- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 26, 2005

When the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were founded at the beginning of the 20th century, their leaders agreed upon complementary, noncompetitive missions.

“The NAACP was supposed to open doors, and the Urban League was supposed to prepare people to go through them,” says Maudine R. Cooper, president of the Greater Washington Urban League.

“We started out looking at housing, employment and education as our initial emphasis, and it still is,” Mrs. Cooper says, as the national service group prepares to celebrate its 95th anniversary during its annual convention this week at the Washington Convention Center.

Scheduled for tomorrow through Sunday, the convention will feature its traditional career fair, health screening and Education and Learning Zone activities. It also will highlight the National Urban League’s commitment to “Empowering Communities and Changing Lives.”

Honorees include Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert and retiring D.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Annice Wagner. And African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Vashti McKenzie is certain to deliver an inspirational sermon during the Sunday family session.

At Saturday’s cultural night concert, rapper Doug E. Fresh and Chuck Brown — the godfather of D.C.-originated go-go music — will perform.

For young professionals, the convention will include a simultaneous “Influencer Summit” and a conference for teenagers. Donations will be made to local students for school supplies.

The National Urban League, headed by Marc Morial, who will deliver the convention’s keynote address, was founded in 1910. The D.C. chapter, which moved into its $6.5 million headquarters at Harvard and 14th streets Northwest this year, was founded in 1938.

“Back then, D.C. had alleys, and people came up [from] the South with no skills other than farming,” Mrs. Cooper says. “They wound up owing [unscrupulous merchants and landlords] and being in debt or indentured.

“So we taught how to prepare for better accommodations, and we worked with other organizations and individuals, such as Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, to build affordable housing to close down those alleys.”

“Then, in the face of discrimination [former Greater Washington Urban League leader] Sterling Tucker was very active in getting folks in the front of the bus,” she says.

“Now the discrimination is not based on color. It’s based on green as we try to get people to buy the bus companies. Now that schools are desegregated, the focus is on getting a good education for students in the poor neighborhoods.”

Mrs. Cooper says: “Not all the [civil rights] issues are resolved, but they have to be approached differently. We can’t do it the way we did in 1910.”

Because discrimination occurs in subtler ways, civil rights and service groups should not make assumptions when violations occur, she says. They should provide proof.

In that regard, the Greater Washington Urban League’s program that tests landlords for bias proves valuable.

“You not only have to be smarter and know the issues — you have to know the solutions,” Mrs. Cooper says.

For example, the Greater Washington Urban League operates the city’s Home Purchase Assistance Program, which grants a $30,000 down payment to qualified first-time home buyers. The group also runs programs about budgeting, saving and improving credit scores.

“If we help someone get a house, then they become better parents, take better care of their property and get drug dealers off the corner. Then we’ve empowered a community,” says Mrs. Cooper, who has been the president of Greater Washington Urban League since 1990.

“Our biggest challenges now are funding resources,” she says. As a result, “I spend more time fundraising than anything else.”

“[Donors] don’t respond to operational needs. People want programs, but they don’t want to pay the administrative costs to run the programs,” she says.

The Greater Washington Urban League provides a host of social services for its constituents, from students to teen mothers and their babies to “the plight of elderly persons trying to stay in the homes in D.C. with the average home now costing $370,000,” she says.

For instance, the Greater Washington Urban League’s comprehensive aging services programs often are held up as models for other groups.

Mrs. Cooper regrets that no one has kept an archive or chronicled the history of the National Urban League to document the countless blacks, women and minorities the group has helped.

“I’m amazed that someone is always telling me that they got their first job, or first scholarship or first home through the Urban League,” she says. “But we don’t keep records to provide a sense of history for our children.”

Mrs. Cooper also is amazed that she rarely finds anyone who was helped by the Greater Washington Urban League who is a member, let alone a contributor. The Greater Washington Urban League erected a donors wall on its new building to provide people with an opportunity to give back to the group that first helped them.

In the group’s 95-year history, “We’ve gone from operating with one or two people helping the person they saw on the street to becoming an institution that advocates for and supports the communities we serve,” Mrs. Cooper says.


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