Urban League of Greater Columbus rebuilding after political strife

When the Urban League of Greater Columbus started 41 years ago, it brought together people of different races and economic backgrounds to quell racial tensions in the community. The organization became the vehicle through which many black residents received vocational training, adequate housing and economic opportunities, helping to build bridges in a city divided by race. But somewhere along the way the Urban League veered off track.

Political divisions in the African-American community, along with funding shortages, left the organization in turmoil. Now leaders are trying to rebuild the Urban League, six months after the resignation of Reginald Pugh, its most recent president and only the third in the organization’s history. Last month, board members elected a transitional board to guide a national search for a new leader and chart a course for the organization’s future.

New board members will be sworn in Feb. 28 while attending National Urban League Board Training at the Government Center, according to a statement released by Susan Cooper, the newly elected chair of the transitional board.

“We are pleased to announce that we are ‘moving forward’ with the reorganization and rebuilding of the local Urban League,” according to the statement. “We will be charged with revitalizing and moving the organization forward, mending relationships, rebuilding bridges, restoring partnerships and alliances in the community. Our primary goal and objective is to hire a new President/CEO which shall be an employee of the board of directors, as well as focusing on operations, compliance and updating the constitutional by-laws, fundraising, sponsorship, membership and programming.”

The local affiliate was once among the nation’s high performing Urban Leagues, having received a 4 out of 5 rating in a 2007 National Urban League affiliate performance assessment. At that time, the organization was listed as a “strong affiliate within the Urban League Movement.” The designation has not been achieved since, Cooper said. The Ledger-Enquirer submitted several questions about the local affiliate to the National Urban League in New York, but officials refused to comment until Feb. 28 when Herman Lessard, the national senior vice president of affiliate services, is scheduled to be in town.

In 2009, the United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley denied the Urban League’s request for $125,000 in funding. In the past, the money had been used for job training, housing counseling, youth programs, and to help ex-convicts re-enter the workforce.

Scott Ferguson, president and CEO of the United Way, said the organization’s proposal was rejected because it didn’t meet criteria. “The United Way funds programs within agencies based on a demonstrated community need, being good stewards of the community’s donations through the United Way and also being able to demonstrate results,” he said. “So all our decisions are made by local volunteers and I don’t think we’ve funded (the Urban League) for three years because they were unable to meet all of our requirements in the past.”

Ferguson said the Urban League was once a strong United Way partner and he hopes it will be again soon.

“I think it’s an important organization for our community and we do look forward to working with the new professional volunteer leadership because I think it fills a void in the community,” he said. “I think in the past they’ve done a good job of helping people find jobs, connecting folks to services and providing a valuable service to the community. So I’m glad to hear they’re in a rebuilding process.”

Even as the Urban League looks to the future, there’s still heated debate about what went wrong. Much of the friction stems from Georgia General Assembly elections that pitted Pugh against long-time state Sen. Ed Harbison. Pugh, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, led the organization from 2000 to 2012. And since 2006, he has tried unsuccessfully to unseat Harbison three times.

Pugh claims the Urban League was “blackballed” by the African-American community’s black political establishment. He said state representatives Calvin Smyre and Carolyn Hugley, along with Harbison, played a role in the organization losing funding from the United Way and other organizations.

Smyre said Pugh’s accusations don’t even dignify a response. Harbison and Hugley said Pugh is just trying to divert attention from his own shortcomings running the organization. They said black elected officials have done nothing to stop funding to the Urban League.

“I’ve not done anything to undermine the Urban League because the Urban League is a very important organization in our community,” Hugley said. “And I think it’s wrong for anyone to say African-American leaders would want to undermine a valuable resource for their own personal reasons. I’m sorry he feels that way. But I’m certainly not guilty of doing that.”

Ferguson, of the United Way, recalled meeting with elected African-American officials about five years ago to discuss services provided to their constituents. He said the Urban League was mentioned, along with other organizations, but no one asked the United Way to stop Urban League funding.

“We have a fair and equitable process that is not influenced by any political or community process,” he said.

Others in the community said it is Pugh who derailed the Urban League with his three consecutive runs for office. Gloria Strode, a long-time Urban League supporter whose husband was considered for the CE0/president position in 2000, said she doesn’t want to assign blame, but believes politics played a part.

“Sometimes we have things that take us from what our core mission and objectives are,” said Strode, also a Harbison supporter. “And when we mix politics in with what the mission is, sometimes we get off track.”

Pugh, who resigned from the Urban League position in August, said he left because of family issues. His sister died in July and his mother was very ill, and eventually passed away in October. He said he also has health issues of his own that kept him from working, and he doesn’t want to hinder progress.

“You know, the Urban League is a good organization,” he said. “I didn’t want people using me as an excuse not to support the organization.”

In August, the board elected Zeph Baker, a minister at Spirit Filled Ministries and a candidate in the 2010 mayoral election, as interim president/CEO. But the National Urban League reversed the appointment about 40 days later because of a requirement that a board member must be off the board for 12 months before serving as president and CEO, the organization said. Yet, just last week there was confusion about Baker’s role with the organization. In an interview, he said he was interim director and had been running day-to-day operations. But Cooper, the newly elected board chairperson, said that wasn’t true, and the board of directors has been running the local office. She said the transitional board elected Jan. 17 is already in effect.

Baker, meanwhile, provided the Ledger-Enquirer with a copy of the Jan. 17 Urban League of the Greater Columbus agenda that listed him as “Interim Day to Day Operations Director.” He said he will step down now that a transitional board is elected, and hopes the organization can move forward.

“It’s more than about me or any other person that I might not be in agreement with,” he said. “The thing that I think we all want to see is this safety net in place, for not just the citizens of Columbus, but for our surrounding counties as well, because they depend on the Urban League.”

Smyre, a former Urban League board chairman, remembers when the organization began in 1971. It was started by a biracial committee formed by Mayor J.R. Allen and Gov. Jimmy Carter to bring about racial harmony and social equality in Columbus. Smyre, who also served on the national Urban League’s Centennial Celebration committee in 2010, said the Columbus Urban League founders consisted of 13 people from diverse backgrounds who worked toward equality [Note] find solutions [/NOTE] . He said that’s what the community needs today.

“At that time, I called it ‘The 3 M’s’ because among the 13 that were gathered you had management, you had manpower and money,” he said. “The mission at that time was to secure economic self-reliance and have parity and civil rights. In the early ’70s, that was the main mission, but it evolved over the years to getting into housing and job development.”

The Urban League was a force during that time, Smyre said.

“I, for one, along with other elected officials, am happy to see that there’s a second chance and rebirth of the Urban League,” he said. “And we’ll do all we can to assist in that regard.”

As the Urban League tries to build a new future, it has one advantage. During Pugh’s tenure, the organization paid off the mortgage on its building, located at 802 1st Avenue, and is now debt free, according to Baker.

The next step in rebuilding is finding a new leader. The organization is working closely with the National Urban League to find a new president/CEO, according to the statement to the Ledger-Enquirer. It will focus on re-establishing housing, community development, educational, financial empowerment and youth/young professional programs.

Cooper said the new transitional executive officers and board members consist of 30 people, 19 of them new to the board. Once the organization is stabilized and back on track, the baton will be handed to a new board of directors and president and CEO. She said she hopes everyone will come together to make the Urban League the valuable resource it once was.

“The Urban League is not about politics,” Cooper said. “It’s about serving people, disadvantaged people, people that need help in the community.”