he NAACP breaks down the door," N. Charles Anderson once declared, "and the Urban League walks in." As its president, Anderson leads the Urban League of Detroit and Southeastern Michigan. And, as the nonprofit marks its 100th anniversary this year, he's proudly overseeing its efforts to celebrate long strides through that door.
Its signature event, the Distinguished Warriors dinner, happens March 17. This year’s five honorees span a broad range. There’s George P. Barnes Jr., owner of Heritage Optical Centers. He’s joined by Rep. John Conyers Jr., dean of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Roy Levy Williams, a former executive at both Chrysler and the Urban League. Two leaders receive posthumous accolades, too: Dan Krichbaum, civil rights leader, church pastor and former Michigan Department of Civil Rights director, and Capt. Mildred V. Leonard, one of the first Black women to serve as a U.S. Army Nursing Corps officer in World War II.
The Detroit league's history dates to when Black Americans first started arriving to Michigan in droves at the turn of the century. On Nov. 4, 1915, Eugene Knickle Jones, an organizer of the National Urban League, was sent to the Motor City to study the city’s growing Black community. He was struck. While 1,000 Blacks were moving to Detroit every month in hopes of a better life, they faced many obstacles, from discrimination to a lack of education and job training.
Other leaders have included John Dancy, who served between 1918 and 1960, along with Francis Kornegay, the aforementioned Williams, Donald Woods, the Rev. Ronald Griffin and Anderson. With the exception of three years he served with Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer's administration, Anderson has led the agency since 1987.So NUL officials tapped Forrester B. Washington to open a branch here on June 5, 1916. Since then, it's been a leader in providing human service assistance to Blacks. Its stately Albert Kahn-designed headquarters, on Mack Avenue near the Detroit Medical Center, has been a community staple since 1942.
In particular, Anderson is proud of the league's work with youth and expansion of its Women, Infant and Children nutrition and wellness programs. He plans to lead an effort to maintain and restore its headquarters.
To learn more about the March 17 Distinguished Warriors dinner and other events, call 313-832-4600 or visit DetroitUrbanLeague.org.
Ken Coleman is author of three books on Black history in Detroit.