Willie Mae Wilson, a former president of the St. Paul Urban League, and husband Bill Wilson, a former City Council president, have asked a judge to prevent the league’s board from selling its headquarters. They fear that the struggling group will wither without it.

Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

St. Paul Urban League dispute pivots on sale of headquarters

  • Article by: ANTHONY LONETREE
  • Star Tribune
  • February 22, 2012 - 7:22 PM

A Dumpster out back and a "for-sale" sign out front signal hard times for the St. Paul Urban League.

Now the question is: Would the sale of its headquarters save or kill the storied organization?

Willie Mae Wilson, the group's former president, and Bill Wilson, her husband and a former City Council president, asked Ramsey County District Judge Margaret Marrinan this week to prevent the Urban League's current board from selling the building.

To the Wilsons, the sale would bring an end to an institution that at the time of its founding in 1923 was "perhaps the most active black organization in Minnesota," according to a 2001 story about labor, politics and black identity in Minnesota History magazine.

But Raymond Jefferson, the board's chairman, contends that the Urban League, now shut down and with virtually no income, can be revived with a proposed sale that he says would give it the resources to again provide employment counseling and other services.

"The building is not the Urban League," attorney Neal Shapiro, who represents the board, said Tuesday.

Marrinan took the matter under advisement, but not until after agreeing that the current board lacked the authority, under its charter, to approve a sale, and after informing the Wilsons that they'll likely have to post a bond to continue the fight.

The Rev. Runney Patterson, president of the St. Paul Black Ministerial Alliance, whose group co-hosted a community meeting about the Urban League's struggles in September and who attended this week's court hearing, said many in the community simply want a revitalized Urban League.

"My priority is to come up with some common ground," he said.

Creating opportunity

From its inception, the St. Paul Urban League was known for helping the community find work. One of its founders, S.E. Hall, was a barber whose relationships with white entrepreneurs paved the way for black citizens to gain employment. He is described in the African American Registry as "one of St. Paul's finest."

The group's annual dinners became community celebrations. The Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, which hosted many of the events, has used photos of dinners in the 1950s and 1960s in some of its own materials, Executive Director Jonathan Palmer said this week.

Willie Mae Wilson retired as president of the St. Paul Urban League in December 2004 after 30 years at the helm. At the time, the organization's annual operating budget was $1.7 million, court documents say.

But during the next several years, the Urban League lost its United Way funding and was unable to obtain funds from the Bremer and St. Paul foundations, as well as from the state and the city of St. Paul, Jefferson said in an affidavit filed Tuesday. He added that one of the organization's board members paid $1,000 to a plumber to close the headquarters at 401 Selby Av. last fall.

Relations between the St. Paul chapter and the National Urban League have been strained.

Jeffry Martin, an attorney representing the Wilsons, argued Tuesday that the Urban League's assets should be put into a trust until an accounting of its records is complete and until the group's difficulties are resolved.

"They are now broke," he told Marrinan, and the building's sale makes it "highly unlikely" that the Urban League would deliver services again in St. Paul.

Jefferson, a St. Paul police sergeant, said that the building was the chapter's only asset, and that "all of the proceeds" from a sale would be used to pay bills and resume operations. The building, valued at $528,400, is to be sold for $584,133, according to a Jan. 21 purchase agreement, with $145,000 due at closing. Shapiro said he believed the building would become a grocery store.

At Hallie Q. Brown, Palmer said he learned of the Urban League's difficulties about the time he came aboard at the center four years ago. He said there was a need for the group's presence in the areas of employment and training, and welcomed the opportunity for the organizations to work together again.

Behind the Urban League building, a broken computer monitor, old phone books and Insight community newspapers were among items tossed in the trash.

So, too, was a request for help, a handwritten slip about a phone call for Sheena from a woman named Heidi, who was seeking rent assistance.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-875-0041

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