North First Street Corridor, Champaign
North First St., Champaign, IL
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.”
- Champaign, Illinois
Additional Champaign Trail Sites
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.
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.
In 1951, African American civic leader Charles Phillips saw a need for quality single-family housing in the Black Community. So, he put together a “grass roots” coalition of friends and acquaintances to buy ten acres of farmland and hired developer Ozier-Weller Homes. Each family put up $350.00 to develop the 70-home subdivision named after African American scientist and inventor George Washington Carver. It was Champaign-Urbana’s first subdivision financed and built by African Americans.
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.
Cecil D. Nelson was the most decorated World War I soldier in the county. A sergeant in both the Mexican Expedition of 1916 and World War I, he increased his age so he could enlist in the Illinois 8th Regiment, known as the “Old 8th,” in Danville, Illinois. With the U.S. involvement in World War I, his unit become part of the all-Black 370th Infantry where he met and became friends with William Frank Earnest, whom he saw die. On October 18, 1918, he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre by French General Vincendon for bravery under fire, and several other decorations later for his service during World War I. The son of Joseph and Estella Nelson (née Anderson), he, like his mother, was born and raised in Champaign, Illinois, and was a member of Bethel AME. He returned home where he met and married William Franks’ niece, Carrie Mae Earnest, and became an active and respected member of both the Black and white communities. He lived at 1002 N. 5th Street in Champaign, and he is one of the founders of the William F. Earnest American Legion Post #559.
Social and Religious Life
Located at 401 E. Park Street in Champaign, Bethel A.M.E. Church is the oldest African American led church in Champaign County. It was organized in 1863 and predates the establishment of the University of Illinois. During the early part of the century when segregation was a fact of life, Bethel established a library and had a church orchestra. The church served as a meeting place for Black students attending the University of Illinois, establishing monthly lyceum meetings where students and members of the congregation came together for lectures, discussions, debates, and musical performances. In 1915 it was the site of the founding of the Twin Cities Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Spiritual, community and educational development have continued to be a mission for the church.