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Created on Wednesday, 13 February 2013 10:33 Last Updated on Wednesday, 13 February 2013 10:33 Published on Thursday, 14 February 2013 06:11 Written by Rebecca Nuttall - Courier Staff Writer Hits: 678
LIVING LEGACY—Annie Hanna Cestra, chair of the Urban League board of directors, presents Wendell Freeland with an award as Esther Bush looks on. (Photo by J.L. Martello)
On Feb. 9, the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh began the yearlong celebration of their 95th anniversary by hearkening to the past. As part of the kick-off celebration, they honored Wendell Freeland, former chair of their board of directors, with the inaugural Wendell G. Freeland Living Legacy award.
“Civil rights work, including the work of the Urban League, is extremely hard work, but we have helpers around us and this man is one of them,” said Pittsburgh Urban League President and CEO Esther Bush. “For the work that he has done over the many decades and the work he will continue to do, we want to recognize him.”
While the event was originally meant to feature remarks by National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial, who was prohibited from attending due to inclement weather on the east coast, it seemed fitting to give over the program to Freeland who took the audience on a journey with him as he shared anecdotes from his many years with the local Urban League, the organization’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement and his own rise to senior vice-president of the National Urban League board of trustees.
“At that time, for a Negro to be on the Urban League board, you had to be 60 years old. You really had to prove yourself. Of course there were White people who were younger,” Freeland said. “But low and behold, I was elected.”
The celebration also paid homage to Whitney Young, former executive director of the National Urban League and a driving force behind the Civil Right Movement. Freeland related his experiences with Young and his comments were followed by a screening of the film “The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights.”
“Whitney believed if the country could make a commitment to race problems and the status of Negroes, the problems could be solved,” Freeland said. “Unfortunately it did not.”
During Young’s 10 years as president of the Urban League, the organization grew from 38 employees to 1,600; and from an annual budget of $325,000 to $6,100,000. While he is less known than other civil rights leaders, Young was on par with the likes of Malcolm X and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for the progress he made in improving socioeconomic opportunity for African-Americans.
“In 1968 King was assassinated and the Urban Leagues decided we should get an insurance policy on Whitney and a guard,” Freeland said. “So that was the way it was and those were the things we did to make things safer for Whitney.”
That same year, an assassination attempt on Young came from two African-Americans who like others, disapproved of Young’s relationships with Whites. However, it was these relationships that allowed Young to gain influence with corporations and even government as he served as an adviser to presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon.
Before his passing in 1971 at only 49, Young dedicated a majority of his work to ending employment discrimination. This same cause and commitment to breaking down barriers to employment such as education and discrimination is a hallmark of the local Urban League today.
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