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The Origins and History of Champaign’s North End, 1850-1975

By Rachel Mulick and Eva Grein

The roots of the North End neighborhood go back as far as 1850 when census records documented the first African Americans living in Champaign County.(1) Illinois was one of multiple northern ‘free states’ that attracted formerly enslaved and free black people looking to settle their own land. By 1863, Bethel AME became the first black church in Champaign and was a cornerstone in the North End.(2) 

Fig 1: Bethel AME Church Congregation

As the community grew, however, so did anti-black sentiments; many white residents of Champaign believed in the separation of housing areas. As a result, racially restrictive housing covenants were implemented in the 1940s, and forced African Americans to remain in the North End. In the 1960s, tensions among residents rose as the nationwide fight for civil rights gained traction. Today, the demographics of the North End show that the neighborhood still houses a majority black population with low income and employment rates. Still, the rich social culture and strong interpersonal relationships of the North End are hallmarks of this close-knit community, despite the hardships the citizens continue to face.

The expansion of railroad networks in the late 19th century increased the number of people who came to Champaign. The North End was located near the intersection of two train lines that carried the descendants of slaves to northern urban centers. elderly residents share that when many of their ancestors were on trains from the South “Folks who couldn’t read well mistook the ‘Ch’ in Champaign for the ‘Ch’ in Chicago” and settled in the North End.(3) The racial division and lack of employment in Chicago–the fourth most segregated city nationwide in the 1940s–led Northern black people to flee to the suburbs and rural Champaign.(4) Prior to this, the most drastic expansion in Champaign’s population occurred after 1910, coinciding with the Great Migration.(5) During this time, nearly every black family in the American South had to decide whether to flee to the Northern states or remain in the abusive sharecropping systems of the South. Their decisions were shaped by the aftereffects of slavery as the Jim Crow laws guided their every movement. Around six million Black people moved to the North from the 1910s to the 1970s. During the First and Second World Wars, the northern job market opened to the black population due to a shortage of labor. The increase in racial violence and discrimination in the South also led Southern black people to move to the North. This migration greatly altered the American political landscape, workforce, and collective culture. Black people were allowed to participate in democracy, letting a broader population know the injustices they suffered. Their entrance into the Northern job market reshaped professions that had long been held by solely white people. Modern black culture is a direct outcome of enslaved people’s history. The diaspora brought stories, music, art, and many other forms of culture to locations across America. The North End neighborhood is one of many products of this mass migration of people and their heritage.(6)

The culture of the North End is distinctly defined by the black migrants from the Deep South. They embraced the values of hard work and a willingness to blend into the dominantly white community. The shared worldview that the former slaves brought to the North created strong interpersonal relationships. The conditions of slavery made ties to family crucial for survival. The family was a sector outside of the difficulties of work where meaningful relations could be formed. The separation of family members displaced by the system of slavery was devastating. This is one of the reasons that communities such as the North End developed throughout the free northern states. Many current residents are the descendants of enslaved people who came to the North End to reunite with family members. Today, values of friendship and kinship relations remain the backbone of the community.(7)

Housing segregation in Champaign forced many black residents to stay in the North End after seeking employment in the area in earlier years.(8) Real estate officials within the Twin Cities dual housing market executed redlining to steer black residents away from white-dominated neighborhoods to keep property values high. Racially restrictive housing covenants were written into the new subdivision deeds of Champaign County from 1941 to 1950 to block the leasing or selling of property to “persons not of the Caucasian race.” Although there were individuals in North End who could afford to seek better living conditions, they were restricted from moving out.(9) These housing covenants perpetuated the idea of black inferiority, as the neighborhood that African American people were confined to appeared overcrowded and in a state of neglect.

Fig 2: House in the North End in the 1940s

Many white citizens held the belief that African Americans were destined to live in this section of Champaign because they possessed “inferior traits,” such as carelessness and a disregard for their property. This was due to the government’s failure to upkeep the neighborhood rather than the citizen’s lack of care or their biological traits. The local government’s neglect resulted in infrastructural deficiencies like those reported on in 1947 by the Social Welfare Committee of the League of Women Voters in Champaign County. Streets were unpaved, sewage was backed up, and trash collectors refused to travel to the neighborhood. City ordinances against such conditions were enforced in other parts of Champaign that predominantly housed white citizens.(10)

The North End has been considered low-income since the 1930s. As of 1934, there were very few black-owned businesses in Champaign due to discrimination. This resulted in a limited job market for the residents of North End. Ruth Hendricks, an active community member during the 1980s, recounted her youth in the North End, “When I was a girl Black people all had to live in one section- the North End. No matter how qualified we could only get jobs in the service areas as maids and cooks.”(11) In 1936, the most common jobs for black men were porters, railroad workers, and janitors. Black women typically stayed home to care for their children and complete household tasks. Racial hiring prejudices and segregation forced the community to create its own facilities. In the 1930s, the Douglass Community Center was built, which hosted sports and recreational classes for North End residents of all ages.

Fig 3: Douglas Center

The Neighborhood House within the community center provided a “space for African Americans who were denied access to local segregated facilities.”(12) Social functions such as movie nights and dances were held for the citizens as well. Black-owned businesses also developed; community members founded cleaners, restaurants, barbershops, funeral homes, and auto body shops. Churches such as Bethel AME and Salem Baptist Church fostered strong connections and great pride among North End residents.(13) In the early 1960s, ministers from churches like these were at the forefront of organizing the struggle for civil rights. The mass-based structure allows for the mobilization of financial, material, and human resources for social change. 

Although the black population suffered great inequalities due to hiring practices and locational segregation, relations between black and white Champaign residents were relatively peaceful until the 1960s.  As nationwide racial tensions rose, negative white attention turned towards the North End. Violent uprisings in other cities led white civilians to form an adverse opinion of the life of residents within North End; “People residing outside the [North End] described the neighborhood as wildly dangerous, festering with gangsters, and inhospitable to outsiders. Black [North End] residents don’t share that view. Stories from that period of racial unrest labeled the [North End] a dangerous neighborhood.”(14) In earlier years, protesting was used to combat the segregation of pools, movie theaters, and other common public areas. The Civil Rights movement fractured into groups with differing views on the level of violence during protests and the path forward. According to Daniel Offiong, a student at the University of Illinois during the 1960s,  most North End residents disapproved of a small group of ‘radicals’. Offiong’s study in 1968 determined that over 85% of Champaign residents denounced the use of violence to achieve equality. By the mid-1960s, many North End residents pointed to integration, especially in housing, as the next step to racial equality in Champaign.(15)

Public housing policies were highly influential in the perpetuation of the North End as a low-income black neighborhood. According to the Champaign-Urbana Council for Community Integration, in 1962 “Champaign-Urbana [was] the most segregated community among the 15 largest cities in the state.” The increase in the white population of Champaign-Urbana from 1940 to 1960 led to an expansion of new housing developments. The non-white population increased by 300% during the same period but remained in a unified area as minority racial groups. A disproportionate growth of new and public housing units expanded the segregated area where black people were designated to live. Further, landlords resorted to raising rents and dividing housing into small apartments in an attempt to match the population growth.(16) In 1963, a protest of 60 community members marched toward the Champaign City Building after the City Council voted against open occupancy in a 6-1 decision. This policy would have protected the housing rights of black people by banning redlining practices and allowing them to live wherever they could afford. The city’s urban renewal commission protested against this decision further when Ramsey, one of its members, hinted that he might resign from his position. He stated that “Urban renewal without open occupancy in the rest of the city would be meaningless.”(17)

Fig 4: "Smashing Success" 918 N Poplar St first to be razed in Champaign's Urban Renewal Program, 1968

The effects of the segregation that formed the North End neighborhood spread beyond its borders. In 1973, the Champaign County Housing Authority defeated two crucial housing projects that would have provided 63 additional units. While these projects would have benefitted families living in substandard housing, they would have furthered the division between North and South Champaign. The Daily Illini writes that new housing projects have tended to “continue the division of Champaign into a black North End and a white, more affluent southern section”.(18) Local residents stated that the city “dumps” public housing projects in the areas that do not have the “prestige or influence to stop such projects.”(19) Community members protested and formed petitions against the public housing distribution in the North End neighborhood. Eventually, these were successful and the Housing Authority settled on scattered site housing. This allowed for the construction of low-density public housing buildings. The “Section 235” and “236” programs gave additional assistance to homeowners through subsidized interest and renting rates for low-income tenants.

As the Civil Rights era came to an end in America in the late 1960s, the gradual process of desegregation in Champaign began. A local resident, Ella Washington, marveled at the change society underwent; “Black people can eat anywhere. They can live anywhere they want if they have the money.”(20) The aftereffects of segregation can be seen in the income disparity and employment rates of non-white citizens in the North End neighborhood. While prohibiting discriminatory housing practices allowed for new equal opportunities, the difference in income due to historical discriminatory practices did not allow for folks to move out of the neighborhood. Attempts have been made to develop more low-income housing in other parts of Champaign, such as in 1997 when the Champaign City Council discussed implementing a low-income tax credit program that would incentivize developers to construct affordable housing.  They reached a 5-4 decision to delay providing a Consolidated Plan, which would outline how the city should distribute federal funds to low-income housing. This plan, according to Gibson, would allow the city to be more flexible in where they integrate single-family housing.(21) Today, the household income and employment rate in the North End are still lower than in the rest of Champaign. Data taken in 2021 showed that the North and East of Champaign are among the lowest-income areas of the county. Educational achievement, which is correlated to the employment rate, remains low in the same areas.(22)

Fig 5: Modern Development in the North End

Northern Champaign is still home to most of the city’s black residents.(23) Mark Fleisher chronicles the lives of the current residents of North End in his ethnographic study titled Living Black. He describes their struggles to overcome personal tragedies, poor housing conditions, and deficient medical care. Fleisher argues that the strong social connections and support networks between North End residents provide a tight-knit community not dependent on income. The area surrounding the University of Illinois is described as a bubble; no news of gangs or shootings in the North End neighborhood disturbs the peace or progress of the rural college town.(24) The overall reputation of the North End was still known to many Champaign residents. Fleisher recounts university faculty members telling him to slide up his windows and lock his car doors if he ever finds himself in the North End. The media perpetuated this image of the neighborhood through news reports of gang violence and black gangster movies. The appearance of North End’s infrastructure solidified this viewpoint in local people’s minds.(25)

Pine Village was a popular family housing area in the North End. Fleisher encounters the Washingtons here, a family that became the main subject of his interviews. The housing development first appears solely as a run-down, low-rent, public housing project. In reality, there is a depth to the social life in the apartment complex. Women of different families interact constantly, gossiping and chatting while watching their children on the playground. Pregnancy and motherhood interrupted social relationships when women lived far away from one another.(26) The rich social culture was erased as people began to move out to Section 8 housing where there was limited interaction between families.(27) Preacher Harris, a friend of a man that was the “protector” of Fleisher as he conducted interviews, erected a faith-based women’s shelter in an abandoned motel. This helped the issue of poor quality housing and limited community resources for those affected by alcoholism or drug addictions. The Washington family stayed here while searching for new housing after their previous residence became in a state of disrepair.(28) Where the government lacked infrastructure, the residents of North End implemented their own methods of assisting their community members. 

The historical factors behind the operation of the neighborhood fall on slavery, racism, and xenophobia rather than the residents themselves.(29) Fleisher ends his account of modern-day North End by recounting his first impressions of the neighborhood: a shabby and drug-ridden place. After a few weeks of interviewing the residents, he discovered that the North End was shaped by the values of personal freedom, personal responsibility, and non-judgemental personal relations. 

The North End neighborhood remains a crucial part of Champaign’s historic past and its future. Many pieces of this neighborhood remain the same, such as the collective culture and strong emphasis on social relations. The struggles with government funding, substandard housing, and violence also persist. The Northern end of Champaign is still segregated with a majority Black population. Harmful racial stereotypes that come from the appearance of the neighborhood have worked their way into the minds of the residents of Champaign County. As in many towns across America, housing segregation based on ingrained prejudices infiltrates all parts of American culture.


  1. “Champaign County African American Population – African American Heritage Trail.” Champaign County African American Heritage Trail,

  2. “Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church – African American Heritage Trail.” Champaign County African American Heritage Trail,

  3. Mark Fleisher, Living Black (Madison: University Of Wisconsin Press, 2015), 26

  4. Ibid., 35

  5. Janet Cromwell, “History and organization of the Negro community in Champaign-Urbana, IL” (M.A. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1934), 4.

  6. Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, (New york: Random House, 2010), 8-13

  7. Fleisher, Living Black, 24-26

  8. Carrie Frank, "Injustice Sheltered: Race relations at the University of Illinois and Champaign-Urbana, 1945-1962" (P.h.D diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1990), 14.

  9. Frank, "Injustice Sheltered,” 16-18.

  10. Ibid, 16-21

  11. Bial, In All My Years.

  12. “Douglass Community Center: Through the Years”

  13. Bial, In All My Years.

  14. Fleisher, Living Black, 27.

  15. Daniel Offiong, “Apathy and Optimism Among Negroes of North End Champaign" (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1968), 3.

  16. “Segregation Rigid Here, CCI Asserts,” The Illinois Times, April 16, 1962.

  17. “March Protests City Council Action,” The Daily Illini, October 3, 1963.

  18. “Public Housing Top Priority,” The Daily Illini, July 11, 1973.

  19. “Champaign Public Housing Faces Problems,” The Daily Illini, December 14, 1962.

  20. Bial, In All My Years

  21. “Champaign studies low-income housing,” Daily Illini, April 8, 1997

  22. “Race, Diversity, and Ethnicity in Champaign, IL,” Best Neighborhood,

  23. “Race, Diversity, and Ethnicity in Champaign, IL,” Best Neighborhood.

  24. Fleisher, Living Black 1-11

  25. Ibid., 27-28

  26. Ibid., 100-101

  27. Ibid., 65-66

  28. Ibid.,  77-79

  29. Ibid., 126-127

Image Citations:

  1. Doris K. Wylie Hoskins Collection, Museum of the Grand Prairie, Mahomet, IL

  2. Kenneth Stratton and Romeo Green, Jr., from Doris K. Wylie Hoskins Archive for Cultural Diversity.

  3. Champaign County Archives, Urbana Free Library, Urbana, Illinois


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