North First Street Corridor, Champaign

North First Street Corridor, Champaign

Image Credit:
North First Street and University Avenue, 1926, Champaign County Historical Archives at The Urbana Free Library, Urbana, IL

North First St., Champaign, IL

North First Street Corridor is the oldest business district in Champaign, dating to the 1850s. A triangular area that originally included East Main Street, University Avenue, and the first two blocks of North First Street, it bordered an integrated working-class neighborhood called Germantown.

Continue Reading History Show Less

Since its early years, African Americans lived, worked, and owned businesses there. Early Black businesses included barbershops, skilled trades, small restaurants, taverns, and vendors. Enterprises like Columbus Green’s barbershop at 109 E. University Avenue were in operation by the 1870s. As the district expanded, so did types of Black businesses, including the Majestic Theatre, an African American movie house and Vaudeville theater operating in the 1910s at 79 E. Main Street.

After World War I, the adjacent northeast neighborhood increasingly became African American as restrictive covenants and redlining kept them out of developing subdivisions and other neighborhoods. It became known as the North End. By the 1940s, North First Street Corridor—called the Black Downtown—was the main commercial focus of the Black neighborhood. It had become the gateway and face of the North End, attracting Black businesses like Harris and Dixon Taxi Cab Company located on a former island at Main and First Streets. In 1943, Prince Hall Mason’s Lone Star Lodge #18 bought the buildings at 208 and 210 N. First Street, moving from Market Street in downtown Champaign. By the 1950s, over 30 Black businesses operated there. In 1951, Roscoe Tinsley’s Cleaners moved to the first floor of 208 N. First Street, and operated for 20 years.

The 1960s and 1970s saw a transition as older businesses were passed or sold to younger generations. At the same time, the corridor had physically declined mainly due to lack of investments in its infrastructure from public and private capital. Starting in the 1970s, urban renewal initiatives demolished dilapidated buildings leaving vacant lots. Businesses closed, leaving vacant buildings, and parking lots took up valuable commercial real estate. Private support lapsed. What was meant to inspire the redevelopment of the North First Street Corridor left it a ghost of its former self.

Despite it all, the Corridor holds memories of successive Black entrepreneurship. It, like the North End neighborhood, conveys a sense of past and present self-reliance. Through the history of Champaign, it contributed to the twin cities’ economy.

Decade:

1850-1859

Location(s):

  • Champaign, Illinois

Additional Champaign Trail Sites

Community

Carver Park

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.

Community

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

Social and Religious Life

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.

Education

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).

Community

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.

Business

Education

Innovation

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. Healey 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.