The J.C. Penney Boycott and Picketing Campaign

The J.C. Penney Boycott and Picketing Campaign

Image Credit:
An image of the Penney Picketing Campaign, 1961. Photo by Gene Suggs as a staff photographer for the Urbana Courier.

15 E. Main Street, Champaign, IL

During the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans fought for equal opportunity in employment across the nation. In Champaign-Urbana, the Champaign-Urbana Improvement Association (CUIA) was founded to demand greater job opportunities for African Americans, resulting in one of the most influential local civil rights victories known as the J.C. Penney Boycott.

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A Penney’s department store was planned for 15 E. Main Street in downtown Champaign and scheduled to open on April 6, 1961.  Local Black ministers encouraged members of their congregations to apply for salesclerk positions that were advertised.  Several Black women applied for the positions, including the wife of a Chanute Air Base employee with ten years’ experience.  All were denied employment. It was found that Penney’s was only hiring African Americans for the stockroom and janitorial capacities. This information resulted in organized, collective action on the part of the Black community. The protest was planned under leadership of Rev. J.E. Graves of Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church, president of the CUIA.  Rev. Graves called a meeting of ministers and lay people on March 22, 1961, at Bethel A.M.E. Church, to map out a plan of action.  Over one hundred community members responded. Ministers took the leadership because their positions were less vulnerable to retribution.

Picketing, organized by community members Mary Alexander and George Pope, began on opening day. African Americans and others sympathetic to the cause were asked to boycott the store. Meanwhile the CUIA began training potential job applicants in interview techniques. At the end of three weeks, on April 25th, with the assistance of lone Black city council member Kenneth Stratton, an agreement was reached that successfully impacted hiring in all department stores in the community. The Council for Community Integration called it a “magnificent undertaking.”

The J.C. Penney Boycott and Picketing Campaign, and the dedicated men and women who participated, are remembered today for standing up to discriminatory employment practices.


Alexander, Mary and Winston, Kathleen Johnson.  (Spring 1996).  “Reflections on Life, Part 2.”  Through the Years: African-American History in Champaign County.  Museum of the Grand Prairie.

Lenstra, N. (December 11, 2012) Penney Picketing Campaign.

Urbana School District #116.

  • “Negroes Tell Why They Picket; Rap Penney’s for Discriminating”
  • “Penney Manager Announces Cease of 3 Week Picketing”
  • “Topic:  The J.C. Penney Co. Affair” ( Memo dated April 25, 1961)


  • George Pope
  • Mary Alexander
  • Rev. J.E. Graves


  • Champaign, Illinois

Additional Champaign Trail Sites


Cecil Dewey Nelson, Sr.

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

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.


Sergeant Allen A. Rivers, Sr.

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.


Social and Religious Life

St. Luke Christian Methodist Episcopal (C.M.E.) Church

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.


Lawhead School

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 American Civil War Burials and Mt. Hope Cemetery

Located west of Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Mount Hope Cemetery (611 E. Pennsylvania Ave., Champaign, IL) was plotted and internment began in 1856. Sitting on the dividing line between the two cities, it’s the oldest operating cemetery in Champaign-Urbana. Throughout its 150 years, it has been the final resting place for many local African Americans and their families, including most of those who fought in the Civil War. The majority of these veterans were buried in what was the Grand Army of the Republic’s (G.A.R.) section, now known as the “old” veteran's section, found as you enter the cemetery. It is represented by the Civil War Memorial and a 32-pound canon built in 1851. However, many of the original markers no longer exist for many of these and other Civil War veterans, or they were moved to other locations in the cemetery.

African Americans veterans from various wars including World War I and II are also buried in this section.