North First Street Corridor, Champaign
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.
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.
- Champaign, Illinois
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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.
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.
Albert R. Lee was born on June 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. 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 unofficial Dean of African American Students.
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).
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.
The Dr. Martin Luther King Subdivision, located between North Fourth Street and the Canadian National railroad tracks in Champaign, Illinois, was a part of urban renewal that took place in the late 1960s, eventually replacing the old Oak-Ash neighborhood. It began in the 1980s and was the only urban renewal project that was not replaced with public or subsidized housing. The names of the streets in the subdivision were chosen to recognize African Americans who were historically significant for the community and submitted to the city council by J. W. Pirtle.