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

Explore the Trail

Discover over 170 years of African American history in Champaign County. 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.

Note: Trail stops with a physical location or marker will include this icon next to their title below. The remaining share detailed history relevant to people, places, and significant events that shaped Champaign County but do not have a physical location to visit or marker to read. At this time, we encourage those who would like to explore the Trail in-person to use the map below to schedule self-guided walking or driving tours to locations of interest.

The historical references currently provided are a small sampling of what will be included on the Champaign County African American Heritage Trail. The organizing committee is currently curating additional significant historical events, places, and people that will be featured as the Trail continues to be developed.

101 E. Washington St., Champaign

Image credit: Experience Champaign-Urbana

Skelton Park

Skelton Park, a pocket park at the corner of N. First Street and E. Washington Street, is designed to pay homage to Champaign County's history of locally, nationally, and internationally recognized African American musicians.

Image credit: Homer Historical Society

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, was a trustee of the Homer Savings and Loan Association, and was nominated to serve on the Village Board several times. In 1877, Wiley Jones and Mrs. Fannie Roberson Morgan were married at the home of Rev. Whitlock. Fannie died in 1914 and Wiley Jones died in 1919 in a fire while lighting his stove. Wiley and Fannie are buried in the Homer G.A.R. Cemetery.

208 S. East Street, Homer, IL

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

Home of Jacob Earnest

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 bought 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.

Once located in east Homer and built in 1890

Image credit: Homer Historical Society

Homer High School

The Homer High School building where Mary Mack (née Morgan, step-daughter of Wiley Jones) became the first African American to graduate in Homer, where William Walter Smith became the first African American to graduate from University of Illinois, and where Robert Earnest and others attended, no longer exists. William Frank Earnest, Class of 1915, who was the first African American to die in combat during World War I in France, graduated from the Homer Opera House. His signatures are still found on the stage.

South Homer Lake Road off Route 49

Image credit: Homer Historical Society

Homer Park

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 for picnics, barbecues, band concerts, dances, orations, fraternal gatherings, swimming, and fishing. The Bethel A.M.E. Church of Champaign organized Sunday school events, and residents congregated for religious revivals and church outings. African American baseball teams and jazz bands also played at Homer Park.

Approximately 1 mile northwest of Broadlands, IL

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

The Smith Family of Broadlands

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.

Approximately 3 ½ miles north of Broadlands, IL

Image credit: 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 Salona Smith Sexton.

The Gaines Family of Ayers Township

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.

One Main Plaza, Champaign, IL

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

401 E. Park Street, Champaign, IL

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

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church

Located at 401 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 and had a church orchestra. The church served as a meeting place for Black students attending the University of Illinois, establishing monthly lyceum meetings where students and members of the congregation came together for lectures, discussions, debates, and musical performances. In 1915 it was the site of the founding of the Twin Cities Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Spiritual, community and educational development have continued to be a mission for the church.

320 N. Chestnut Street, Champaign, IL

Image credit: Champaign County History Museum

African Americans and the Illinois Central Railroad

Chartered in 1851, the Illinois Central Railroad was lobbied for by both Steven A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. Completed by 1856, it was considered the longest railroad in the world. From 1857 through the Civil War, the Illinois Central Railroad (IC) was said to carry fugitives from slavery, along with the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, and the Chicago and Rock Island Railroads. Fugitives travelled by box cars and passenger cars, by day and by night. With the assistance of railroad porters, sympathetic conductors, laborers, freedmen, and abolitionists, they managed to travel mostly without arrest.