The Ellis Drive Six and School Integration

The Ellis Drive Six and School Integration

Image Credit:
Above: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School │ In-Text Images (Top Left to Bottom Right): Carlos Donaldson, from the Illinois News Bureau and Bill Wiegand; Willeta Donaldson, from the News Gazette obituary for Willeta Donaldson; Paul Hursey, courtesy of the Hursey Family; Shirley Hursey, courtesy of the Hursey Family; Jo Ann Jackson, courtesy of the Jackson Family; Evelyn Underwood, from "Urbana desegregation pioneers to receive accolades today," News Gazette (January 13, 2017)..

1108 Fairview Ave, Urbana, IL

In the 1960s, after realizing that their children were not receiving an equal education at James Wellen Hays Elementary School, neighbors Carlos and Willeta Donaldson, Paul and Shirley Hursey, Jo Ann Jackson, and Rev. Dr. Evelyn Underwood (then known as Evelyn Burnett), formed the Hays School Neighborhood Association. They lived in the Dr. Ellis Subdivision—the first subdivision of single-family homes in Urbana developed for African Americans—and met, researched, and strategized about meeting with the Urbana School Board to address educational disparities for African American children and advocate for school integration. These neighbors became known as the Ellis Drive Six.

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They conducted surveys and collected evidence about outdated textbooks, disproportionate numbers of dropouts, racist teaching practices, and other inequities, but they knew more support would be needed to persuade Urbana School District 116 to change. Then, while working as University of Illinois mailmen in 1965, Carlos and Paul learned about a dissertation that validated their findings by identifying and measuring achievement gaps between African American students attending Hays School and other schools in the district. It was exactly what they needed to petition the School Board.

Their efforts to challenge and stand up against the all-white School Board were successful. In 1966, 12 years after Brown v. Board of Education declared that “separate-but-equal” schools were not, in fact, equal, Urbana School District 116 became the first school district statewide to institute a desegregation program. Many African American children who attended Hays School were bused to other schools in the district, and children of University of Illinois students who lived in Orchard Downs were bused to Hays. While there were challenges during the implementation of the integration program, most issues were resolved by 1968. Hays School was renamed as the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in 1970, and the school remains open to this day.

The Ellis Drive Six comprised individuals who believed in the power of unity to enact change, and their community advocacy extended beyond school reform.

Paul and Shirley Hursey led demonstrations protesting discriminatory housing policy. At one time, homes purchased by African Americans that were not located in the predominantly African American North End neighborhood (which contained the Dr. Ellis Subdivision), would be physically moved to the North End. In protest of these racist housing practices, the Hurseys led demonstrations where they would use cars to blockade roads on which the houses were to be moved. The Hurseys were also deeply involved in the community. Mr. Hursey was the first African American to serve on the Urbana City Council and was instrumental in bringing equal services to the North End. He was elected in 1962 and served multiple terms. Mrs. Hursey was active in civic and church activities in the Champaign-Urbana area.

Carlos and Willeta Donaldson were also deeply involved in their community. Mr. Donaldson served on the Urbana School Board from 1981 to 1985, and Willeta Donaldson served on Urbana’s Human Rights Commission. Both were University of Illinois employees and instrumental members of the PTA and PTO.

Rev. Evelyn Underwood, PhD was the first African American School Board member for Urbana School District 116. She was elected in 1968 and served for 12 years. Alongside her husband, Pastor King James Underwood, she helped shepherd the New Free Will Baptist Church as Associate Minister.

A black and white photograph of Carlos Donaldson standing and smiling inside a post office. A color photograph of Willeta Donaldson smiling.   A black and white photograph of Shirley Hursey.

Carlos Donaldson                            Willeta Donaldson                                       Paul Hursey                                        Shirley Hursey

A color photograph of Jo Ann Jackson.   A color photograph of Rev. Dr. Evelyn Underwood.

Jo Ann Jackson                        Rev. Dr. Evelyn Underwood

Courtesy of the Champaign County Archives at The Urbana Free Library, interviews with Paul Hursey are available below. The first interview was conducted on March 2, 1982, and a transcript is available here. The second interview was conducted on August 1, 1983.

SOURCE:

Champaign County Archives at The Urbana Free Library. https://urbanafreelibrary.org/local-history/collections/oral-histories.

Decade:

1960-1969

People:

  • Carlos Donaldson
  • Evelyn Underwood
  • Jo Ann Jackson
  • Paul Hursey
  • Shirley Hursey
  • Willeta Donaldson

Location(s):

  • Urbana, Illinois

Additional Urbana Trail Sites

Business

Black Businesses in Urbana

Generations of Black entrepreneurs ran successful businesses in the Champaign-Urbana area. One of the earliest examples is General Cass Lee, who in 1885 owned a six-chair barbershop at 127 Main Street where he served judges, lawyers, and others who frequented the county courthouse. Over the following decades, and up to today, many other Black business owners would find success in this community. One of the most notable success stories is that of Shelton Laundry.

African American Civil War Burials and Mt. Hope Cemetery

Located west of Memorial Stadium at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Mount Hope Cemetery (611 E. Pennsylvania Ave., Champaign, IL) was plotted and internment began in 1856. Sitting on the dividing line between the two cities, it’s the oldest operating cemetery in Champaign-Urbana. Throughout its 150 years, it has been the final resting place for many local African Americans and their families, including most of those who fought in the Civil War. The majority of these veterans were buried in what was the Grand Army of the Republic’s (G.A.R.) section, now known as the “old” veteran's section, found as you enter the cemetery. It is represented by the Civil War Memorial and a 32-pound canon built in 1851. However, many of the original markers no longer exist for many of these and other Civil War veterans, or they were moved to other locations in the cemetery.

African Americans veterans from various wars including World War I and II are also buried in this section.

Business

Edward A. Green

Edward A. Green, a freeman, became one of the first African Americans to settle in Champaign County in 1856. Born in North Carolina, he moved to West Urbana (now Champaign) from Union County, Ohio, with his first wife, Georgia Anne, and daughters, Anna A. and Florence E. Green. A carpenter by trade, in 1858 he began purchasing parcels of land throughout what would become Champaign and into northwestern Urbana, ending up with approximately 14 lots. Six lots were located in Urbana between Wright and Goodwin Streets, along Eads and Champaign (now Vine) Streets.

Community

Dr. Ellis Subdivision

The Dr. Ellis Subdivision is the third single-family subdivision created for African Americans in Champaign-Urbana after Carver Park in 1951 and Crispus Attucks Place in 1953. The subdivision was developed by John Goodell of Goodell Engineering and built in three phases, from 1961-1966. It was originally just outside city limits on undeveloped farmland. Today, the subdivision is located in Urbana, IL, in what is considered the historically African American North End neighborhood.

Community

Education

The Presence of the “Divine 9” at the University of Illinois

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.

Social and Religious Life

Emancipation Day Celebrations

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.