From "The Chapel" to the Buffalo Urban League

By Greene, B. Gwendolyn | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 31, 1997 | Go to article overview

From "The Chapel" to the Buffalo Urban League


Greene, B. Gwendolyn, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


From "The Chapel" to The Buffalo Urban League

Formerly known as "The Chapel," the Buffalo Urban League's community center had an interesting origin. It began with church-related social services traced back to pre-Civil War agencies such as Hull House in Chicago. Many other cities responded to the migration of families from Europe and the rural South. Likewise, a Buffalo congregation answered the need.

In 1856, Lafayette Presbyterian Church of Buffalo founded a center to meet the needs of new arrivals who did not speak English and had no Sunday School program. Volunteers and paid workers from the church offered Sunday School, crafts, cooking classes, folk dancing, sewing, sports and other types of recreation for the German, Italian, and Jewish families in the neighborhood which is still today known as the Ellicott District. With a great deal of religious emphases in a bi-lingual setting, the center was known as "The Chapel." Staff members from the west side of town developed a program with few changes except growth for some sixty years.

By 1905 Negro families began to arrive in search of jobs, housing, and eager to establish their own religious organizations. Irish families, Syrians, and a few Orientals who had also joined the neighborhood came and left as they moved closer to jobs. This was one of the older sections of Buffalo.

By 1912 the Cedar Street building was renovated and enlarged. Officially named Memorial Chapel Social Center, efforts were made to create understanding among the various ethnic groups. The Center's staff witnessed the gradual growth of the Negro population by 1910 numbering 1773 persons.

In 1925, a survey by Dr. Charles Johnson of Fisk University indicated a need for a local Urban League to service newcomers seeking jobs and adjustment to the urban setting. William L. Evans, Executive Director and Mrs. Theresa Greene were early administrators providing agency services on William Street at Jefferson Avenue over a clothing store. The program was financed for two years by board member, Mrs. Virginia Schoellkopf. By that time, Lafayette Presbyterian Church no longer saw the need to finance the largely religious program at the Cedar Street Center.

Both agencies applied to Joint Charities (now United Way) for funding. It was suggested that a merger take place since the "Chapel's" program in the same area would blend with the Urban League's economic and outreach services. Therefore in 1928, the agency became Memorial Center and Urban League, Inc. The early years were difficult as the Chapel's staff did not want to relinquish administration to the trained and experienced Urban League leadership with some additional services in mind. In a few years, Lafayette Church withdrew as the neighborhood's social needs changed.

By 1930 there were 13,563 Negroes in the city and the Urban League set up the following objectives as its program developed:

---To improve the industrial, economic, social, and spiritual conditions of Negroes.

___To remove the causes of interracial friction.

___To provide a full and happy life in the community.

___To develop leadership.

___To provide opportunity to bring together people of different backgrounds.

In the three story building on Cedar Street facilities were adequate with an auditorium, gymnasium, five clubrooms, a large "teaching kitchen," a billiard room, woodshop, and four offices. There were some sixty groups meeting regularly along with special events such as weekly teen-age dances, holiday parties, musicals or dramatic performances, carnivals, dinners, and adult education classes. A well-established music school offered piano and voice instruction. Dance classes had waiting lists. Mothers joined the Home Bureau for classes in sewing, cooking, home decorating, and parenting. Youth services also included children's club groups, Scouting for boys and girls, tutoring, Camp Fire Girls, and some twelve basketball teams which successfully competed citywide.

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