One of Seattle’s oldest civil rights institutions started its fight in the job market

Joseph Sylvester Jackson (center) was the Seattle Urban League’s first executive secretary.

Before Black History Month comes to a close, one Seattle institution and its leader deserve the spotlight for its work promoting racial equality for nearly 100 years. 

The Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, formerly the Seattle Urban League, was established in 1930 to improve the lives of the Black community, other people of color and the poor in Seattle. 

Through the years, the community-based social service organization has been led by a number of civic-minded Black leaders who worked to break down racial barriers and pave the way for the city’s BIPOC residents to claim their rights in the face of discrimination in housing, employment, education, health and welfare.

Its employment advocacy is particularly notable. 

Its first director, Joseph S. Jackson, led the organization from 1930 until 1938, focusing on finding employment opportunities for Black workers.

After arriving to Seattle from New York, Jackson became a “one man professional staff,” according to Blackpast.org, and plunged the organization into working on a number of problems facing the city’s small black community at the beginning of the Great Depression.  In his first year Jackson initiated community health and recreation programs such as Negro Health Week, the Vocational Opportunity Program,

He made progress through communication with the Civic Auditorium (currently known as McCaw Hall), Puget Sound Power & Light Company and the Mayor’s office. These early relationships were the forerunners of decades of creative programs with government and private agencies to promote racial equality. 

From 1940 to 1947, Seattle’s Black population more than tripled about 15,000 people, as job opportunities in the World War II industries expanded. When the war industries subsequently contracted, ushering in massive layoffs, there was widespread unemployment among the Black community.  The league worked to re-employ these workers in other industries, inc some cases helping some employers take the first step in hiring black people.

As the second-oldest civil rights organization established in the state of Washington, the Seattle Urban League has grown from a one-room, one-man professional staff in the Mission Building at 919 3rd Avenue to a 55-person staff with an annual budget of $6 million.

Some of its current employment-related programs include helping workers enter construction trades and the information technology sector. 

 


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