South Homer Lake Road off Route 49
Briefly known as Riverside Park, Homer Park was an amusement park north of Homer that ran from 1905 to 1936. It was created by William B. McKinley of the Interurban and C.B. Burkhardt to encourage ridership on the transit line. African Americans utilized the park for picnics, barbecues, band concerts, dances, orations, fraternal gatherings, swimming, and fishing. The Bethel A.M.E. Church of Champaign organized Sunday school events, and residents congregated for religious revivals and church outings. African American baseball teams and jazz bands also played at Homer Park.
Homer Park began to decline after 1930 and, over time, many of the gatherings ended.
Before the creation of Homer Park, and as early as the mid-1870s, African Americans began gathering in Sidney and Homer, Illinois, for Emancipation celebrations, which were held in September to coincide with President Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. These celebrations brought together African American communities from Champaign, Vermilion, Douglas, and Edgar Counties, and from West Central Indiana, to enjoy food, music, and speeches. By 1886, Homer was hosting celebrations and debates organized by Samuel Persons, a Civil War veteran from Homer who fought with Indiana’s 28th Regiment USC Infantry. His camp meetings were held at the Homer Fairgrounds, north of the village.
- Homer, Illinois
Additional Homer Trail Sites
The Homer High School building where Mary Mack (née Morgan, step-daughter of Wiley Jones) became the first African American to graduate in Homer, where William Walter Smith became the first African American to graduate from University of Illinois, and where Robert Earnest and others attended, no longer exists. William Frank Earnest, Class of 1915, who was the first African American to die in combat during World War I in France, graduated from the Homer Opera House. His signatures are still found on the stage.
Wiley Jones came to Homer from Decatur, Georgia, after the Civil War with William C. Custer. Jones would run a barber shop for years in Homer, was a trustee of the Homer Savings and Loan Association, and was nominated to serve on the Village Board several times. In 1877, Wiley Jones and Mrs. Fannie Roberson Morgan were married at the home of Rev. Whitlock. Fannie died in 1914 and Wiley Jones died in 1919 in a fire while lighting his stove. Wiley and Fannie are buried in the Homer G.A.R. Cemetery.
Sports & Recreation
The historic colonnades that grace the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium, dedicated in 1924, bear the names of Illinois students who died in World War I. One of those students was William Frank Earnest, the first African American from Champaign County to die in the war.
Homer, Illinois, has a rich history as a village where many early African Americans in Champaign County could gather, work, recreate, and build successful lives for themselves and their families. Many prominent African American businesspeople, intellectuals, and community leaders passed through or came from Homer.
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.
Jacob Earnest arrived in Vermilion County, Illinois, in 1871 from Greene County, Tennessee, where he and his family had been enslaved. By 1880, he was working 404 acres of farm, pasture, and forest land around Carroll in Vermilion County and Homer in Champaign County, adding 80 acres in 1885. In 1897, he bought his Homer home and the adjacent lot. (The house presently at this location is not the original.) A respected farmer, blacksmith, teamster, and harvester, he was known for creating a steam powered horse drawn thresher machine and established his own threshing ring to harvest farms in the area.