Phyllis Nichols: 25 years of Urban League service and counting

Larry Van GuilderInside 640, Our Town Leaders

When Martin Luther King Jr. mesmerized the nation with his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, African-American equality with whites in job opportunities, housing, voting rights, civil rights and educational opportunities was regarded by some who had lived with discrimination daily for years as unrealistic if not unattainable. The National Urban League, then more than 50 years old, rallied against faltering aspirations to realize the dreams of King and other civil rights pioneers through a fundamental philosophy: Job training, education and community development would yield economic empowerment.


Five years following King’s historic words, the Knoxville Area Urban League was founded. Today, under the leadership of president and CEO Phyllis Nichols, the local Urban League affiliate follows the same road map.

“We were founded in 1968 to help African-Americans find jobs,” Nichols said, and 51 years later that remains the core mission.

Nichols came to the Urban League in 1994 as an education and curriculum specialist. She’s served as CEO since 2000.

A glittering array of awards and well-deserved honors illuminate her professional career. She credits her parents with providing her the inspiration to “make a difference.”

“My mother was one of 11 children and the only one who went to college. My father was the only one of three children who went.”

Both attended Tennessee State University, one of the state’s historically black colleges, and struggled economically to get through.

“This (education) is how you make a difference in your life,” they told her. “Education is the pathway to economic success as well as what provides the ability to engage with society.”

Phyllis Y. Nichols, (photo courtesy of KAUL)

Today the Knoxville Area Urban League has expanded its community role. Recognizing that owning a home remains the American dream for many, they provide counseling in all aspects of home ownership, from loans to maintenance. Nichols points out that all their counselors are HUD certified. This year the organization has helped to place 72 families in new homes.

From modest beginnings, the local affiliate currently operates with about a $1.5 million budget. If that sounds impressive, consider that the organization is working with about 10,000 clients. You can do the math. Handling programs as varied as home ownership counseling, entrepreneurship and job training doesn’t leave a lot of fat in the budget. Unfortunately, federal funds for some important programs have been cut in recent years without state resources to fall back on.

“Shoes for School” is a program that underscores the grim truth that just taking care of a child’s basic needs is beyond the means of some families.

“We started 17 years ago,” Nichols said, “and we learned two things: we need more shoes and get off that blacktop!” It was August, and “they almost died” in the heat. Lessons learned, and the following year they took the program into the comparatively cool, grassy park.

The needs remain great. This year they distributed 2,500 pairs of shoes and 4,000 school supply packages.

Each year the National Urban League publishes the “National Equality Index,” a quantitative measure of how African-Americans and Latinos compare with whites in areas including economics, health, education, social justice and civic engagement. (Beginning in 2020, the Index will be published biannually.) In 2018, the weighted average of all five categories for black Americans was 72.5. Translated, that means if a white “piece of the pie” is 100, the black piece was almost 30 percent smaller.

Nichols is a realist. She confesses that the “past couple of years” have not been encouraging in terms of progress, but her eyes are on the prize. Asked what her personal aspirations are she responded: “Personal? Complete the capital campaign for this building!”

For the CEO, personal and professional go hand in hand.

Larry Van Guilder is the business/government editor for KnoxTNToday.

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