Sundress Reads: Review of Pittsburgh and the Urban League Movement: A Century of Social Service and Activism

Pittsburgh and the Urban League Movement: A Century of Social Service and Activism by Joe William Trotter, Jr. (The University Press of Kentucky, 2020) details the history of the Urban League of Pittsburgh, an organization with over a century of social service and activism in the Greater Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area. The Urban League of Pittsburgh is a branch of the National Urban League, and this book breaks down 100 years of its goals, actions, how they were perceived, and the sometimes controversial approach they took to alleviate racial and class inequality. It also contextualizes and provides insight into the various events, biases, and ongoing, concurrent social struggles that factored into and influenced the Urban League Movement, giving readers an in-depth look at the often untold side of the history of Pittsburgh—and of the United States.

The book is divided into a prologue, three sections, and an epilogue. The three sections move in chronological order, from the Pittsburgh Urban League’s establishment, to changes brought about by the New Deal and the Black Freedom Movement. The epilogue concludes with the author’s thoughts on the Urban League Movement’s overall positive effects in connecting its social justice movements with social science research and social services. The book draws deeply from both primary and secondary sources, working across the Urban League’s files, newspapers, and oral histories, and is supplemented by relevant charts, clippings, and images from sources that include the census and the 1923 Pittsburgh Courier, though the book is almost entirely text.

The prologue provides both a helpful introduction to and a succinct summary of the book’s contents. Together with Part I—which details the beginnings of the ULP—we learn many of the themes and overall advocacy focuses that will be expanded on throughout the book, such as the push against racism in employment and housing and the ULP’s collaboration with other organizations, including those of the state government. By detailing the Urban League of Pittsburgh’s early practices and changing focuses, the author expands on the factors that led to these decisions: the workforce was volatile, influenced not just by wartime practices, but also rampant racism and sexism from employers and non-Black employees, who fought for lower wages and decreased opportunities for Black people. The percentage of Black people in the area also changed significantly, impacted by anti-enticement laws, labor shortages, discriminatory housing and employment practices, and living conditions.

The narrative delves into the interrelated nature of housing, employment, and community, and how they influence one another. For instance, better housing conditions led to better job performances and increased job stability. The ULP’s extensive research helped its staff pinpoint need areas and make crucial decisions on where to divert its resources, and Trotter concisely describes the results of these studies and consequences of its initiatives. Of the ULP’s research on the steel industry’s labor process, Trotter writes, “According to one branch research report, the so-called unskilled worker displayed considerable technical knowledge in the ‘conserving of his health and strength, personally avoiding burns or other accidents and protecting his fellow workman from same.’” These early chapters, which, on the surface, give a detailed history of the Urban League of Pittsburgh in its early years, describe the intersection of capital, labor, racial, gender, and class relations that continues throughout the history detailed in the book and persists today.

As the ULP evolved in the early 20s, it developed more of a focus on disparities in medical treatment of Black people and education. The first part of the book deals with post–World War I upheaval and its lingering effects, while the second describes the struggle of Pittsburgh’s Black community during the Great Depression and the continued turbulence brought about by World War II. Here, the pace picks up, with several years of struggle often condensed into single sentences and paragraphs. However, the narrative remains firmly dedicated to highlighting the most significant or representative events within the timeframe. The third section moves into post-WWII struggles and victories, including the Cold War’s influence on Black employment opportunities, the ULP’s role in the expansion of the African American middle class and the fall of Jim Crow, and the branch’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Crucially, as the ULP shifted its philosophy from using social services exclusively to using the principles of social services, the book shifts into a broader overview of the ULP’s actions, following its larger-scale efforts and activity. However, Trotter’s attention to details brings the narrative to more personal levels, pinpointing actions and policy decisions to specific people. The final chapter moves through the postindustrial era and late twentieth century into the present. As policies enacted in the earlier decades fell apart, the fight for equality continued to shift, with many struggles still ongoing. The epilogue reflects on the changes and steps made toward justice and the ULP’s impact on and connection with racial relations and social service work while pointing out the unequal treatment that remains.

Though the author’s descriptions of the Urban League of Pittsburgh’s actions and responses reveal his overall positive view of the branch, they highlight some of its potential controversies, such as the end of John T. Clark’s ULP tenure and mishandled or misguided policies. The book does not shy away from describing the biases that plagued the ULP itself, such as its classism, sexism, and even racism toward the very people it claimed to support. The effects of the ULP’s actions, both positive and negative, are made clear—the upticks in employment as a result of direct recommendations and advocacy, and the periods of stagnancy when even the ULP’s strongest advocates could not sway the racism of employers.

One of the points that makes this book stand out is its specificity: whenever possible, names, dates, direct quotes, and detailed summaries are provided, even with the source going as far back as 100 years. The details are balanced, though, with small time jumps and concise summaries—never too loaded or distracting. While reading this book, it was easy to imagine some of the events unfolding before me, especially the exchanges between Urban League staff and the people to whom they made recommendations (and arguments).

Overall, the book was a fascinating, insightful case study into the history of not just the Urban League in Pittsburgh, but the area’s changing Black communities, landscape, and society. I found the summaries at the beginning of each chapter helpful in understanding key takeaways and priming myself for the upcoming sections. These sections are divided by common themes while the chronological order of events is mostly preserved, leading to easy organization and fluency.

After reading this, I now feel it is impossible to truly learn about Pittsburgh’s history and governmental and societal treatment of Black people without an understanding of the role of the Urban League Movement in the area. Like the book’s inability to speak of one without the other, racial relations and general community disparity and controversy are deeply entangled with the organization’s actions, connections, and advocacy. This book is a crucial read for understanding not only history, but also the present.

Pittsburgh and the Urban League Movement: A Century of Social Service and Activism is available at The University Press of Kentucky


Stephi Cham holds a BM in Music Therapy with a Minor in Psychology from Southern Methodist University. She is currently working toward her MA in Publishing at Rosemont College, where she manages the publishing program’s communications as a graduate assistant. She is a freelance editor and the author of the Great Asian-Americans series published by Capstone Press, and her work has appeared in Strange Horizons.

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