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 đź“Ť 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The historical references currently provided are a small sampling of what will be included on the Champaign County African American Heritage Trail.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.

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

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 University of Illinois’ 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.

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: Billy Morrow Jackson mural for Project 500, 2003. (University of Illinois Student Life and Culture Archives.)

Special Educational Opportunities Program (also known as Project 500)

The Special Educational Opportunities Program, commonly referred to as Project 500, was designed by the University of Illinois in 1968 to ensure equality of education access and opportunities for all students, including those from underrepresented or disadvantaged communities. In 1967, fewer than 400 of the University’s approximately 30,400 students were Black. The program was the University’s response to demands from students and community residents, led by the Black Students Association and fueled by the community’s response to the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to recruit and enroll more Black students. The first Project 500 cohort in 1968 had approximately 568 students, most of whom were Black, though some Hispanic and Native American students also enrolled in the program. 📍

Image credit: Above: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School │ Below (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)..

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. 📍

Image credit: Homer Historical Society (Wiley Jones on Main Street Homer in 1912. Cobbler Scott Smith is on the right.)

Early Achievements in Homer & Southeastern Champaign County

Homer, Illinois, has a rich history as a village where many early African Americans in Champaign County could gather, work, recreate, and build successful lives for themselves and their families. Many prominent African American businesses people, intellectuals, and community leaders passed through or came from Homer. đź“Ť

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”.

Established in 1853, Sullivant's farm was named for the broad lands (prairie) it covered. At about 26,500 acres, it extended seven miles east to west, and six and a half miles north to south. The Bunkhouse and other outbuildings were located four miles south of the current town of Broadlands, which was named after the farm. Large scale cattle industry failed in East Central Illinois after an 1868 outbreak of Spanish Fever, a cattle disease brought from Texas, and the rise of the Texas Cattle Drives.

Image credit: Homer Historical Society

Homer G.A.R. Cemetery

The Homer Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) Cemetery was established in the 1860s and is the final resting place for some early African American families and local African Americans who fought in the Civil War.

Image credit: Above: Sergeant Allen A. Rivers, Sr., c. 1950s, Courtesy of Eunice J. Rivers, Champaign, IL │ Below: Champaign Police Department Officers, 1948, Champaign County Archives, Urbana Free Library, Urbana, IL

Sergeant Allen A. Rivers, Sr.

Allen A. Rivers, Sr. was hired as the first and, at the time, only African American in the Champaign Police Department on August 1, 1935. He worked for 33 years as a policeman rising from a “beat cop” to a motorcycle cop, and then to Sergeant before retiring. He was known as never having to fire his gun in pursuit of a criminal or during an arrest.

Edward A. Green

Edward A. Green, a freeman, became one of the first African Americans to settle in Champaign County in 1856. Born in North Carolina, he moved to West Urbana (now Champaign) from Union County, Ohio, with his first wife, Georgia Anne, and daughters, Anna A. and Florence E. Green. A carpenter by trade, in 1858 he began purchasing parcels of land throughout what would become Champaign and into northwestern Urbana, ending up with approximately 14 lots. Six lots were located in Urbana between Wright and Goodwin Streets, along Eads and Champaign (now Vine) Streets.

611 East Pennsylvania Avenue, Champaign, IL

Image credit: Mt. Hope Cemetery War Memorial

African American Civil War Burials and Mt. Hope Cemetery, Urbana

Located west of Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Mount Hope Cemetery 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. đź“Ť