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The historical references currently provided are a small sampling of what will be included on the Champaign County African American Heritage Trail.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

Emancipation Day Celebrations

President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. For many years afterward, in or around September, African Americans would congregate at parks and other community spaces for Emancipation Day celebrations. These celebrations were held in Champaign, Homer, Tolono, Sidney, and other parts of Champaign County. Celebrations often included food, music, and dancing.

Image credit: William Walter Smith (University of Illinois Archives)

University of Illinois Alumni

Since 1900, when William Walter Smith became the first African American to graduate from the University of Illinois, many African Americans who attended the University have gone on to become important leaders, innovators, artists, and thinkers. This page features some notable University alumni. Please check back periodically as we continue to include more information.

Image credit: Unidentified African American Soldier of the 29th Illinois Infantry Regiment (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum)

African Americans in the Civil War

In July 1862, President Abraham Lincoln and Congress authorized the use of African Americans as military combatants; however, they were not actually able to serve until after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1963. Later the same year, Illinois Governor Richard Yates Sr. authorized the organization of the Illinois 29th Colored Infantry Regiment, better known as the 29th United States Colored Troops (USCT). Formed in Quincy, Illinois, on April 24, 1864, by Lieutenant Colonel John Boss, the 29th USCT was the only African American regiment raised in Illinois. The regiment was comprised of ten companies. Companies A through E were comprised primarily of men from Illinois, while companies F through K were mostly made up of men from outside the state. At least nine Black men from Champaign County enlisted into the 29th USCT at the Urbana Court House with four others enlisting in other “colored regiments” outside of Illinois.

From the Siege of Petersburg and the Battle of the Crate through Appomattox, the Illinois 29th USCT fought valiantly in the Eastern Theater of the war before being sent to Texas and most likely witnessing Union General Gordon Granger’s announcement of General Order No. 3, on June 19, 1965, proclaiming the state’s enslaved as free people. There, they served during the pacification of the state until they were ousted out. After the war and beyond, many of these returning soldiers and other African Americans who served during the Civil War and moved into the county were buried in the GAR portion of Mount Hope Cemetery in Urbana, Illinois, along with other county cemeteries.

1002 N. 5th Street, Champaign, IL

Image credit: Cecil Dewey Nelson in World War I Uniform, c. 1919, Courtesy of Estelle L. Merrifield Collection, Urbana, Illinois.

Cecil Dewey Nelson, Sr.

Cecil D. Nelson was the most decorated World War I soldier in the county. A sergeant in both the Mexican Expedition of 1916 and World War I, he increased his age so he could enlist in the Illinois 8th Regiment, known as the “Old 8th,” in Danville, Illinois. With the U.S. involvement in World War I, his unit become part of the all-Black 370th Infantry where he met and became friends with William Frank Earnest, whom he saw die. On October 18, 1918, he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre by French General Vincendon for bravery under fire, and several other decorations later for his service during World War I. The son of Joseph and Estella Nelson (née Anderson), he, like his mother, was born and raised in Champaign, Illinois, and was a member of Bethel AME. He returned home where he met and married William Franks’ niece, Carrie Mae Earnest, and became an active and respected member of both the Black and white communities. He lived at 1002 N. 5th Street in Champaign, and he is one of the founders of the William F. Earnest American Legion Post #559.

606 E. Grove St., Champaign, IL

Image credit: Left: LocalWiki.org │ Right: Visit Champaign County (Marcus Flinn)

Booker T. Washington School

Booker T. Washington Elementary School 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). 📍