Black Businesses in Urbana

Black Businesses in Urbana

Image Credit:
Albert Shelton at Shelton Laundry. Retrieved from In All My Years: Portraits of Older Blacks in Champaign-Urbana by Raymond Bial (Champaign County Historical Museum)

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.

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During the Great Depression, many residents, including the family of Merritt and Arah Mae Shelton in Urbana, relied on government rations to survive. Searching for a better way to support her family, Arah Mae began taking in laundry from neighborhood families in 1934. The children picked up and delivered the laundry, and Arah Mae washed it on the family’s back porch with a scrub board and water heated over fire in a black kettle. Over time, this humble family operation became a multi-million dollar enterprise and one of Urbana’s most successful Black-owned businesses.

As business grew, it changed locations before finally settling at 1104 N. Goodwin in Urbana with 75 employees of many races, ethnicities, and backgrounds. The Shelton Laundry’s customers included University of Illinois fraternities and sororities, the Illini Union, McKinley Hospital, Chanute Air Force Base, the U.S. Army’s Fort Benjamin Harrison near Indianapolis, and many others. The Sheltons’ son, Albert, purchased the business from his parents in 1972 and oversaw many business enhancements, such as computerized equipment and a fleet of trucks to deliver laundry. Shelton Laundry eventually closed in 1986, but not before Albert was named the Illinois Small Business Person of the Year. Despite his family’s enormous success, Albert kept a scrub board and black kettle in his office as a reminder of how it all began.

Note: We hope to populate this page with information on other Black-owned businesses in Urbana. If you have information, please email


Bial, Raymond and the Champaign County Historical Museum. (1983) In All My Years: Portraits of Older Blacks in Champaign-Urbana.

“Through the Years: African-American History in Champaign County.” (Spring/Summer 2000).


  • Albert Shelton
  • General Cass Lee


  • Urbana, Illinois

Additional Urbana Trail Sites

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.


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.

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.



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.

Civil Rights, Social Justice, & Politics


The Ellis Drive Six and School Integration

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.


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.