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.

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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


Sergeant Allen A. Rivers, Sr.

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.


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. 📍


Social and Religious Life

St. Luke Christian Methodist Episcopal (C.M.E.) Church

Located at 809 N. Fifth Street in Champaign, St. Luke C.M.E. Church was established in 1901, making it the third-oldest historically African American congregation in Champaign County. Originally located on Eads Street in Urbana and called St. Luke Tabernacle Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, it was renamed in 1954 to Christian Methodist Episcopal. The church moved to its current location in 1914. 📍


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). 📍


Social and Religious Life

Salem Baptist Church

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. 📍

African American Civil War Burials and Mt. Hope Cemetery

Located west of Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Mount Hope Cemetery 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. 📍