Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church

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

401 E. Park Street, Champaign, IL

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.

Continue Reading History Show Less

Bethel A. M. E. Church was organized in 1863, the first Black congregation established in Champaign County, predating the establishment of the University of Illinois by four years. It is a part of the first African American denomination organized in the United States, dating back to 1787.

The original church began when a small group of people, who had been holding prayer meetings in their homes, raised funds in the amount of $600.00 to erect a small frame building on the property of Mr. Jake Taylor at 405 E. Park in Champaign. In 1892 a new brick, expanded church building was completed at 401 E. Park and dedicated in January 1893.

Bethel Church was the site of many important events over the years. In 1895 it was the site of a meeting to plan a permanent organization to celebrate Emancipation Day each September. Black citizens from throughout East Central Illinois gathered for a parade and picnic each year to commemorate the event.

In 1910 the church established the National Baraca-Philathea Bible Study Group, the only congregation in the Champaign-Urbana area to do so. Bethel became a “home away from home” for many Black students enrolled at the university, providing a place to study, discuss and debate ideas, and fellowship with others. 

In April of 1915, Bethel was the site of the founding of the Twin Cities Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1961, over 100 African Americans met at Bethel to organize protests against unfair unemployment practices in downtown Champaign.   

The “new” Bethel was designed by Laz-Edwards Architects of Champaign and  constructed under the pastorate of  Rev. C. M. Curry. It was dedicated on April 26, 1959. This structure underwent renovation in 2016.

Over the years, the church has established itself as a center for spiritual development, cultural, educational, and social justice activities for the African American community in the quest for racial and social uplift and self-determination.

On April 28, 2023, Co-Chairs of the Champaign County African American Heritage Trail and lifelong members of the Bethel A.M.E. Church, Barbara Suggs Mason and Angela Rivers, presented a history of the church in honor of its 160th anniversary.

Decade:

1860-1869

Location(s):

  • Champaign, Illinois

Additional Champaign Trail Sites

Business

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.

Community

Social and Religious Life

Salem Baptist Church

Located at 500 E. Park Street in Champaign, Salem Baptist Church was initially established in 1867, the same year the University of Illinois was established, as Second Baptist Church at 406 E. Park ("the Old Coffee Place"). In 1874, the original church was destroyed by arson. After occupying locations at Swannell Drug Store at Main and Hickory, and on East Clark Street, the church bought the land at its current location in 1901 and began construction in 1908. It was renamed as Salem Baptist Church in 1911.

Community

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.

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.

Community

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

Business

Education

Innovation

Walter T. Bailey and the Colonel Wolfe School

Walter Thomas Bailey was the first African American to graduate with a degree in architectural engineering from the University of Illinois in 1904, and he was the first licensed African American architect in Illinois. He contributed to the Colonel Wolfe School in Champaign as a young man, and later enjoyed a successful and influential career leading architectural projects throughout the United States. Bailey assisted with the design of the Colonel Wolfe School at 403 E. Healey in Champaign. The Colonel Wolfe School was constructed in 1905 as a public elementary school. Named after Colonel John S. Wolfe, captain of the 20th Regiment of Illinois Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War, the building was designed by the architectural firm Spencer & Temple from Champaign.