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.
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
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.
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. 📍
Social and Religious Life
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. 📍
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 📍
Albert R. Lee was born on Jun 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 at the University. 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 Dean of African American students. 📍
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 local 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. 📍