Image Credit:
Bethel AME Church (Doris K. Wylie Hoskins Collection, Museum of the Grand Prairie, Mahomet, IL)

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.

Explore the Trail
Chanute Field

Image credit: Enlisted men and aviation cadets of the 99th Pursuit Squadron posed in front of Building T-39 (mess hall) at Chanute Field, Rantoul, Illinois. Some of the men are holding folders and notebooks from their classes. (Courtesy of the National Museum of the United States Air Force.)



Former Chanute Air Force Base and the 99th Pursuit Squadron

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 credit: Cattle Drive, Homer, IL, date unknown, Homer Historical Society.


Black Cowboys in Southeastern Champaign County

Before the famous Texas Cattle Drives, there were Black cowboys herding cattle in East Central Illinois. One of the largest cattle farms in the United States was located in southeast Champaign County: Ohioan Michael Sullivant's farm, Broadlands. Many African Americans filled the essential roles of cattle herding and farm maintenance on Sullivant's Broadlands Farm and other large cattle farms in southeastern Champaign and southwestern Vermilion Counties, as well as at Sullivant's holdings in Ford County. At their height, these farms sold cattle to the East, to the stockyard of Chicago, and to the Union Army during the Civil War. Additionally, African Americans were hired as cooks, standard farmhands and laborers, hostlers (caring and handling of horses and mules), and domestics. Farm and stock help were highly intermittent—with workers coming and going depending on the farms' needs—so the actual number of African American cowboys in Champaign County was unknown. However, the 1865 Illinois Census recorded nine African Americans working at Broadlands Farm: four women working as cooks and domestics, and five men working with the livestock and living in the large bunkhouse along with other “hands”.

611 East Pennsylvania Avenue, Champaign, IL

Image credit: Mt. Hope Cemetery War Memorial

African American Civil War Burials and Mt. Hope Cemetery

Located west of Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Mount Hope Cemetery (611 E. Pennsylvania Ave., Champaign, IL) was plotted and internment began in 1856. Sitting on the dividing line between the two cities, it’s the oldest operating cemetery in Champaign-Urbana. Throughout its 150 years, it has been the final resting place for many local African Americans and their families, including most of those who fought in the Civil War. The majority of these veterans were buried in what was the Grand Army of the Republic’s (G.A.R.) section, now known as the “old” veteran's section, found as you enter the cemetery. It is represented by the Civil War Memorial and a 32-pound canon built in 1851. However, many of the original markers no longer exist for many of these and other Civil War veterans, or they were moved to other locations in the cemetery.

African Americans veterans from various wars including World War I and II are also buried in this section.

Did you know…

Image credit: Top: "In All My Years: Portraits of Older Blacks in Champaign-Urbana" by Raymond Bial (Champaign County Historical Museum); Bottom: Champaign Park District


Wesley Park

After teaching first grade at Lawhead Elementary School since 1946, Odelia Wesley transferred to Washington Elementary School in 1951, where she became the principal three years later. She earned many honors and awards for her work with children and seniors. The city of Champaign dedicated Wesley Park (915 N. Third Street) to her in 1970. She continued to give back to the community as a member on the Board of Directors of the Frances Nelson Health Center, as a member of the American Association of University Women, and a teacher of knitting and crocheting for the Retired Senior Volunteer Program at Helen Stevick Center.


Image Credit:
Salem Baptist Church (Homer Historical Society)

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