Dr. Martin Luther King Subdivision
Between N. Fourth Street and the Canadian National Railroad Tracks
The Dr. Martin Luther King Subdivision, located between North Fourth Street and the Canadian National railroad tracks in Champaign, Illinois, was a part of urban renewal that took place in the late 1960s, eventually replacing the old Oak-Ash neighborhood. It began in the 1980s and was the only urban renewal project that was not replaced with public or subsidized housing. The names of the streets in the subdivision were chosen to recognize African Americans who were historically significant for the community and submitted to the city council by J. W. Pirtle. 📍
Charles E. Phillips (1889-1975) was a grandson of David Johnson, a formerly enslaved person, who came to Champaign-Urbana after the Civil War and was one of the founders of the Second Baptist Church, now Salem Baptist, in Champaign. Deeply involved in community activities, Mr. Phillips was a forerunner in promoting low cost, affordable housing for African Americans in the community. He served as a scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 11 through the Arrowhead Council for 25 years. He was appointed a member of the Champaign Housing Commission and served as honorary Vice President of the Champaign County Urban League. He also served on the board of the Francis Nelson Health Center.
Alvin G. Foxwell (1896-1959) was one of the charter members of the William F. Earnest American Legion Post 559 and an active member of the community. He was a member and Trustee of Salem Baptist Church. He was active with the Republican Party and the Champaign Recreation Department, where he was one of the originators of the Servicemen’s Organization that lobbied for the establishment of a Servicemen’s Center for Black soldiers who were segregated from the recreational facilities at Chanute Field in Rantoul, Illinois, and for Douglass Center.
Cecil Dewey Nelson (1898-1971) was a charter and lifetime member of the William F. Earnest American Legion Post 559 where he served as its Commander. He also served as a Legion officer at both the state and national levels. A decorated sergeant in the all-Black 370th Infantry Regiment in World War I, Mr. Nelson was a recipient of the French Croix de Guerre for bravery in battle and a Purple Heart. A former member of the Champaign Recreation Department, during World War II he was one of the organizers of the Servicemen’s Center, created to provide a recreational space for Black soldiers and the establishment of Douglass Park and Center. He served as a scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 11. He was a member of Bethel A.M.E. Church, where he served on the Trustee Board and the Lone Star Lodge #18, Prince Hall Masons.
Willie Holt (1900-1985) was a small businessman in Champaign-Urbana’s African American community who operated a sanitary hauling business for over 20 years. Born in Paris, Tennessee, on December 25, 1900, his family were primarily farmers. He moved to Champaign in 1921 where he and his wife, Effie, raised their five children. For many years he worked for the Clifford-Jacob forging plant. In 1940, Mr. Holt went into business for himself, retiring in the mid-1960s. He was active in the community, serving as an ordained deacon at Salem Baptist Church and was a member and past treasurer of the University Elks Lodge 619.
- Alvin G. Foxwell
- Cecil Dewey Nelson
- Charles E. Phillips
- Willie Holt
- Champaign, Illinois
Additional Champaign Trail Sites
Frederick Douglass visited Champaign, Illinois, on February 15, 1869, at Barrett Hall, located on the third floor above what was Henry Swannell’s Drug Store, now One Main Plaza. His topic was Self-Made Men. “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 📍
Social and Religious Life
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. 📍
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.
Working for Spencer & Temple in at least the initial design and planning for the Colonel Wolfe School was Walter Thomas Bailey. He was the first African American to graduate in architectural engineering from the University of Illinois, and the first licensed African American architect in the state. After the school was finished, Bailey, a 1904 graduate, moved on to a powerful position at the Tuskegee Institute. He practiced in Memphis and Chicago. — News-Gazette, June 2, 2019 📍
North First Street is one of the oldest districts in Champaign, dating to the 1850s. Since its early years, African Americans have lived, worked, and owned businesses there. The Majestic Theater was one such business, being the first and only African American movie house and Vaudeville theater in the 1910s. Over the years, the population on and around North First Street became almost exclusively African American with North First Street becoming the “Black downtown.” 📍
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.