Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Urban League & Syracuse history

A fellow employee asked me last week when I was planning to write "your February letter." She meant, was I going to write about Black History Month? I didn't have a topic, but as we talked, I said, "February is not over yet."

When I checked this blog, I realized I have never written an entry specifically about Black History Month. I have posted comments about civil rights and racial equality but not about Black History Month.

That very day I received a call from an old friend, Leon Modeste, who was President and CEO of the Urban League of Onondaga County for 15 years (1979 to 1994). Now a resident of Albany, GA, Mr. Modeste was a big part of Syracuse -- and of Syracuse black history.

I had found my topic for Black History Month.

I am sorry to say the Urban League no longer exists in Onondaga County. It shut down more than a decade ago, the victim of budget cuts, a leadership gap, and inconsistent community support.

I worked with Mr. Modeste in the League for many years. He will celebrate his 85th birthday later this year. We reminisced about the people we worked with and issues we encountered in recent Syracuse history. He recalled Andrew Willis, his immediate predecessor as Urban League CEO, who played an active role in desegregating the city schools, something that happened in Syracuse only in the 1970's, despite Brown v. Board of Education, 1954.

We talked about Dennis Dowdell, Sr., who founded the League in Syracuse in the 1960's, working with local employers and civic leaders during a time of black frustration and white worry. Mr. Dowdell was honored with the League's Harriet Tubman Award in 1988.

We remembered other figures from Syracuse's history, such as League Board members Elijah Huling, Jr., Harriet McDowell, the Rt. Rev. Ned Cole, Mary (Mitzie) Cooper, Charles Chappell, Jr., the Rev. Sherman Cummings, Charles Anderson, Larry Harmon, Dr. Bruce Leslie - and so many more. See Charles Anderson's op-ed article in today's Post Standard.

And the issues of the day! The Landmark Theater pepper spray incident. The civilian review board. Fair access to housing. Jobs and training. The importance of family life. Mr. Modeste was outspoken when he perceived injustice or hypocrisy.

The League offered a number of programs, balancing funding among a complex of local and government sources. I remember us calling then-State Senator Tarky Lombardi, Jr., who helped many times to keep state funds flowing during various budget shortfalls and cutbacks for programs the state had contracted with the League to provide.

There were programs in the city schools. One service encouraged students with after-school tutoring, involving parents. The Urban League honored a different family each year at an annual awards ceremony, respecting the decency and determination of family accomplishments.

The League helped educate and assist first-time mortgage applicants. And it was part of the community's cultural life with fashion shows and fundraisers. The photo, above, is from the Urban League's 25th anniversary dinner in 1989. That's an embarrassingly youthful me, next to Mr. Modeste.

Two years ago Mr. Modeste and Mr. Willis donated pictures, papers and other documents from the old Urban League to the Onondaga County Public Library.

Thanks to the prompt from a co-worker -- and a fortuitous call from Mr. Modeste -- I am able to post this commentary during Black History Month, just barely.

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