After spending nights at a shelter on Church Street as a child in the mid-1990s, Clarissa Nickerson Fourman would often make her way to stop and stare at the colorfully painted wall at the corner of Park and Fifth streets.
Although the details of the faces and the depictions of pyramids, railroads, farmers and houses had softened as the paint had chipped and faded in the two-and-a-half decades since it was created, Fourman was able to make out one unmistakable, surprising feature.
“The faces looked like me,” she said. “To see this mural with Black people, it was pretty fascinating to a little kid. ... It was this park, and there was this mural, and there were people who looked like me. I always remembered it as this safe place in town. In a community where I didn’t see myself, it meant a lot to me.”
Over the years, her trips to stare at the mural became less frequent, and in 2010, the foundation of the building it was painted on became so unstable that it had to be torn down.
But Fourman never forgot about the mural and the feeling it gave her.
That’s why when Fourman bumped into Visit Champaign County President and CEO Jayne DeLuce one day in 2020, amid the unrest that swept across the country following the murder of George Floyd and during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, she explained the effect the painting had on her and planted the seed of the idea that would become the Champaign County African American Heritage Trail.
“I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if there was something educational you could do, where kids, not only around town, but in schools, could learn about local people?’” she said. “I thought, ‘I want to see myself in the community. What is a good way to do that?’ And (DeLuce) really took that and wanted to do something with it.”
DeLuce knew exactly where to take that idea.
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As Angela Rivers planned the story she’d tell with her mural on the corner of Park and Fifth during the summer of 1971, she imagined children like Fourman who would see it decades in the future and recognize themselves.
“I thought about that at the time I painted it, what effect it would have,” she said. “And that’s the reason why the theme and the topics are what they were. It was kind of a teaching tool, so people could piece that together for themselves. And it was important that the neighborhood saw themselves. I’m not surprised.
“But like most artists, you do your work, and you have other goals that you have, so you move on. But you let the art take a life of its own. And that’s what that mural did.”
Her painting depicted the journey African Americans had taken to Champaign County, with images that represented Egypt and West Africa flowing into images of train tracks representing the Great Migration and ending with a Black farmer tilling his field.
Over the four months she painted the mural with a team of college students, the Champaign native hoped to display the history of African Americans in Champaign County that had been passed down from one generation to the next in her family going back to the aftermath of the Civil War.
That’s when Jacob Earnest, her mother’s great-uncle, arrived in East Central Illinois. With the money he’d earned as a skilled blacksmith, teamster and farmer, the former slave bought 404 acres of farmland and eventually added 80 more.
Rivers and her cousin, Barbara Suggs Mason, grew up hearing stories about members of their family, including their great-uncle William Frank Earnest, a former University of Illinois student who died in World War I and was honored at Memorial Stadium. They’d also hear about their grandfather’s role in starting William F. Earnest American Legion Post 559.
They were also well aware of the accomplishments of former members of their church, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal, who went on to become important figures in the community, including community leaders Kenneth Stratton, Paul Hersey and Erma Bridgewater, and local civil-rights protests like the boycott of J.C. Penney to bring attention to unfair hiring practices.
“It gave me a sense of self identity, and it gave me confidence,” Suggs Mason said. “Whenever people tried to tear it down or didn’t seem to have confidence in me, I knew I could achieve, because I stood on the shoulders of people who achieved.”
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By the time Fourman was staring at her painting, Rivers had long since left Champaign for Chicago, where she worked for various museums, including the DuSable Museum of African American History, the Field Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. Suggs Mason was also well into her career as an educator, which included six years as superintendent of the Matteson school district in the Chicago suburbs.
A few years ago, both returned to town, and DeLuce attended a talk they gave about the movie “A Home of their Own,” which discussed experiences of African American students at the University of Illinois in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, including several of their family members.
The cousins, DeLuce decided, would be perfect to lead a project that she hoped would transform the way students and other community members learn about local African American history.
With Rivers and Suggs Mason on board, the project quickly grew. Rivers, who had researched the Underground Railroad stops in Illinois for a different project, dug up information that was little known. The earliest discovery came from 1848, when Barney Lancelot Ford escaped from slavery when his master’s boat was docked in Quincy. He then worked to shuttle escaped slaves through East Central Illinois on the Underground Railroad.
“The more we discussed it, the more we knew that this was more than just a mural and that there was just a huge story to tell that we found in our research went back to 1850, when the first two African Americans were recorded in Champaign County,” Suggs Mason said. “We divided ourselves into subcommittees and did research.”
After surveying similar projects in various communities, a growing team of collaborators decided to make a trail that would detail important locations in Champaign County. Information would be located at each of those locations, which include landmarks like the location of Frederick Douglass’ visit to downtown Champaign, the plot of land where Jacob Earnest and a significant amount of African Americans once lived in Homer, and Bethel AME Church, which was founded in 1863.
The website, which went online for a “soft launch” last week, includes a detailed look at Black history in Champaign County. Users can click on locations on a map to find more information, or scroll through each decade on a timeline to read about important figures. At various sites, a marker will include a QR code that will take the viewer to the website.
Soon, Suggs Mason hopes to begin rolling out lessons that teachers can use in schools to tie local Black history to broader lessons.
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Earlier this month, the first physical manifestation of the trail came to fruition when the Champaign Park District unveiled a bus, which was donated by the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, with a mural by artist Keenan Dailey that commemorates local African American history.
Now, Rivers and Suggs Mason hope, all students in Champaign County will learn about the significant roles African Americans played in local history.
“When your history is fragmented, whether it is within not knowing your own personal history or your family history, or not knowing the history of your community, it causes problems,” Rivers said. “Because there’s always the assumption when it’s fragmented that there’s certain history that didn’t exist. Or groups of people that did not contribute to that history, so they’re not as valued overall by the community as a whole and the way it views itself.
“And that causes problems, and if that’s not corrected, those problems continue to fester. And nothing is really solved. You just keep seeing that repeated and repeated over and over again.”
As their idea comes to fruition, Suggs Mason, Rivers and the dozens of others working on the trail are making sure that kids can look upon their community and see themselves making an impact.
“What I’m hoping is that ... all students, particularly African American students, know that this is their community,” Suggs Mason said. “There are men and women of African descent who helped build it. Their story is rarely told, but they did.”