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
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.” 📍
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 401 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. 📍
Harriet J. Lawhead School, built in 1907, was a small, four-room building. During its early years, it served German and Italian immigrants in the neighborhood. As African Americans moved into the area, the school was integrated for a period of time, but by the 1940s it was attended only by Black students. White children who lived in the area were sent to Columbia School. During World War II, two rooms in the basement of the school were used as a Servicemen’s Club, organized by community members for African American soldiers who were not welcomed in the USO at Chanute Field. The school was closed in 1952, prior to the opening of the new Booker T. Washington School and razed in 1990. It is now a parking lot.
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. 📍
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.