The Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center
1212 W. Nevada St, Urbana, IL
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.
Nesbitt was born in Champaign, Illinois, on November 14, 1932. He grew up in the area and, after serving in the United States Army from 1953 to 1956, returned home and became very active in his community. He eventually earned a job with the University of Illinois’s Housing Division, where he dedicated much time and effort to supporting Black students. He then became the fourth director of the Afro-American Cultural Program in 1974 and served in that position for 22 years. Nesbitt is credited with creating and expanding many of the Program’s services, events, and activities. In recognition of his service to the community and many accomplishments, Nesbitt received many accolades throughout his life. He died on June 20, 2000, in Urbana, Illinois.
To this day, the Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center continues to pursue its mission and continue the legacy of its namesake. For more information, you can visit the Cultural Center at 1212 W. Nevada Street in Urbana, and you can visit the Center’s website at https://oiir.illinois.edu/bnaacc/about-bnaacc.
Courtesy of the Champaign County Archives at The Urbana Free Library, you can also listen to an interview with Bruce Nesbitt, conducted on August 4, 1983, using the file below, or you can read a transcript of the interview here.
University of Illinois Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center. https://oiir.illinois.edu/bnaacc/about-bnaacc
Champaign County Archives at The Urbana Free Library. https://urbanafreelibrary.org/local-history/collections/oral-histories
- Bruce D. Nesbitt
- University of Illinois, Illinois
Additional University of Illinois Trail Sites
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.
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.
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.
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.