William Frank Earnest
Memorial Stadium (1402 S. 1st St, Champaign, IL)
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.
William Frank was born on September 3, 1895, in Greene County, Tennessee, the son of Oliver Frank and Hester C. Earnest, both formerly enslaved. He was eight when his family moved to Homer, Illinois. As a student at Homer High School, he was the editor of the Homerian yearbook and graduated with high honors in both academics and athletics with the Class of 1915.
William Frank began his studies in agricultural science at the University of Illinois in 1915. While he was attending the University he became a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., was active in campus activities, and showed immense promise.
When World War I broke out, WIlliam Frank enlisted in the 8th Infantry Regiment of the Illinois National Guard in May 1917. It would become the 370th Infantry Regiment in the US Army. This was the only unit with a full complement of African American officers in the then segregated military. He attained the rank of Sergeant. His death was described by Capt. William S. Braddan, chaplain to the unit and the pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Chicago.
“Three days had passed since our arrival, we had lost three hundred men, killed and wounded Sgt. Ernest [sic] of Co. ‘L,’ being the first to make the supreme sacrifice on Hindenburg’s Line, one of the most excellent, exemplary soldiers I have known in my twenty and four years’ service. His body, poor, bleeding, torn and mutilated was buried in No-Man’s land by his comrades.”
William Frank died on September 17, 1918. He is buried at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in Fere-en-Tardenois, France. The colonnade bearing his name is on the east side of Memorial Stadium, exactly aligned with the 50-yard line of the football field.
- William F. Earnest
- Homer, Illinois
- University of Illinois, Illinois
Additional Homer Trail Sites
Homer, Illinois, has a rich history as a village where many early African Americans in Champaign County could gather, work, recreate, and build successful lives for themselves and their families. Many prominent African American businesspeople, intellectuals, and community leaders passed through or came from Homer.
The Homer Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) Cemetery was established in the 1860s and is the final resting place for some early African American families and local African Americans who fought in the Civil War.
Wiley Jones came to Homer from Decatur, Georgia, after the Civil War with William C. Custer. Jones would run a barber shop for years in Homer, was a trustee of the Homer Savings and Loan Association, and was nominated to serve on the Village Board several times. In 1877, Wiley Jones and Mrs. Fannie Roberson Morgan were married at the home of Rev. Whitlock. Fannie died in 1914 and Wiley Jones died in 1919 in a fire while lighting his stove. Wiley and Fannie are buried in the Homer G.A.R. Cemetery.
Sports & Recreation
Briefly known as Riverside Park, Homer Park was an amusement park north of Homer that ran from 1905 to 1936. It was created by William B. McKinley of the Interurban and C.B. Burkhardt to encourage ridership on the transit line. African Americans utilized the park for picnics, barbecues, band concerts, dances, orations, fraternal gatherings, swimming, and fishing. The Bethel A.M.E. Church of Champaign organized Sunday school events, and residents congregated for religious revivals and church outings. African American baseball teams and jazz bands also played at Homer Park.
The Homer High School building where Mary Mack (née Morgan, step-daughter of Wiley Jones) became the first African American to graduate in Homer, where William Walter Smith became the first African American to graduate from University of Illinois, and where Robert Earnest and others attended, no longer exists. William Frank Earnest, Class of 1915, who was the first African American to die in combat during World War I in France, graduated from the Homer Opera House. His signatures are still found on the stage.
Jacob Earnest arrived in Vermilion County, Illinois, in 1871 from Greene County, Tennessee, where he and his family had been enslaved. By 1880, he was working 404 acres of farm, pasture, and forest land around Carroll in Vermilion County and Homer in Champaign County, adding 80 acres in 1885. In 1897, he bought his Homer home and the adjacent lot. (The house presently at this location is not the original.) A respected farmer, blacksmith, teamster, and harvester, he was known for creating a steam powered horse drawn thresher machine and established his own threshing ring to harvest farms in the area.