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Urban League’s visit reflects a new Boston

3-day convention may draw 6,000

By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / July 25, 2011

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One of the country’s oldest civil rights organizations, the National Urban League, brings its convention to Boston this week, part of the city’s broader effort to woo minority conferences and remake the city’s reputation as unwelcoming to people of color.

The effort by political, business, and tourism leaders to attract conventions since the early 2000s has pumped millions of dollars into local businesses through cab fares, hotel stays, and restaurant tabs. But it has also acted as word-of-mouth marketing when visitors return home and talk about their trips.

That helps dispel the notion held by many living outside Boston that this is an intolerant city, a view that lingers from televised images of the school desegregation fight of the 1970s, said Jim Rooney, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority.

There have been successes and failures along the way, such as scoring the 2003 National Association of Black Accountants but losing the 2008 UNITY: Journalists of Color convention to Chicago. And Blacks in Government considered and rejected Boston for its annual convention three times before deciding to hold its 2011 gathering at the Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center Aug. 22 to 25.

“This is part of a long process that is necessary for some of the wounds to heal and some of the perceptions to be dealt with,’’ Rooney said. “We met with folks from organizations like Blacks in Government. It became pretty clear to us that as much as we think Boston has progressed, and there’s been a great deal of progress as it relates to race relations, there are lingering and sometimes strongly held perceptions about Boston as a welcoming city - or not - to people of color.’’

But the president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, Darnell Williams, says in his welcome message on a convention website: “That was then. This is now, and the city’s social, cultural, and economic evolution cannot be denied.’’

The fact that the century-old civil rights organization is returning to Boston for the first time since 1976, Williams said, is “validation of the progress the city has made.’’

Some political and community leaders, however, say the issue is more complex than simply trying to woo black and Latino tourists to Boston. That goal, they agree, has been accomplished. This would be the true test of progress, they said: increasing the number of African-Americans relocating to Boston and improving race relations in the city’s neighborhoods so that diversity exists not only in theory but in practice.

Melvin King, former state representative, said people must see “visual, economic symbols’’ to know that Boston truly has become an integrated city. That means, he said, people should see themselves reflected in the staffs of the businesses they patronize.

“We all want to say that the Urban League came and that’s an indication that things are better here, but I think the survey needs to be done afterward,’’ King said. “What did they see? What’s the impact of the dollars that they spent? Is it ending up in Roxbury and Dorchester and the South End and in folks’ of color hands? That, as they say, is where the rubber hits the road.’’

Boston’s population increased almost 5 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to US Census figures. But the black population - estimated by the Census to be about a quarter of Boston - essentially remained flat.

“That’s serious business,’’ said state Representative Byron Rushing, a South End Democrat, adding the problem is most profound with adults under 35. “If you look at this as a trend, it’s that they have essentially said no to Boston. The people who . . . have lived through busing, they have given up and they are gone.’’

Young professionals want to know that staying in Boston means opportunity for professional growth, he said. “What the Urban League needs to do is start a campaign to get black people to move here,’’ he said.

About 6,000 attendees are expected to spend $3.3 million during the three-day conference - its theme is “Jobs Rebuild America’’ - that begins Wednesday and features Obama administration members, international executives, and magazine editors. There are officially sanctioned events, such as a comedy show featuring Sinbad on Thursday night, as well as ancillary affairs.

Today’s State of Black Boston Town Hall, for example, is a preconference event held by the local branch of the Urban League that expands on issues highlighted in a 2010 report. The report determined that a wave of minority children is about to come of age in Boston, and unless policy makers, business leaders, and community-based organizations prepare them for adulthood, Boston will have a labor pool of unemployed, underemployed, or unemployable adults, due in large part to poverty.

Williams said his group initially planned on 250 people attending today’s town hall, but close to 1,000 signed up.

“That’s really showing that there is such a groundswell of excitement about this conference,’’ Williams said in a telephone interview. “It’s showing that Boston is just ready. We’re ready for the conversation about race. We’re ready for the conversation of how we want to perceive Boston differently.’’

Williams said that if he accomplishes his goal to show that Boston is “not hostile to people of color . . . it was well worth the three years of hard work.’’

But that is a goal Mayor Thomas M. Menino says has already been accomplished.

“That’s the problem we have in Boston; we assume the old,’’ Menino said. “It’s a different Boston. I get very concerned when people want to go back to 1973.’’

Menino points to conventions such as the 2003 meeting of black accountants and the conference that same year of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., as well as the upcoming Blacks in Government conference, as proof Boston doesn’t have a problem attracting minority conventions.

“If we continue to say that and write that, then it’s going to persist,’’ the mayor said. “I just want to have the Urban League to have a good convention in Boston and talk about the issue of jobs and empowerment and opportunity. I just want to have a good discussion about that.’’

Marc Morial, head of the National Urban League, couldn’t agree more. Morial said he understands the reservations some convention-goers might have about bringing the group to Boston, but Governor Deval Patrick, the mayor, and Williams assuaged any of his concerns.

He said the conference gives Boston the opportunity to showcase itself to “very important opinion leaders.’’

“Our focus is on jobs,’’ he said, adding that the organization will be launching a new online employment portal with 150, 000 jobs. “And we’re going to pound and elevate that conversation.’’

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson2.