North First Street

Black Downtown

Introduction

Between 1940 and 1950 the population of Champaign jumped from 23,302 to 39,563, and the African-American population increased from approximately 1,700 to 3,000 (numbers are approximate because only a "non-white" category was collected by the census in these years). As the African-American population in Champaign increased, the area now known as the "North End" emerged as a "black neighborhood," shaped by discriminatory housing practices and racist covenants that forced African-Americans into a geographically bounded space.

As the population on and around North First Street became almost exclusively African-American, the North First Street area became a type of "black downtown."In the early 1950's a "Miss Boswell" became the first African-American to receive a liquor license from the City of Champaign, setting up a bar on East Main, adjacent to North First Street. Prior to this historic event, African-Americans who wished to drink were often forced to meet in neighborhood bars, always at the risk of being raided by the police. The neighborhood also featured, at various points in time, restaurants and bars such as Holt's, Brown's Cafe, Eagle's Nest, Candy's Lounge, R.J.'s Tavern, Rainbow Tavern, Beasley's, Goldenrod, the Chick-Chick Shack and Gene's Hickory Pit B-B-Q. These establishments became popular gathering places where African-Americans could eat free of the discriminatory attitude commonly found in other parts of the city. Gene's Hickory Pit, a long-time staple in the neighborhood, was located where the Champaign Police Department is now located. 

There were also black-owned barber-shops and beauty salons in the area, such as Ace's Barber Shop, D'Ghanza Beauty Salon, Rose and Taylor's (formerly Tommy's and Our Place) and Banks' Barber Shop. One Stop Pantry (a grocery store), Hambrick's Maintenance Service, Leonard's Jewelry and Luggage and Tinsley's Cleaners, owned by Roscoe Tinsley (who also owned the Chick-Chick Shack) could also be found in this diversified, if compact, "black downtown." A Nation of Islam Temple also briefly existed on the street. 

"The Place to be"

One of the most remarkable chapters in the history of black business in Champaign-Urbana began when a penniless Wardell Jackson came to Champaign from Memphis, Tenn., in 1934. He came back from serving in the Army in 1945 with between $50,000 and $85,000, according to reports of his testimony before a U.S. District Court judge in 1960. The money - won, Jackson said, by gambling Army paychecks - was used to buy and improve property in Champaign east of the Illinois Central Railroad tracks. Jackson's "illegal number games" became notorious both among African-Americans and whites in Champaign. The Harlem DeLuxe Tavern, Beasley's Grill, Tinsley's Cleaners and the Social Club were among the businesses concentrated in Jackson's property on Champalgn's Main Street, east of the railroad tracks, in the 1950s.

Candy Foster, who moved to Champaign in 1960, remembered North First Street at the time as "the place to be" in the twin cities, with a thriving music scene. Musicians performed regularly at places like The Social Club, Buddies, the Jazz Cafe, the Inner Circle. 

Civil Rights

As the civil rights struggle and the black power movement intensified locally in the 1960s and 1970s, the City of Champaign and the University of Illinois felt pressure to work with African American citizens and groups to help alleviate historical inequalities derived from discriminatory practices. In the early 1970s, the Community Advocacy Depot, the Progress Association for Economic Development and Neighborhood Youth Design Depot, all on the 100-block of North First Street and all deeply tied to the activism of John Lee Johnson, emerged to bring about change in the African-American community. The Urban League was located nearby at 40 Main Street across the trakcs. These groups also worked to ensure that African-American voices were incorporated into the ongoing urban renewal in places such as the nearby Oak-Ash neighborhood and along Poplar Street, where many older buildings and sub-par housing was removed. 

The civil rights activism in the area occasionally lead to violent confrontations, but also served to inspire the next generation of activists in the community. 

Decline in the late 1970s and 1980s

A 1974 directory of Black-Owned Businesses in Champaign-Urbana put out by the Urban League and Oasis Graphic Arts reported the following businesses in the North First Street Area: Knits and Pants, 114 North 1st St, owners Terry Jones and Charles Exum; Tommy's Barber Shop, 204 N. 1st, Tommy Drish; Goldenrod Tavern, 202 1/2 N. 1st St., Nathan Hobbs; Star Record Shop, 202 N. 1st St., Tommy Drish; Round the Corner Restaurant, 112 N. 1st St., Robert Jones; Muhammad's Temple, 120 N. 1st St.; Lone Star Lodge, 208 N. 1st St.; and the Champaign Eagles Motorcycle Club, 206 N. 1st St., Eddie Campbell; and the Illini Arcade, 51 Main, Cody Boswell.

In 1982 Wardell Jackson's former property on the corner of Main and First was acquired by the City of Champaign, which built on the site the new Champaign Police Department. The decision to move the Police Department was in part designed to help build economic development in the region. However, some have speculated that the move actually hampered the local economy. In the 1970s crime and gang activity were common in the neighborhood and the desire to increase the police presence in the area may have contributed to the move. 

Cleveland Jefferson, former head of the local NAACP and former property owner at 202 North First Street, has speculated that the North First Street business community went into decline as a result of both desegregation/urban renewal, which lead the diffusion of the businesses' traditional population base. The decline was aggravated by the unwillingness of many lending institutions to provide African-American entrepreneurs with the capital necessary to update and revitalize their businesses in the changing economic climate.

Redeveloping the Region

In the 1980s John Lee Johnson, Urban Planning Professor Leonard Heumann, and the American Friends Service Committee sought to create affordable homes on the northern end of North First Street. 

In the early 1990s Johnson set up a "North First Street Focus Group" to study the feasibility of revitalizing the business district as a vibrant center of African-American owned-businesses. In Fall 1993 Leonard Heumann's Urban Planning Class produced a two-volume feasibility study of this proposal for the City of Champaign. Following this report Johnson worked with local African-American business owners to develop the North First Street Business Association, which helped businesses like Rose & Taylor's Barber Shop, Buddies' Pool Hall (later Briggs' Pool Hall), Jackson's Ribs and Tips and the Lone Star Lounge secure loans and grants to develop and revitalize their businesses. As part of this revitalization initiative the now-defunct Urban League briefly contemplated moving its operation to the 300-block of North First Street to further drive the revitalization of the business community. 

New and Old Businesses

A different type of revitalization was attempted by Clarence Davidson, Gerald "Candy" Foster, and Pete Bridgewater, who sought to re-create North First Street's musical past in places like Buddies Pool Hall and Candy's Lounge in the early 1990s.

A 1993 directory of African-American businesses and business people in Champaign-Urbana put out by the Douglas Branch of the Champaign Public Library found the following businesses on North First Street: Banks Barber Shop, Hambrick's Maintenance Service, Jackson's Restaurant, and Buddie's Bar.

The Legacy Continues...

A 2003 directory of African-American Businesses put out by the Urban League found the following on North First Street: Jackson's Ribs-and-Tips Lounge, Locks of Glory, and Rose & Taylor Barber Shop.

In 2006 Johnson passed away, yet the North First Street Business Association continues to carry on his commitment to the neighborhood and to the people and businesses located there. Most recently, in 2009 the North First Street Business Association, under the direction of the new Rose & Taylor's, William Jones, has successfully organized and set-up a Farmers' Market in the parking lot of the Champaign Police Department. The Farmer's Market will return in Summer 2010. 

A 2009 Directory of Minority Businesses released by the City of Champaign reveals the following on North First Street: Annointed Hands, 124 N.1st., Jazzie Looks Hair & Nail Salon, 122 N.1st., Locks of Glory, 204 N.1st., Phase II, 204 N.1st., and Rose & Taylor Barber Shop, 124 N.1st.