Special Educational Opportunities Program (also known as Project 500)
The Special Educational Opportunities Program, commonly referred to as Project 500, was designed by the University of Illinois in 1968 to ensure equality of educational access and opportunities for all students, including those from underrepresented or disadvantaged communities. In 1967, fewer than 400 of the university’s approximately 30,400 students were Black. The program was the University’s response to demands from students and community residents, led by the Black Students Association and fueled by the community’s response to the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to recruit and enroll more Black students. The first Project 500 cohort in 1968 had approximately 568 students, most of whom were Black, though some Hispanic and Native American students also enrolled in the program. 📍
By that fall, numerous Project 500 students learned that they would not receive the financial aid or housing amenities promised to them by recruiters. Many were assigned to substandard housing, or they were not assigned to a dormitory at all. In response, hundreds of students gathered for a sit-in at the student union on September 10, 1968, requesting a meeting with Chancellor Peltason. The demonstration evolved into an active protest and by the early hours of the morning, the police arrested approximately 233 Black students.
The protest forced the university to concede to some of the students’ demands and led to the creation of new resources for underrepresented students, including the Department of African American Studies, the African American Cultural Center and the Black Chorus. These achievements paved the way for the establishment of other departments, centers, and initiatives to meet the needs of the University’s diverse students and employees.
The Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center, located at 1212 W. Nevada Street in Urbana, Illinois, continues to carry on the legacy of Project 500 by providing programs and services that assist with the cultural, personal, and professional development of students at the University.
For additional information on Project 500’s origins, influence, and legacy, see the University of Illinois websites below:
- University of Illinois Archives. “Project 500 Exhibits.” https://project500.omeka.net/exhibits/show/bpi
- University of Illinois Library. “Voices of Illinois Oral History Portal – Project 500.” https://www.library.illinois.edu/voices/collections-old/project-500/
- University of Illinois, Illinois
Additional University of Illinois Trail Sites
The first Black Greek letter organizations began in the early 1900s when African American students were excluded from dormitories (as was the case at the University of Illinois), study groups and social organizations at predominantly white institutions. Often ostracized, Black students began to organize themselves for mutual academic and social support. As these organizations evolved, they developed the values of scholarship, friendship, service, leadership, and philanthropy. Today, all nine historically Black sororities and fraternities have chapters, commonly known as the “Divine 9,” on the University of Illinois’ campus. Two of the earliest Black Greek organizations, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, were the first such organizations on the University’s campus to provide housing for their chapter members. The first residence for Alpha Kappa Alpha (Gamma House) was located at 1201 W. Stoughton in Urbana and the first home for Kappa Alpha Psi was at 707 S. Third Street, in Champaign.
The young women pictured on the steps in 1915 are members of the Gamma Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority which was established at the University in 1914.
In the fall of 1969, the University of Illinois’ Afro-American Cultural Program opened on campus to provide a safe space for Black students to gather and grow, to help Black students feel proud and welcome, and to educate the campus community about the accomplishments and contributions of African Americans. The Program was created in response to the Project 500 protest in September 1968, in which Black students demonstrated against inequitable treatment by the University. In 2004, the University rededicated the space as the Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center, named after a former director of the center. 📍
Civil Rights, Social Justice, & Politics
Despite increasing numbers of African Americans matriculating into the University of Illinois in the 1930s and 1940s, discrimination was rampant on campus and in Campustown. Black students were prohibited from eating in dining halls and local eateries, forcing many students to walk 30 minutes each way for meals in the North End, Champaign-Urbana’s African American neighborhood.📍
Since 1900, when William Walter Smith became the first African American to graduate from the University of Illinois, many African Americans who attended the University have gone on to become important leaders, innovators, artists, and thinkers. This page features some notable University alumni. Please check back periodically as we continue to include more information.