Champaign County African American Heritage Trail

The Champaign County African American Heritage Trail is a celebration of the lives and contributions of African Americans in the Champaign County area.  The mission is to educate today’s residents and visitors about the rich cultural history of a people whose stories have been largely unrecognized, but directly shaped the place we call home.  Our vision is to inspire conversation, expand understanding, and contribute to a better society. An important goal for the trail is to provide a free and accessible experience for visitors and all community members.

Trail Co-Chairs

Angela M. Rivers, Arts, Educator

Barbara Suggs-Mason, Educator

Committee

  • Alvin S. Griggs, Colony Square Cleaners
  • Chelsea Norton, Champaign Park District
  • Darius White, City of Urbana
  • Essie Harris, Douglass Branch Library
  • Gabe Lewis, Champaign County Regional Planning Commission
  • Greg Stock, Champaign Unit #4 Educator
  • Janet Soesbe, Urbana Park District
  • Jayne DeLuce, Visit Champaign County
  • Jessica Ballard, University Archives, University of Illinois 
  • Joelle Soulard, University of Illinois, Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism
  • Justin Michael Hendrix, HITNHOMEBOY 
  • Kelly White, 40 North | 88 West
  • Kenton Elmore, Community
  • Kevin Hamilton, University of Illinois, College of Fine and   Applied Arts
  • Mark D. Hanson, Museum of the Grand Prairie, Champaign County Forest Preserve District
  • Nathaniel Banks, Educator
  • Noah Lenstra, Educator
  • Rachel Lauren Storm, City of Urbana, Urbana Arts and Culture Program
  • Raymond Cunningham, Homer Historical Society
  • Rita Conerly, Community
  • Sam Hall, Village of Rantoul
  • Sam Smith, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
  • Sara Bennett, Champaign County Historical Archives at The Urbana Free Library
  • Sarah Christensen, University of Illinois Library
  • Sasha Green, C-U Mass Transit District
  • Taylor Bauer, Visit Champaign County
  • Terri Reifsteck, Visit Champaign County
  • Tina-Marie Ansong, Community
  • Wanda Ward, Public Engagement, University of Illinois
  • Will Kyles, Champaign County Black Chamber of Commerce

Timeline for Building the Champaign County

African American Heritage Trail

    Significant Stops on the Trail

    Discover over 170 years of African American history in Champaign County through stops along the trail. From historic churches to self-made individuals, you’ll discover powerful stories of African Americans and the rich history of building community in Champaign County.


    Homer, Illinois

    Wiley & Frances Jones

    Wiley Jones came to Homer from Decatur Georgia after the Civil War with William C. Custer. Jones would run a barber shop for years in Homer and was a trustee of the Homer Savings and Loan Association.  In 1877 Wiley Jones and Mrs. Fanny Roberson Morgan were married at the home of Rev. Whitlock. Fanny died in 1914 and Wiley Jones died in 1919 after a fire while lighting his stove.

    Image credit: Homer Historical Society


    Home of Jacob Earnest

    208 S. East Street, Homer, IL, 

    Jacob Earnest arrived in Vermilion County, Illinois in 1871 from Greene County, Tennessee where he and his family had been enslaved. By 1880 he was working 404 acres of farm, pasture and forest land around Carroll in Vermilion County and Homer in Champaign County, adding 80 acres in 1885. In 1897 he brought his Homer home and the adjacent lot. (The house presently at this location is not the original.)  A respected farmer, blacksmith, teamster and harvester, he was known for creating a steam powered horse drawn thresher machine and established his own threshing ring to harvest farms in the area.   

    Jacob Earnest’s Grave:  Lost Grove Cemetery, County Road 2500 E just west off County Road 800 N, 13 miles from Urbana, IL.  Jacob Earnest’s grave is unmarked.  

    Image credit: Jacob Earnest and Grandnieces, c. 1909/1910, Courtesy of Betty Rowoll, Urbana, IL. 

    Homer High School

    Once located in east Homer and built in 1890, the building where Mary Mack became the first African American to graduate in Homer; William Walter Smith the first African American to graduate from University of Illinois, Robert Earnest, and others attended no longer exist. William Frank Earnest, Class of 1915, who was the first African American to die in combat during WWI in France graduated from the Homer Opera House. His signatures are still found on the stage. 

    Image credit: Homer Historical Society


    Homer Park

    South Homer Lake Road off Route 49

    Briefly known as Riverside Park, Homer Park was an amusement park north of Homer that ran from 1905 to 1936. It was created by William B. McKinley of the Interurban and C.B. Burkhardt to encourage ridership on the transit line. African Americans utilized the Park from holding Emancipation Celebrations, to church outings, religious revivals, swimming and fishing.  African American baseball teams and jazz bands also played at Homer Park.  A small memorial is at this location within the Homer Lake Forest Preserve.

    Image credit: Homer Historical Society


    Broadlands, Illinois

    The Smith Family of Broadlands

    Approximately 1 mile northwest of Broadlands, IL

    George W. Smith arrived in Champaign County in 1876 and purchased his first 80 acres. Formerly enslaved, during the Civil War he acted as a Union Scout in Tennessee. A noted stockman, farmer, and horseman at the time of his death in 1911, he owned 437 acres and was worth $3,717,800 in today’s dollars. His son William Walter Smith became the first African American to graduate from the University of Illinois in 1900. George’s other sons expanded and continued the farm. In 1983 the Smiths were awarded a Centennial Farm designation for being in the family for 100 years. As late as 2012 its last 160 acres were still under family ownership.

    Image credit: George W. Smith Family, Doris K. Wylie Hoskins Archive, Museum of the Grand Prairie, Mahomet, IL


    The Gaines Family of Ayers Township

    Approximately 3 ½ miles north of Broadlands, IL

    Anthony Albert Gaines (also known as Albert Anthony) arrived in Champaign County with his stepfather George Smith in 1876, assisting with the Smith Farm. In 1893 he married Dora Earnest Thomas, daughter of Jacob Earnest, and established a farm 2 1/2 miles north in then Raymond Township, becoming one of the major black farms in the county. His daughter Helen and her husband Jessie C. Ward eventually took over running the farm. In 1999 the farm was still in the family with grandson Eugene Ward living there renting out the last acreage into the 2000s.  

    Image credit: Unidentified African American Family (Anthony Albert Gaines Family), c. 1915, Tudor Collection, Homer Historical Society, Homer, IL.  Left to right – 1st row: daughters Mary G., Mable A., Helen L. 2nd row: A. A. Gaines, wife Dora Gaines, and mother-in-law Sarah A. Earnest, wife of Jacob Earnest.


    Champaign-Urbana, Illinois

    Frederick Douglass’ Visit to Champaign

    Douglass visited on February 15, 1869 at Barrett Hall, located on the second floor above what was Henry Swannell’s Drug Store, now One Main Plaza, Champaign, IL.  His topic was Self-Made Men. “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

    Image credit: Intersection of Neil & Main, Champaign County Historical Archives


    First Black Churches of Champaign-Urbana

    Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church 

    Located at 405 E. Park Street in Champaign, Bethel A.M.E. Church is the oldest African-American led church in Champaign County. It was organized in 1863 and predates the establishment of the University of Illinois. During the early part of the century when segregation was a fact of life, Bethel established a library, had a church orchestra, and served as a meeting place for black students attending the University of Illinois. 

    Image credit: Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, c. 1900, Doris K. Wylie Hoskins Collection, Museum of the Grand Prairie, Mahomet, IL.  

    Salem Baptist Church

    Located at 500 E. Park Street in Champaign, Salem Baptist Church was initially established in 1867,  the same year the University of Illinois was established, as Second Baptist Church. In 1874 the original church was destroyed by arson.  After occupying locations at Swannell Drug Store at Main and Hickory and on East Clark Street, the church bought the land at its current location in 1901 and began construction in 1908. 

    Image credit: Salem Baptist Church, c. 1950, Digital Collection, University of Illinois Library, Resource #pmh4002, Urbana, IL

    St. Luke Christian Methodist Episcopal (C.M.E.) Church

    Located at 809 N. Fifth Street in Champaign, St. Luke C.M.E. Church was established in 1901, making it the third oldest historically African American congregation in Champaign County. Originally located on Eads Street in Urbana and called St. Luke Tabernacle Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, it was renamed in 1954 to Christian Methodist Episcopal.  The church was moved to its current location in 1914.


    Albert Lee

    Born on June 26, 1874, on a farm outside of Champaign, he attended the University of Illinois in 1894. In 1895, he became the second African American hired at the University. He was a messenger, then the clerk for the Office of the President at the University. At a time when African Americans were not allowed to live on campus, he took it up upon himself to assist them with housing and maneuvering through school. He became known as the Dean of African American students. He died in 1948 and was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery. 

    Image credits:

    Albert R. Lee, The Albert R. Lee Collection, University of Illinois Archives, Urbana, IL

    The Albert Lee House, c. 1978, Digital Collection, University of Illinois Library, Resource # IHA00170, Urbana, IL


    William F. Earnest American Legion Post 559

    Originally located at Fifth and Hill Streets, the William Frank Earnest American Legion Post #559 is now located at 704 N. Hickory in Champaign. It was charted in 1932 by African American World War I veterans and named for one of their fallen comrades who was a University of Illinois student-athlete from Homer, IL. Earnest served as a sergeant in the all-Black 370th Infantry Regiment from Illinois. One of the columns at Memorial Stadium also bears his name.  The founding members of Post 559 were Clifford Caldwell, Robert H. Earnest (brother of William F. Earnest), Dr. L.P. Diffay, Dr. Henry Ellis, Alvin Foxwell, Raymond Hines, Thomas Macklin, Cecil D. Nelson, and George Ray.


    Col. Wolfe School

    401 E. Healy, Champaign

    Working for Spencer & Temple in at least the initial design and planning for Colonel Wolfe was Walter Thomas Bailey. He was the first African American to graduate in architectural engineering from the UI, and the first licensed African-American architect in the state.  After the school was finished, Bailey, a 1904 graduate, moved on to a powerful position at the Tuskegee Institute. He practiced in Memphis and Chicago. (From the News-Gazette, June 2, 2019)

    Image credit: Champaign County Historical Archives


    North First Street Corridor, Champaign

    North First Street is one of the oldest districts in Champaign dating to the 1850s.  Since its early years African Americans had lived, worked, and owned businesses there, including The Mystic Theater the first and only African American movie house and Vaudeville theater in the 19teens. Over the years the population on and around North First Street became almost exclusively African-American with North First Street becoming the “black downtown.”

    Image credit: North First Street and University Avenue, 1926, Champaign County Historical Society, Champaign County Historical Archives, Urbana Free Library, Urbana, IL


    Douglass Park and Douglass Center

    Located at 510-512 E. Grove in Champaign, the park and center are named for the great African American orator and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. In 1941 the Douglass Community Service Committee began an effort to raise funds for the new complex, to be built on two empty lots.  Ground was broken in 1944 and the Center was completed in 1946. The center held classes in art, music, and sewing, among other activities. Athletics included adult softball, baseball, basketball, track, and tennis. The Center hosted many social events. One of the groups that brought national recognition to the center was its Drum and Bugle Corps and Drill Team. In 1975, 200 local residents protested the decision by the park board to demolish the old Douglass Center and replace it with a new gym. The group advocated for the old center to be replaced with a full-service, comprehensive center. After much discussion between the community and the park board, the “old” center was torn down and a new Center was constructed. It opened on December 12, 1976.  In March 1978, the Douglass Annex was opened with a focus on senior citizens, and in 1997 the Douglass Branch Library moved into its current site.

    Image credit: eBlackCU.net


    Lawhead and Booker T. Washington Schools

    Harriet J. Lawhead School, 408 E. Grove, built in 1907, was a small, 4-room building. During its early years it served German and Italian immigrants in the neighborhood. As African Americans moved into the area, the school was integrated for a period of time, but by the 1940s it was attended 100% by Black students. White children who lived in the area were sent to Columbia School. During World War II, two rooms in the basement of the school were used as a Servicemen’s’ Club, organized by community members for African American soldiers who were not welcomed in the USO at Chanute Field. The school was closed in 1952, prior to the opening of the new Booker T. Washington School and razed in 1990. It is now a parking lot.

    Mae R. Hawkins (1910-1983) was hired by the Champaign public school system in August of 1934, the first African American teacher hired in either Champaign or Urbana. According to the News-Gazette at that time, Miss Hawkins was hired to teach “colored students” exclusively at Lawhead School. A graduate of the Illinois State Normal University, she also attended the National Kindergarten School in Evanston, IL. Her salary was listed as $90.00 per month. She would eventually serve in the dual roles of teacher and principal of Lawhead School. Mary Frances Walden was a Champaign Unit 4 educator who was a student teacher of Miss Hawkins at Lawhead School and describes her as “a person of courage, compassion and commitment – a catalyst for all young people who knew her.”

    Booker T. Washington Elementary School, 606 E. Grove Street,  was built to replace Lawhead School and opened in 1952. Designed by Berger-Kelley Associates, it was a K-6 building serving Black children in the neighborhood. Odelia Wesley, formerly a first grade teacher at Lawhead, was principal and led an all-Black staff. She remained at the school as principal from 1952-1972. In 1968, Booker T. Washington School was established as a magnet program in partnership with the University of Illinois, as a part of Unit #4’s  desegregation plans to promote voluntary integration. While Black families would have to bus their children to southwest Champaign to integrate the schools there, white families could voluntarily choose to send their children to Washington School to access “innovative” instructional programs. Following the retirement of Mrs. Wesley, Mrs. Hester Suggs assumed the principalship (1972-1993) and developed an award-winning arts and humanities-based program which continued under the leadership of Dr. Arnetta Rodgers (1993-2000). 

    In 2010-2011 as a part of the schools of choice initiative mandated for Unit 4, the school was re-imagined as the Booker T. Washington STEM Academy.  A new school building, designed by Chicago architects OWP&P, was constructed with an instructional program focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

    Image credit: Harriet J. Lawhead School, Champaign County Historical Archives, The Urbana Free Library; Booker T. Washington School, LocalWiki.org


    Carver Park

    North of Bradley Avenue at Carver Drive  

    In 1951 African American civic leader Charles Phillips saw a need for quality single family housing in the Black Community.  So he put together a “grass roots” coalition of friends and acquaintances to buy 10 acres of farmland and hired developer Ozier-Weller Homes. Each family put up $350.00 to develop the 70 homes subdivision named after African American scientist and inventor George Washington Carver. It was Champaign-Urbana’s first subdivision financed and built by African Americans.  

    Image credit: George Washington Carver, c. 1910, photographic restoration, Wikipedia Commons


    Dr. Ellis Subdivision in Urbana, IL

    Northeast Urbana between Goodwin Avenue and Wright Street, north of Eads Street to Bradley Avenue

    Dr. Ellis Subdivision is the third single family subdivision created for African Americans in Champaign-Urbana after Carver Park in 1951 and Crispus Attucks Place in 1953. It was named for Dr. Henry D. Ellis the second African American doctor to practice in the twin cities. Active in the community, he served in WWI with the all African American 370th Regiment, was a musician, a founding member of the American Legion Post 559, and served on the Douglass Community Center Advisory Committee. He attended the University of Illinois Medical College.

     


    Dr. Martin Luther King Subdivision

    The Dr. Martin Luther King Subdivision, located between North Fourth Street and the Canadian National railroad tracks in Champaign was a part of urban renewal that took place in beginning in the late 1960s, eventually replacing the old Oak-Ash neighborhood. It was begun 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.

    Charles E. Phillips (1889-1975) was a grandson of David Johnson, an ex-slave, who came to Champaign-Urbana after the Civil War and was one of the founders of the Second Baptist Church, now Salem Baptist, in Champaign. Deeply involved in community activities, Mr. Phillips was a forerunner in promoting low cost, affordable housing for African Americans in the community. He served as a scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 11 through the Arrowhead Council for 25 years. He was appointed a member of the Champaign Housing Commission and served as honorary vice president of the Champaign County Urban League. He also served on the board of the Francis Nelson Health Center.

    Alvin G. Foxwell (1896-?)  was one of the charter members of the William F. Earnest American Legion Post 559 and an active member of the community. He was a member and Trustee of Salem Baptist Church.  He was active with the Republican Party and the Champaign Recreation Department, where he was one of the originators of the Servicemen’s Organization that lobbied for the establishment of a Servicemen’s Center for the black soldiers who were segregated from the recreational facilities at Chanute Field in Rantoul, IL and for Douglass Center.

    Cecil Dewey Nelson (1898-1971) was a charter and lifetime member of the William F. Earnest American Legion Post 559 where he served as its Commander. He also served as a Legion officer at both the state and national levels. A decorated sergeant in the all-Black 370th Infantry Regiment in World War 1, Mr. Nelson was a recipient of the French Croix de Guerre for bravery in battle and a Purple Heart. A former member of the Champaign Recreation Department, during World War II he was one of the organizers of the Servicemen’s Center, created to provide a recreational space for Black soldiers and the establishment of Douglass Park and Center. He served as a scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 11.  He was a member of Bethel A.M.E. Church, where he served on the Trustee Board and the Lone Star Lodge #18, Prince Hall Masons.


    University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

    Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center

    1212 West. Nevada, Urbana, IL 

    In 1969, the Afro-American Cultural Program was created with the two-fold purpose of assisting the university in providing a safe and welcoming environment for African American students and a resource to the campus at-large regarding African American contributions and issues. Now called the Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center (BNAACC), the new building which opened on April 9, 2019, provides the opportunity for staff to continuing serving students, faculty, staff, alumni, and other stakeholders in new and innovative ways.


    Bousfield Hall

    Located at 1214 S. First Street in Champaign 

    Bousfield Hall is named for Maudelle Tanner Brown Bousfield.  She was the first African American woman graduate of University of Illinois with degrees in astronomy and mathematics, graduating with honors in 1906. In 1927, she became the first black principal in Chicago Public Schools.

    Image credit: Maudelle Tanner Brown Bousfield, 1907 Illio (yearbook), no. 13, pp. 49, University Illinois Urbana Champaign Library, Urbana, IL; Bousfield Hall, credit University Housing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign


    The Presence of the “Divine 9” at the University of Illinois

    The first Black Greek letter organizations began in the early 1900s when African American students were excluded from dormitories, as was the case at the University of Illinois, study groups and social organizations at predominantly white institutions.  Often ostracized, Black students began to organize themselves for mutual academic and social support.  As these organizations evolved, they developed the values of scholarship, friendship, service, leadership, and philanthropy. Today all nine historically Black sororities and fraternities have chapters, commonly known as the “Divine 9,” on the U of I’s campus. Two of the earliest Black Greek organizations, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity and Alpha Kappa Alpha  Sorority, were the first such organizations on the University’s campus to provide housing for their chapter members. The first residence for Alpha Kappa Alpha (Gamma House) was located at 1201 W. Stoughton in Urbana and the first home for Kappa Alpha Psi was at 707 S. Third Street, in Champaign.

    The young women pictured on the steps in 1915 are members of the Gamma Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority which was established at the University in 1914. 

    Image credit: Used with permission from the Personal Collection of Hester Nelson Suggs


    Rantoul, Illinois

    Former Chanute Air Force Base and the 99th Pursuit Squadron at Rantoul, IL

    On March 22, 1941, the first all-Black fighter squadron, known as the 99th Pursuit Squadron, was activated at Chanute Field. “Pursuit” was the pre-World War II term for “fighter.” At the time, the U.S. armed forces maintained segregated units. Over 250 enlisted men were trained at Chanute Field in aircraft ground support—airplane mechanics, supply clerks, weather forecasters and armorers.  When the men of the 99th left Chanute to go to Tuskegee in November, they left behind the highest collective Grade Point Average ever earned at the base, before or since their stay. These men would become the core of the Black squadrons forming at Tuskegee and Maxwell Fields in Alabama where Black flyers were being trained— later known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

    Image: 99th Pursuit Squadron, Chanute Air Field, Rantoul, IL, c.1941,  Champaign County Historical Archives, Urbana Free Library, Urbana, IL 

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