Celebrate the hidden and incredible stories
Right here in East Central Illinois
Champaign County African American Heritage Trail
Discover over 170 years of rich cultural history and building community. Through Reconstruction and the Great Migration, through the Depression and two world wars, through the Civil Rights era right up to the present day, learn the powerful stories of African Americans who directly shaped the place we call home.
The mission is to educate today’s residents and visitors about the rich cultural history of a people whose stories have been largely unrecognized. Our vision is to inspire conversation, expand understanding, and contribute to a better society.
Image credit: Intersection of Neil & Main, Champaign County Historical Archives
Frederick Douglass’ Visit to Champaign
Frederick Douglass visited Champaign on February 15, 1869, at Barrett Hall, located above what was Henry Swannell's Drug Store, now One Main Plaza. His topic was Self-Made Men. It was reported that, “His wit was keen and sparkling, his humor dry and effective, and his logic and argument as clear as that of the most polished orator in the land.” Champaign County Gazette, February 17, 1869, page 1📍
Image credit: Visit Champaign County
Dr. Martin Luther King Subdivision
The Dr. Martin Luther King Subdivision, located between North Fourth Street and the Canadian National railroad tracks in Champaign, Illinois, was a part of urban renewal that took place in the late 1960s, eventually replacing the old Oak-Ash neighborhood. It began in the 1980s and was the only urban renewal project that was not replaced with public or subsidized housing. The names of the streets in the subdivision were chosen to recognize African Americans who were historically significant for the community and submitted to the city council by J. W. Pirtle. 📍
Image credit: Above: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School │ In-Text Images (Top Left to Bottom Right): Carlos Donaldson, from the Illinois News Bureau and Bill Wiegand; Willeta Donaldson, from the News Gazette obituary for Willeta Donaldson; Paul Hursey, from "A life remembered: Urbana's first Black elected official, a local civil-rights icon," News Gazette (March 18, 2007); Shirley Hursey, courtesy of the Hursey Family; Jo Ann Jackson, courtesy of the Jackson Family; Evelyn Underwood, from "Urbana desegregation pioneers to receive accolades today," News Gazette (January 13, 2017)..
Civil Rights, Social Justice, & Politics
The Ellis Drive Six and School Integration
In 1965, two neighbors and University of Illinois mailmen, Carlos Donaldson and Paul Hursey, learned of a dissertation that identified achievement gaps between African American students who attended James Wellen Hays Elementary School and the other schools in Urbana School District 116. Realizing that their children were not receiving an equal education, Donaldson and Hursey, along with Willeta Donaldson, Shirley Hursey, Jo Ann Jackson, and Rev. Dr. Evelyn Underwood, formed the Hays School Neighborhood Association. They lived in the Dr. Ellis Subdivision—the first subdivision of single-family homes in Urbana developed for African Americans—and met, researched, and strategized about meeting with the Urbana School Board to address educational disparities and advocate for school integration in 1966. These neighbors became known as the Ellis Drive Six. 📍
Make a difference.
Image credit: Urbana Park District
King Park (915 W. Wascher Dr., Urbana) was established in 1967. Since then, the park has grown in size, and amenities include the Jettie Rhodes pavilion and a gazebo. It is named after the civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Lift every voice and sing
Your story matters.
Submit local history, buildings, or events to include on the Trail.
We want to hear from you!