Urban League: From a typing class to 50 years of service

P.G. Peeples, president of Urban League of Lexington-Fayette County, stood in 2013 by new housing the agency constructed on Elm Tree Lane.
P.G. Peeples, president of Urban League of Lexington-Fayette County, stood in 2013 by new housing the agency constructed on Elm Tree Lane. Herald-Leader file photo

On May 17, 1968 the Urban League of Lexington-Fayette County received its charter to serve the marginalized and underserved in Lexington.

The journey began on Jan. 31, 1963 when the Rev. James W. Angel of Second Presbyterian Church wrote a letter to the National Urban League about the possibility of forming an affiliate here, then a city of 135,000.

Established in 1910, The National Urban League is the nation’s oldest and largest community-based movement devoted to empowering African-Americans to enter the economic and social mainstream.

With an intentionally integrated board of directors, the NUL by the 1960s was finding success in training, educating and opening up employment opportunities in many areas of the country.

Angel described a “responsible group” of businessmen, professionals and community leaders who were concerned about these very challenges within Lexington’s black community. They saw the Urban League as a unifying means to address the critical issues of equity and equal access. Gradually, the idea gained momentum, garnering support from many segments of the community.

In October 1968, the original office was opened in the YMCA on Second Street, a testament to the combined efforts of many concerned citizens — black and white — who secured the necessary funding and hired Walter Brown as executive director.

Harry Sykes, Lexington’s first black city commissioner and a leader in the move to establish the affiliate, was elected chairman of the board and a rich history of positive outcomes began. The first program offered was a free evening clerk-typist class taught by Sykes’ wife, Geraldine.

Today, the Urban League’s Community Technology Center at 145 DeWeese St., which opened in 2001, provides internet and computer access to low-income residents, web and computer skills workshops for youth and senior learners, software training, fiber-optics certification training and GED site services. In a typical year, the center will serve about 1,700 clients.

Advocating for youth in terms of quality education, mentoring, motivation and access to career opportunities has been a top priority. Current programs include YLEAD, a financial literacy program; One Community One Voice Academic Challenge; and MADE for gang and violence intervention. LIFT and the Parent Leadership Academy challenge students, parents and educational institutions to work together for quality education and equal opportunity.

Over 420 scholarships totaling $1.88 million have been awarded to date through Urban League programs, and over 4,000 students and parents received academic mentoring, planning, entrepreneurship and life-skills training.

To address serious housing problems, the Urban League formed the Fayette County Local Development Corporation in 1981. Its mission is to provide affordable housing through job training, market-rate construction and permanent mortgage-financing programs.

As a first step, four abandoned and burned-out houses on Chestnut Street were purchased and, with the Ex-Offenders Carpentry Skills Program providing labor, all were converted to modern homes for first-time homebuyers. Affordable mortgages were obtained through the Kentucky Housing Corporation.

As of today, the Urban League has built over $26.3 million worth of affordable housing, including single- and multiple-occupancy units for low-income and special-needs households.

Benchmark projects include the Elm Tree Lane Apartments and Russell School Apartments as well as revitalization of East End and West End neighborhoods.

Every program grew from the work of a dedicated staff and strategic community partners. On this momentous anniversary, the Urban League would like to extend its gratitude and thanks to the numerous organizations which have provided steadfast support; a special thanks to the United Way of the Bluegrass for funding the core operation of the Urban League.

Our thanks to the many community leaders, staff and particularly our constituents who have expressed gratitude for our investment of time, resources and training that changed their lives for the better. Supporting the Urban League is supporting a better future for all of Lexington. The work is as important today as it was 50 years ago.

To learn more, visit the website at www.ullex.org.

P.G. Peeples is president/CEO of the Urban League of Lexington-Fayette County.