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The historical references currently provided are a small sampling of what will be included on the Champaign County African American Heritage Trail.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

Image credit: Albert Shelton at Shelton Laundry. Retrieved from In All My Years: Portraits of Older Blacks in Champaign-Urbana by Raymond Bial (Champaign County Historical Museum)

Black Businesses in Urbana

Generations of Black entrepreneurs ran successful businesses in the Champaign-Urbana area. One of the earliest examples is General Cass Lee, who in 1885 owned a six-chair barbershop at 127 Main Street where he served judges, lawyers, and others who frequented the county courthouse. Over the following decades, and up to today, many other Black business owners would find success in this community. One of the most notable success stories is that of Shelton Laundry.

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 businesspeople, intellectuals, and community leaders passed through or came from Homer.

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”.

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.

Image credit: Champaign County Historical Archives at the Urbana Free Library

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

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.

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.

101 E. Main Street, Urbana, IL

Image credit: Unidentified African American Soldier of the 29th Illinois Infantry Regiment. Courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & 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, 1863. 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 Courthouse with four others enlisting in other “colored regiments” outside of Illinois.