contributions was to create the Jacksonville Urban League Auxiliary (JULA) in 1984. Formed as a mechanism for volunteer and fund-raising opportunities, the JULA started with just twenty members, but within a decade grew to over 100 annual members.
The JUL was instrumental in the creating the Mayor's Select Committee. This working group reviewed police policies, procurement of minorities with private industry, and registered thousands of voters. Executive Director Ferguson also changed the focus of the JUL Annual Report to emphasize critical issues in the black community. Annual Report titles such as "The Black Family", "A Focus on the Black Male" and "Education: Priority Number One."
In 1991, Ronnie Ferguson resigned the presidency of JUL to take a leadership position with Mayor Edward Austin. Moving forward into the 1990s, the JUL Board of Directors appointed another Vietnam Veteran, Dr. Richard D. Danford Jr., as President. Dr. Danford had previously served at the Edward Waters College, as dean of students and advisor to the president, and directed the City of Jacksonville’s Equal Employment Office.
In extending the mission of his predecessors to improve the economic and social conditions within the African American and other communities, Dr. Danford has continued and expanded vital programs and initiated others. He shepherded the construction of a new JUL office building across from the Ritz Theater, in the historic La Villa section. His tenure has encompassed education, housing, youth development, employment, crime reduction, small business development, entrepreneurial advocacy, the opening of the Center of Excellence, and a major early childhood development initiative.
A child’s journey to adulthood must begin with a solid foundation in education. This helps and encourages children to realize their potential and add value to their neighborhoods and the City. For six decades opening the gateway to quality education has been at the forefront of JUL mission. Through Head Start, we were able to begin this process early in life.
At its peak, the Head Start and Early Head Start programs served more than 2,000 families a day at twenty-five centers across Duval County. The JUL delivered much-needed child and parent educational and social services in the most economically challenged parts of the inner city.
In moving past the first decade-and-a-half of the third millennium, the Jacksonville Urban League continues to offer a full agenda of inventive programs and services to its diverse clients. The JUL's full-employment objective focuses on assisting clients in developing and enhancing employability skills, promoting career advancement, providing a virtual bank of employment opportunities, and serving as liaison between those seeking employment and those providing employment opportunities.
Much has transpired since the League first opened its doors on Broad Street. JUL carries on with a tradition of serving the community as an advocate and proudly remains non-profit, non-partisan, and interracial in its membership composition.
Today, the Jacksonville Urban League partners with and receives contributions from a broad variety of organizations across the community including foundations, corporations, government agencies, other not-for-profits and individuals as it meets the diverse needs of Duval and surrounding counties. With the community’s support, the Jacksonville Urban League will continue to develop solutions for emerging challenges as it assists its increasingly diverse group of clients to realize success.