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.
He was a member of the Elks, the ONO, the Urban League, the NAACP. He was a 33 1/3 Degree Mason and served as Worshipful Grand Master of the Long Star Lodge of the Prince Hall. He served as an honorary board member of the Champaign Park District and served as trustee for Bethel AME Church. Born on December 7, 1902, in Alexander County in southern Illinois, he came to Champaign in 1919 at the age of 17 and lived with his two aunts, sisters Callie and Pearl Marshall, who were hairdressers. In 1923, he married Clyda Mae Simpson, whose family had migrated from Kentucky. They had five children. After the death of Clyda Mae, he married Ellen Treadwell in 1952. Two of his sons went into law enforcement: Allen A, Rivers, Jr., a Military Policeman during the Korean War who later joined the University of Illinois Police Department; and Richard Rivers who like his brother became a Military Policeman. Richard was assigned special duty assignments until retiring. Allen Rivers died on November 12, 1989. A funeral was held at Bethel AME Church, and he was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery.
The Champaign Police Department did not hire a second African American policeman until the 1950s, when it hired Era Saks.
- Allen A. Rivers
- Champaign, Illinois
Additional Champaign Trail Sites
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. 📍
Social and Religious Life
Located at 401 E. Park Street in Champaign, Bethel A.M.E. Church is the oldest African American led church in Champaign County. It was organized in 1863 and predates the establishment of the University of Illinois. During the early part of the century when segregation was a fact of life, Bethel established a library and had a church orchestra. The church served as a meeting place for Black students attending the University of Illinois, establishing monthly lyceum meetings where students and members of the congregation came together for lectures, discussions, debates, and musical performances. In 1915 it was the site of the founding of the Twin Cities Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Spiritual, community and educational development have continued to be a mission for the church. 📍
Frederick Douglass visited Champaign, Illinois, on February 15, 1869, at Barrett Hall, located on the third floor above what was Henry Swannell’s Drug Store, now One Main Plaza. His topic was Self-Made Men. “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 📍
Social and Religious Life
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. 📍
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
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.