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.
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Sports & Recreation
The Park and Center are named for the great African American orator and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. In 1941, the Douglass Community Service Committee began an effort to raise funds for a new complex, to be built on two empty lots. Ground broke in 1944 and the Center was completed in 1946. The Center held classes in art, music, and sewing, among other activities. Athletics included adult softball, baseball, basketball, track, and tennis. The Center hosted many social events. One of the groups that brought national recognition to the Center was its Drum and Bugle Corps and Drill Team. In 1975, 200 residents protested the decision by the Park Board to demolish the old Douglass Center and replace it with a new gym. The group advocated for the old Center to be replaced with a new, full-service, comprehensive Center. After much discussion between the community and the Park Board, the “old” Center was torn down and a new Center was constructed. It opened on December 12, 1976. In March 1978, the Douglass Annex opened with a focus on senior citizens, and in 1997 the Douglass Branch Library moved into its current site.
Social and Religious Life
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.
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. Healy 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.
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.
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).
African Americans from Champaign County fought bravely, and died, in World War I. Those who served did so with courage, honor, and distinction. Many of those who returned home found community and services at the William F. Earnest American Legion Post 559. Originally located at Fifth and Hill Streets, the Post is now located at 704 N. Hickory in Champaign. It was chartered in 1932 by African American World War I veterans and named for a fallen comrade who was a University of Illinois student-athlete from Homer, Illinois. Earnest served as a sergeant in the all-Black 370th Infantry Regiment from Illinois. One of the columns at Memorial Stadium also bears his name. The founding members of Post 559 were Clifford Caldwell, Robert H. Earnest (brother of William F. Earnest), Dr. L.P. Diffay, Dr. Henry Ellis, Alvin Foxwell, Raymond Hines, Thomas Macklin, Cecil D. Nelson, and George Ray.