William F. Earnest American Legion Post 559

William F. Earnest American Legion Post 559

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Visit Champaign County (Marcus Flinn)

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. 📍

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The 370th Infantry

Established from the all-Black Illinois 8th Regiment of the National Guard, the 370th Infantry was the only Infantry that entered the war with an all-Black staff, officers, medical unit and soldiers. They were trained for combat by and attached to the French Army because the U.S. Army was concerned about allowing their white troops to fight beside them. Called the “Black Devils” by the Germans because of their relentlessness and silence as they went over to trenches to attack, they were the first group to cross over to Belgium before the end of the war pursuing the enemy. They were one of the most decorated Infantries, with 71 soldiers and officers receiving the French Croix de Guerre, which is the French equivalent of the US Medal of Honor.

William Frank Earnest

William F. Earnest was the first African American to die in World War I on September 17, 1918. The son of Oliver Frank and the nephew of Jacob Earnest of Homer, William (called Frank), graduated from Homer High School in 1915. His brother Robert graduated before him from the same school. He entered the University of Illinois in 1916 as a student athlete to study agriculture, and he was a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity. His family moved from Homer to Champaign so he would be able to stay at home while studying at the University, since African Americans were not allowed in student authorized housing. He became a member of Bethel AME Church before enlisting in the military on June 1817 in the Danville Company of the 8th Illinois, which became part of the all Black 370th. He was buried in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in France.

A memorial service was held on Sunday, February 2, 1919, in Homer. The service description read:

“At this time several people from Champaign including the parents, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Earnest were present. The service opened with several patriotic songs. Miss Inez Dennis sang a solo entitled, ‘When the Blue Service Star turns to Gold’ and Mrs. C.E. Cutler and Mrs. Percy O’Neil sand a duet. Mrs. Earnest pinned the gold star on which takes the place of the blue. It had been planned to have a Champaign quartet and also a pastor from the African Methodist church present but both parties were unable to come. The quartet expects to come later. The service was very impressive and handkerchiefs were used quite frequently. This gold star, representing the life of Frank Earnest, a model young man, is the second star on the service flag.”

SOURCES:

Homer Enterprise, February 14, 1919, pg. 1

“In Memoriam”, The Homerian (Homer High School Yearbook), 1919.

Letter to His Aunt Clara Mae, Champaign Daily News (Champaign, IL), Friday August 23, 1918, pg. 3

Cecil D. Nelson in Uniform, c. 1919, Collection of Estelle Merrifield, Urbana, IL

Decade:

1930-1939

People:

  • Cecil D. Nelson
  • William F. Earnest

Location(s):

  • Champaign, Illinois
  • Homer, Illinois

Additional Champaign Trail Sites

Education

Col. Wolfe School

Working for Spencer & Temple in at least the initial design and planning for the Colonel Wolfe School was Walter Thomas Bailey. He was the first African American to graduate in architectural engineering from the University of Illinois, and the first licensed African American architect in the state. After the school was finished, Bailey, a 1904 graduate, moved on to a powerful position at the Tuskegee Institute. He practiced in Memphis and Chicago. — News-Gazette, June 2, 2019 📍

Community

Sports & Recreation

Douglass Park and Douglass Center

The Park and Center are named for the great African American orator and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. In 1941, the Douglass Community Service Committee began an effort to raise funds for a new complex, to be built on two empty lots. Ground broke in 1944 and the Center was completed in 1946. The Center held classes in art, music, and sewing, among other activities. Athletics included adult softball, baseball, basketball, track, and tennis. The Center hosted many social events. One of the groups that brought national recognition to the Center was its Drum and Bugle Corps and Drill Team. In 1975, 200 local residents protested the decision by the Park Board to demolish the old Douglass Center and replace it with a new gym. The group advocated for the old Center to be replaced with a new, full-service, comprehensive Center. After much discussion between the community and the Park Board, the “old” Center was torn down and a new Center was constructed. It opened on December 12, 1976. In March 1978, the Douglass Annex opened with a focus on senior citizens, and in 1997 the Douglass Branch Library moved into its current site. 📍

Education

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.

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. 📍

Community

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. 📍

Military

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.