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 will feature a 📍 in their description. 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. 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The historical references currently provided are a small sampling of what will be included on the Champaign County African American Heritage Trail.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.

605 N. Walnut, Champaign, IL

Image credit: 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

Albert R. Lee

Albert R. Lee was born on Jun 26, 1874, on a farm outside of Champaign, Illinois. He attended the University of Illinois in 1894, and in 1895 he became the second African American hired at the University. He started as a messenger, but then became the clerk for the Office of the President at the University. Lee served under six University Presidents. At a time when African Americans were not allowed to live on campus, he took it upon himself to assist them with housing and maneuvering through school, becoming known as the Dean of African American students. 📍

704 N Hickory St, Champaign, IL

Image credit: Visit Champaign County (Marcus Flinn)

William F. Earnest American Legion Post 559

African Americans from Champaign County fought bravely, and died, in World War I. Those who served did so with courage, honor, and distinction. Many of those who returned home found community and services at the William F. Earnest American Legion Post 559. Originally located at Fifth and Hill Streets, the Post is now located at 704 N. Hickory in Champaign. It was chartered in 1932 by African American World War I veterans and named for a fallen comrade who was a University of Illinois student-athlete from Homer, Illinois. 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. 📍

401 E. Healey, Champaign, IL

Image credit: Champaign County Historical Archives

Col. Wolfe School

Working for Spencer & Temple in at least the initial design and planning for the Colonel Wolfe School was Walter Thomas Bailey. He was the first African American to graduate in architectural engineering from the University of Illinois, 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. — News-Gazette, June 2, 2019 📍

North First St., Champaign, IL

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

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 have lived, worked, and owned businesses there. The Majestic Theater was one such business, being the first and only African American movie house and Vaudeville theater in the 1910s. Over the years, the population on and around North First Street became almost exclusively African American with North First Street becoming the “Black downtown.” 📍

510-512 E. Grove St., Champaign, IL

Image credit: Left: Douglass Center, c. late 1940s, Champaign County Archives, Urbana Free Library, Urbana, Illinois │ Right: Douglass Center, Courtesy of Champaign Park District

Douglass Park and Douglass Center

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 a new complex, to be built on two empty lots. Ground broke 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 new, 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 opened with a focus on senior citizens, and in 1997 the Douglass Branch Library moved into its current site. 📍

408 E. Grove St., Champaign, IL

Image credit: Champaign County Historical Archives, The Urbana Free Library

Lawhead School

Harriet J. Lawhead School, built in 1907, was a small, four-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 only 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.

North of Bradley Avenue at Carver Drive

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

Carver Park

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 ten acres of farmland and hired developer Ozier-Weller Homes. Each family put up $350.00 to develop the 70-home subdivision named after African American scientist and inventor George Washington Carver. It was Champaign-Urbana’s first subdivision financed and built by African Americans. 📍

Dr. Ellis Subdivision

The Dr. Ellis Subdivision, developed in 1961, is located in northeast Urbana. It is the third single-family subdivision created for African Americans in Champaign-Urbana after Carver Park in 1951 and Crispus Attucks Place in 1953. The subdivision was originally just outside city limits on undeveloped farmland. Today, the subdivision is situated in the historically African American North End neighborhood, between Wright Street to the east and Goodwin Avenue to the west, and Eads Street to the south and Bradley Avenue to the north. The Dr. Ellis subdivision was named for Dr. Harry D. Ellis, born December 31, 1894, to Charles and Carrie Ellis in Springfield, Illinois. 📍

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. 📍

1212 W Nevada St, Urbana, IL

Image credit: University of Illinois Archives

The Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center

In the fall of 1969, the University of Illinois’ Afro-American Cultural Program opened on campus to provide a safe space for Black students to gather and grow, to help Black students feel proud and welcome, and to educate the campus community about the accomplishments and contributions of African Americans. The Program was created in response to the Project 500 protest in September 1968, in which Black students demonstrated against inequitable treatment by the University. In 2004, the University rededicated the space as the Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center, named after a former director of the center. 📍