The Washington Urban League (WUL) was established in 1938 as the local arm of the National Urban League with Black economic empowerment as its focus. From its establishment through the height of the Civil Rights Movement, in the 1960's, WUL fought for equal opportunities for Blacks through lobbying efforts, job counseling, and civic activism.
In 1940, WUL joined the NAACP in demanding an end to the requirement that federal government job applications include photographs. This photo provision along with the civil service rule that at least three qualified applicants be considered for any position, effectively barred African Americans from being hired when an apparently white candidate was available.
In 1943, WUL joined other organizations in demanding that federally financed war housing for whites, just across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia, be converted for use by black households displaced two years earlier for the Pentagon's construction. Six months later, WUL argued that the city’s zoning regulation that restricted development in a section of Southeast D.C. to detached, single-family housing-only was "tantamount to zoning by race." Despite a legal appeal by the local white citizens association, the Board of Zoning agreed and opened the area up to multi-family housing that could more readily accommodate African American residents.
In June 1969, WUL staged a rally at Vermont Avenue Baptist Church for Black employees of the federal General Services Administration (GSA), where the vast majority were concentrated in low-paying jobs and had little hope of being promoted. The National Urban League's acting director, John Jacob, warned that staff who signed onto an anti-discrimination task force being organized that day would likely face "harassment or intimidation," and that a government investigation would probably find no evidence of racial discrimination. But, the League kept pushing, using innovative tactics to get results. For instance, when Pepco—the city’s power provider—sought a rate increasein the 1960's, WUL asked the District's Public Service Commission to defer approval of the increase until Pepco was investigated for racial discrimination. Although the League's job-counseling service was at first able to place only a small percentage of applicants in positions, its advocacy eventually opened more doors. By 1962, it was urging young women who could pass typing or shorthand tests to hurry to the League's office, because "companies are anxious to integrate," the Afro-American reported.