Emancipation Day Celebrations

Emancipation Day Celebrations

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.

Continue Reading History Show Less

On July 22, 1895, a meeting was held at Bethel AME Church to create a permanent organization to plan Emancipation Day celebrations in September. Edward Ballenger served as President, Albert Lee served as Secretary, and George Riley served as Corresponding Secretary. That August, the Honorable Joseph G. Cannon was selected as the first speaker at the newly organized Emancipation Celebration.

The celebration was a success. The day started with people arriving from Peoria, Danville, Paris (Illinois), Indianapolis, and Terre Haute. A parade kicked off from Bethel AME Church and went through the downtowns of both Champaign and Urbana, ending at fairgrounds between Second and Third Streets off Daniel Avenue. Festivities continued that afternoon with a Drill Corps competition, a bicycle race with a prize of $18 (approximately $626.98 in 2022 dollars), and a speech by Congressman Joseph Gurney “Uncle Joe” Cannon, who was soon to become Speaker of the United States House of Representatives (1903–1911). Reporters wrote that Congressman Cannon, “created more enthusiasm, more consideration on the part of whites for blacks, and more ambition among the colored people…to occupy the higher ground that God intends them to occupy.”

The evening’s ball was held at Eichberg’s Hall, located at 22 E. Main Street in Champaign. Finally, an evening meeting at Barrett Hall ended the day’s events, over which Reverend P. M. Lewis, pastor of Bethel AME Church, presided. The evening address was delivered by Reverend T. W. Henderson of Indianapolis, and William Helm of Second Baptist Church (now Salem Baptist Church) closed the meeting.

Additional Emancipation Day Celebrations

1900: Reverend Brown of Salem Baptist Church organized an Emancipation Day celebration which was officiated by W. P. McAllister and held in West Side Park (West End Park).

1904: An Emancipation Day celebration was held, including a parade, speeches, bar-b-que, and performance by the Knights of Pythias’ Band.

1908: An Emancipation Day celebration was observed during the evening of Champaign in Imperial Hall. Seventy-five couples attended. The hall was located in the Imperial Building at the northwestern corner of Tyler and Walnut Streets in Champaign. Since the late 1800s, many African American civic and social organizations met in the hall.

1915: Salem Baptist, Bethel AME, and Methodist Episcopal churches united to plan the September 22 celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation. A parade was planned, and each church chose a candidate for Queen of the Emancipation. They were: Mrs. Hattie Martin (Salem Baptist); Miss Allie Moore (Bethel AME); and Mrs. Jeptha Tisdale (Methodist Episcopal). The woman who received the largest number of votes would be crowned as Queen. That same year, Champaign Mayor E. S. Swigart issued an Emancipation Day proclamation, calling on all residents to do two things: (1) Grant a holiday to all African Americans working for them, if possible; and (2) Display the stars and stripes from their homes and places of business on the day of the celebration.

1916: An Emancipation Celebration Committee was announced as including Solomon T. Clanton (President); Edward G. Jackson (Vice President); R. B. Alexander (Secretary); and Archie Penney (Treasurer). They set September 22 as the date, and the Champaign County Fairgrounds as the location, for the celebration. It was a success. The program consisted of songs, an invocation, a reading of the Gettysburg Address and Emancipation Proclamation, reminisces by Elder John Rivers on “The Evils of Slavery” and Dr. Johnson (Post Commander of the GAR) on “The Civil War GAR (Grand Army of the Republic).” It ended with an address by Congressman William B. McKinley. Representatives of Champaign and Urbana’s mayors were present.

1920: Salem Baptist Church held an Emancipation Proclamation Day program on January 1.

1923: Salem Baptist Church and Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church of Champaign held a joint observance of Emancipation Day at Salem. Reverend R. A. Hayden was the presiding pastor.


Champaign County News, July 2, 1895, pg. 1 and August 10, 1895, pg. 12

Article:  “It Is Over: Emancipation Exercises in the Twin Cities,” Champaign County News, September 28, 1895, pg. 9

Article: “Was a Howling Success,” Champaign County News, September 22, 1900, pg. 2

Article: “Colored People Celebrate.” Urbana Courier, September 22, 1904, pg. 1

Article: Champaign County News, September 26, 1908, pg. 9

Article: Champaign County News, August 11, 1915, pg. 2

Champaign County News, September 18, 1915, pg. 8

Article: Urbana Courier, September1, 1916, pg. 5

Article:  “Negro Day Success,” Champaign County News, September 23, 1916, pg. 1

Article: Urbana Courier, January 2, 1923, pg. 2




  • Champaign, Illinois
  • Urbana, Illinois

Additional Champaign Trail Sites


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




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. 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.


Albert R. Lee

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.


Booker T. Washington School

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).


Sports & Recreation

Douglass Park and Douglass Center

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.


Civil Rights, Social Justice, & Politics


African Americans and the Illinois Central Railroad

Chartered in 1851, the Illinois Central Railroad was lobbied for by both Steven A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. Completed by 1856, it was considered the longest railroad in the world. From 1857 through the Civil War, the Illinois Central Railroad (IC) was said to carry fugitives from slavery, along with the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, and the Chicago and Rock Island Railroads. Fugitives travelled by box cars and passenger cars, by day and by night. With the assistance of railroad porters, sympathetic conductors, laborers, freedmen, and abolitionists, they managed to travel mostly without arrest.