“Harlem was home; was where we belonged; where we knew and were known in return; where we felt most alive; where, if need be, somebody had to take us in. Harlem defined us, claiming our consciousness and, I suspect, our unconsciousness.” — Actor and activist Ossie Davis
In 1904, a few years before George Edmund Haines and Ruth Standish Baldwin founded the National Urban League, Black New Yorkers pushed out of other neighborhoods began moving into Harlem. They were soon followed by a flood of migrants escaping the violence and terrorism of the Jim Crow South. The convergence of ambitious, motivated Black people from around the country with employment opportunities created by World War I exploded into the Harlem Renaissance.
With it, came the courage “to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame,” as Langston Hughes put it.
Mindful of this profound legacy and storied past, we at the National Urban League could not be prouder to announce a historic building project that will keep us in the city where we were founded, while enhancing the economic and cultural revitalization of Harlem.
The Urban League Empowerment Center, on 125th Street between Street between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Lenox Avenue, will include the National Urban League’s headquarters, the Urban Civil Rights Museum Experience and the National Urban League Institute for Race, Equity and Justice — along with affordable housing, office space and retail space.
The $242 million project is one of the largest and most significant building projects in Harlem in 50 years. As a legacy civil rights and social justice organization, the National Urban League has worked for more than a century to strengthen and vitalize urban neighborhoods through community investment. I’m extremely proud that we are able to put those same guiding principles to work with our own future home.
Over the past several years, the National Urban League has turned down offers to relocate to other cities, including Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta, Chicago and others. New York City is where we were born, and I am proud that New York City is where we will stay. I am even more excited about the neighborhood economic development the building project represents.
The National Urban League has a long history of supporting the cultural and artistic pulse of Harlem. Opportunity, for many years our official monthly publication, employed Harlem Renaissance writers, publishing their poetry and short stories and promoting African-American literature through articles, reviews, and literary prizes.
With affordable office space for non-profit organizations like One Hundred Black Men of New York, the United Negro College Fund New York, and the Harlem-based Jazzmobile, the Empowerment Center will be a hub and a catalyst for enterprise, creativity, activism and advocacy.
We have been intentional about supporting minority-owned businesses, partnering with Black-owned BRP Companies, and committing to 30% of construction contracts for minority-owned businesses. Prominent African-American professionals, including real estate attorney Charles J. Hamilton Jr. of Windels Marx and Dabar Development Partners founder and CEO Dawanna Williams have had lead roles in the project.
The project would not be possible without the wholehearted support of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his extraordinary effort to align state agencies and private sector partners to move the project forward. We also owe a debt of gratitude to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, State Assemblywoman Inez E. Dickens, s tate Sen. Brian Benjamin, City Councilman Bill Perkins, and Margaret Anadu, head of the Urban Investment Group at Goldman Sachs.
The Urban Civil Rights Museum Experience will be New York’s first museum dedicated to civil rights and one of the first in the nation to focus on the history of civil rights in the North. It also includes below-market office space for community groups and civic organizations, as well as 170 affordable housing units to be constructed with support from New York State Homes and Community Renewal.
We look forward to formal groundbreaking in the near future and completion by late 2023.
The project is supported by Empire State Development, Homes and Community Renewal, and Harlem Community Development Corporation. The development is being led by BRP, L+M Development Partners, Taconic Partners, The Prusik Group, and Dabar Development. Private funding is being invested by Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group, Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation, Red Stone Equity Partners, and Santander Bank, N.A. Additional partners include New York State Office of General Services, New York City Economic Development Corporation and Settlement Housing Fund, Inc.
Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.