Student Demonstrations for Equal Rights
Marker at the SW corner of Green St. and Wright St.
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.
In 1936, Black fraternal organizations, and community and religious leaders—with support from a few campus administrators and faculty members—opened a cooperative lunchroom in an attempt to service Black students. The white community and many university affiliates were unsupportive, and it eventually closed. In 1937, students brought a lawsuit against a Campustown confectionary store for discriminating against African American students, but the case was decided in favor of the business. Albert R. Lee—known as the university’s unofficial Dean of African American Students—advocated on behalf of Black students, and they were finally allowed to eat in the Illini Union basement when it opened in 1941. They continued to encounter overt and institutional racism on campus and in surrounding restaurants, theaters, barbershops, and other businesses.
All was not lost. With the G.I. Bill in effect after WWII, many Black veterans attended the University of Illinois and pushed for better conditions. In 1945, an interracial group of campus veterans, students, Black residents, and university faculty formed the Student Community Interracial Committee to address racist policies. The Committee wrote letters, submitted petitions and affidavits, documented unequal treatment, staged sit-ins, filed civil suits, and practiced other non-violent strategies to address discrimination. In the summer of 1946, they picketed Campustown businesses and threatened lawsuits. By fall, the last five restaurants in Campustown agreed to open their doors to African Americans. The Committee dissolved in 1951, but the work was not over. New groups like the Student Human Relations Council formed and, with the Black community, charged forward against discrimination on campus and throughout Champaign-Urbana.
Cobb, Deirdre Lynn. “Race and Higher Education at the University of Illinois, 1945 to 1955.” Urbana, Illinois. UMI Company. 1998.
- Albert Lee
- University of Illinois, Illinois
Additional University of Illinois Trail Sites
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.
Sports & Recreation
The historic colonnades that grace the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium, dedicated in 1924, bear the names of Illinois students who died in World War I. One of those students was William Frank Earnest, the first African American from Champaign County to die in the war.
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.
Civil Rights, Social Justice, & Politics
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 565 students, most of whom were Black, though some Hispanic and Native American students also enrolled in the program.
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.