The Urban League of Springfield had its real beginning in 1913, with an idea conceived by St. John’s pastor, Reverend Dr. William N. DeBerry. The idea being that there should be in the community a place where young Negro women could live, learn and work together in a wholesome and productive atmosphere. That same year, the St. John’s Parish Home for Girls was founded and soon became recognized as a solid foundation on which to build better human relations in the Springfield Community.
The first meeting of the incorporators of the St. John’s Parish Home was held at the office of Wilmore B. Stone, at 15 Elm Street on March 28, 1914. Dr. DeBerry was unanimously elected to serve as the first president. The main objectives of the corporation were to provide “a house where at a minimum cost, girls and young women might have the advantages of a well-ordered home; improve their moral, social and industrial welfare, teaching them the various branches of domestic science and allied industries, and aiding worthy girls and women to obtain suitable employment”.
In 1918, the corporate name of the agency was changed to St. John’s Institutional Activities, so as to include in its scope the work of the Boy’s Club and a proposed home for aged black people in the community. At the annual meeting that year, Dr. DeBerry spoke of the increased migration of black people from the rural south and ways in which the expanded organization was trying to help them become properly adjusted to their new environment.
By vote of the incorporators on January 11, 1919, the agency became affiliated with the National Urban League for Social Service Among Negroes, which had been founded nine years earlier with much the same objectives as those espoused by St. John’s Parish Home for Girls and St. John’s Institutional Activities. These objectives were “to carry on constructive and preventative social work among Negroes for improving their social and economic condition in urban centers, to bring about coordination and cooperation between existing agencies where necessary, to secure and train Negro social workers and to make such studies in cities as may be required to carry out the objectives of the League.”
During this period, Dr. DeBerry carried on as pastor of St. John’s Church and President of St. John’s Institutional Activities. It was also during this period that one of the most significant events of the League’s history occurred; that being the acquisition of 54 acres in North Brookfield, Ma. This historic event occurred in 1921, when the birth of the “St. Johns Camp”—later renamed Camp Atwater (1924).
About the year 1930, St. John’s Institutional Activities officially severed its connection with St. John’s Church and adopted the name of the Dunbar Community League. Dr. DeBerry subsequently resigned his position as pastor of St. John’s and devoted his time exclusively to directly the new and expanded organization. He continued as Executive Director until his resignation at the Annual Meeting on November 15, 1946. Dr. DeBerry died on January 20, 1948.
On November 15, 1950, the League went through it’s final name change; from Dunbar Community League to the Urban League of Springfield, Inc. With the purchase of the property on Oak Street in 1948, the Urban League moved its offices to 33 Oak Street, where they remained until 1962. At this time, with the widening of activities in the areas of job development and advocacy, an office was opened on 83 Hillman Street in the downtown business section of the city. Many of the athletic and social aspects of the old St. John’s Activities and the early Dunbar Community League remained in Oak Street under a newly formed organization by Springfield Urban League of Springfield and it was named the Dunbar Community Center. In the following years and under the leadership of subsequent directors, many problems of Springfield’s minority community have been addressed and many milestones passed.