Update on 3/6/2023 at 12:15 p.m.

Visit Champaign County Community Development Manager Tim Oravec announced that the Champaign County African American Heritage Trail’s unveiling of its new Frederick Douglass sign has been rescheduled.

The event will now be held on March 8 at 11 a.m. at E. Main Street in Champaign, near the entrance to Big Grove Tavern.

Oravec said the unveiling was originally planned for last Friday. However, it was canceled due to the wintery weather that hit many parts of Central Illinois, including Champaign.

Original Story:

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — The Champaign County African American Heritage Trail is closing out Black History Month with the installation of its first interpretive sign, alongside the launch of a comprehensive website that shares the history of African Americans in Champaign County.

Recognizing Frederick Douglass’ visit to Champaign

Visit Champaign County said the new interpretive sign recognizes the time that famed African American orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass visited Champaign in 1869. He spoke on the topic of “Self-Made Men” at Barrett Hall, located where One Main Plaza stands today.

An unveiling ceremony for the sign is scheduled to be held outside at One Main Plaza on March 3 at 11:00 a.m.

“African American history is central to the development of Champaign County, and Frederick Douglass’ visit in 1869 is one of many incredible local stories that, unfortunately, many residents and visitors don’t know,” said Jayne DeLuce, President & CEO of Visit Champaign County. “We hope the Champaign County African American Heritage Trail contributes to a better society by raising awareness of stories like this one through interpretive signage, school curricula, art, and our website. We are thankful to our sponsor, the Community Foundation of East Central Illinois, for making this sign possible.”

Visit Champaign County said the Frederick Douglass sign will be the first of several interpretive signs planned for installation throughout the county, recognizing a range of stories, including early African American settlers in Homer, school integration in Urbana, the former Chanute Air Force Base, the 99th Pursuit Squadron in Rantoul, and student advocacy at the U of I.

Additionally, Visit Champaign County said smaller markers are planned for the county to recognize historical landmarks. The first small marker was installed at the 600 block N. Walnut St. in Champaign at the former home of Albert R. Lee, the second African American ever hired by the U of I. The home is now owned by RDI Properties as a rental property.

“Albert R. Lee was a giant in the community and a singular voice for advocacy. Known as the unofficial Dean of African American Students at the University of Illinois, Lee advocated passionately and persuasively on behalf of Black students for assistance with housing, academic support, employment and so much more,” said. Michael Markstahler, President of RDI Properties. “I’m honored to support the Heritage Trail and honor Lee’s legacy in this way.”

New African American history website

The Heritage Trail will also be bringing African American history online on a new website. It will include a trail map, points of pride, a timeline of historical events dating back to 1840, a list of community events, historical photos, and information about how to support the trail. The website recently won a Preservation and Conservation Association Heritage Award for its educational value.

“We are very proud of our award-winning website,” says DeLuce. “We look forward to continually adding information, images, and resources to the website so it will be an engaging and comprehensive source of information and inspiration for years to come.”

The Visit Champaign County Foundation is currently organizing a fundraising drive to support the Heritage Trail, including the transformation of Champaign’s Skelton Park. Donation information can be found here. The foundation is led by Co-Chairs Barbara Suggs Mason and Angela Rivers and seeks input on the African American Heritage Trail from a committee of community volunteers.

“Researching more than 170 years of history and working with numerous entities to share that information with the world is a major undertaking,” said Rivers. “We hope to continue receiving support from communities, organizations, and residents to help sustain the Heritage Trail long into the future and ensure that black history is studied and celebrated 365 days a year.”