"I met your grandfather just before he retired," says Randolph C. Kendall Jr., the executive director of the Richmond, Va., Urban League. "He was a fine man, a real gentleman. And very, very courageous. He and a woman named Maggie Walker held this organization together through some very difficult times."
"Courageous?" I ask.
"Oh yes," replies Mr. Kendall. "There was a time during the 1950s when the Urban League came under severe attack. Your grandfather and the Richmond Urban League came out in public support of the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation ruling, and that enraged so many people down here that a number of organizations were pressured to withdraw their support. We had to raise money from the community. We had to hold together through the attacks. As I say, those were extremely difficult times."
My grandfather, Wiley A. Hall Sr., was executive director of the Richmond Urban League from 1929 until he retired in 1959. He had a degree in social work from Virginia Union University. He worked to get white-owned businesses in Virginia to hire blacks and to do business with black-owned enterprises. He was listed in an early edition of "Who's Who in Colored America." These facts are part of the family lore.
But despite that personal connection to the Urban League, I have, at best, only a general understanding of the organization's role in the national civil rights movement.
"That is understandable, because a lot of people do not understand the Urban League's role," says Mr. Kendall.
"The NAACP, for instance, was involved in fighting the legal battle, which was a lot more public. The Urban League was involved in the social and economic welfare of African Americans -- getting them jobs, decent housing and good health care."
Those areas remain the focus of the Urban League's mission today. But members say the organization is in the middle of an agonizing process of assessment and evaluation, similar to the recent soul-searching by members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Defining a mission -- and how to achieve it -- will be one of the main goals when the 113 affiliates of the Urban League hold their national convention in Washington, Aug. 1 through Aug. 4. The Baltimore Urban League will host one of the kick-off events tomorrow, a reception for members of the national organization at the newly renovated Orchard Street Church here.
But while the NAACP's soul-searching garnered widespread public attention, the Urban League is much more low-keyed, just as its historic mission was comparatively low-keyed. The league was founded in New York in 1910 by a group of people who wanted to help blacks immigrating from the rural South adjust to urban living. The founders included Ruth Baldwin, a white woman who was the widow of a railroad magnate, and George Edmund Haynes, one of the first blacks to receive an advanced degree in social work.
The founders set a course that continues: The Urban League has always been multi-racial and it has approached urban problems with the person-to-person discipline of social workers.
"We have always been heavily involved with jobs and job training," says Faith Williams, national director of communications. "During the Sixties we used to say that the most militant thing you can do is get a man a job."
According to Billy Tidwell, director of research for the national office, the Urban League must find a way to prepare both youth and adults to meet today's economic environment: the slow recovery from recession, corporate down-sizing and reorganization, new technologies, and the increased competition for jobs from Asian and Hispanic immigrants.
Still, says Richmond's Mr. Kendall, local affiliates find themselves grappling with many of the same bread-and-butter survival issues that confronted my grandfather.
"Does that mean my grandfather and the men and women of his generation failed?" I ask.
"No," he says sadly. "It means the problems never get finished. They just keep evolving and evolving. The mission of today's Urban League is to find a way to evolve with them."