Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church
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. 📍
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.
- Champaign, Illinois
Additional Champaign Trail Sites
The Douglass Center Library was organized in 1970 to serve both Urbana and Champaign, a joint project of the two cities’ libraries, Lincoln Trail Libraries System, and the Champaign Park District. The Library was named for Frederick Douglass, the American abolitionist and journalist who escaped from slavery and became an influential lecturer — including at least one stop in Champaign. 📍
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. 📍
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). 📍
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📍
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.
Albert R. Lee was born on June 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. 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 unofficial Dean of African American Students. 📍