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After race riots in East St. Louis tragically claimed 48 lives in 1917, the U.S. Department of War endeavored to defray tensions by forming an Urban League affiliate in the area. In 1918 the chapter moved across the river to St. Louis, becoming what is now known as the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis.

While the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis was born of necessity, it has become undeniably necessary to the St. Louis community during its 100-year history. As a vital resource for African-Americans and others in the region, the Urban League continues to champion economic opportunity, education, civil rights and social justice. In the century since its launch, the St. Louis chapter has become the National Urban League’s largest local affiliate, numbering 13 locations and impacting the lives of more than 100,000 area residents through 33 diverse programs.

“The historic support of the St. Louis community has enabled us to realize so many exciting projects and programs this year, and to sustain the agency for the next 100 years,” affirms president and CEO Michael McMillan.

Under McMillan’s leadership, the organization has added several new initiatives to its slate. Sparked by the unrest in Ferguson in 2014, the Urban League developed the Save Our Sons (SOS) program, which paves a pathway to employment and economic self-sufficiency for unemployed and underemployed African-American men living in St. Louis. Introduced in 2015, the four-week program helps participants complete their post-secondary education and imparts valuable career and life skills. To date, more than 450 graduates of the program have secured jobs.

As both president and CEO of the Regional Business Council (RBC) and an Urban League board member, Kathy Osborn is acutely aware of how important the organization and SOS, in particular, are to the local economy. “I have been so impressed with the Urban League’s work over the years, especially its neighborhood outreach,” she shares. “The RBC funds and will continue to support the SOS program. Bringing another 500 people into the workforce is very significant and much needed.”

Due to the success of SOS, the Urban League recently debuted a partner program: Save Our Sisters. Whereas SOS focuses on employment, Save Our Sisters takes a more holistic approach, offering services that support women’s financial, mental and physical health. As McMillan explains, “the program focuses on the advancement and overall well-being of women of all socioeconomic backgrounds.”

The summer of 2017 marked the official opening of the new Ferguson Community Empowerment Center. Built on the site of the QuikTrip gas station that burned to the ground during the Ferguson crisis, the Center is a partnership between the Urban League and the Salvation Army. The complex is home to the SOS headquarters, as well as the Salvation Army’s Pathway of Hope program, the Lutheran Hope Center’s Readers to Leaders program and an entrepreneurial program run by the University of Missouri Extension. “We are very proud to be the only Urban League affiliate in the country to co-own a building with the Salvation Army,” emphasizes McMillan. “It’s a unique partnership that will help change thousands of lives a year.”

Julio Suarez, senior director of community affairs at Anheuser-Busch, relocated to St. Louis in the midst of that tense summer of 2014. “It was refreshing to see an organization [like the Urban League] take initiative and provide solutions,” he shares. Suarez joined the organization’s board three years ago, maintaining a longstanding, fruitful partnership between the Urban League and Anheuser-Busch. “By all standards, this chapter continues to rank at the very top,” he says. “That doesn’t happen by accident, but rather through due diligence, commitment and leadership.”

Ameren Missouri president and fellow board member Michael Moehn sounds a similar chord. “The Urban League is a true difference-maker,” he declares. “Each year, the organization is at the forefront, leading on challenging issues, from poverty to inequality – all with the goal of being a force for positive change for families and communities. The Urban League is one of Ameren Missouri's most valued community partners, and we look forward to working with them in the years ahead to continue to strengthen our region."

The organization’s growth and impact over the course of a century would not have been possible without the dedication and support of the local community, especially individual donors and corporate partners. As 2018 draws to a close, the organization will cap its centennial celebrations with the sixth annual Whitney M. Young Society reception, to be held at Powell Hall on Dec. 12.

Named after civil rights leader and former National Urban League president and CEO Whitney M. Young, the eponymous society honors donors who have given more than $500 in unrestricted funds to advance the organization’s programs and services. The reception will be a chance to not only recognize the generosity of supporters, but also toast the Urban League’s milestone anniversary and its bright future.

“This reception and our other special events are the fuel that give us the ability to support over 100,000 clients every year,” adds McMillan. “We want the community to know how extremely grateful we are for the tremendous amount of support we’re given each and every year.”

Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, 3701 Grandel Square, St. Louis, 314-615-3600, ulstl.com


Sixth Annual Whitney M. Young Society Reception

5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 12

St. Louis Symphony’s Powell Hall

For more information about the event or to join the Whitney M. Young Society, contact 314-615-3668 or send an email to specialevents@urbanleague-stl.org.

Emma Dent is the Special Projects Manager for the Ladue News. A St. Louis native, Emma is a trained art historian with interests in American visual culture, especially illustration and advertising. She enjoys reading, writing, and looking.