Contagious, hypnotic music kissed the streets of Champaign in the 1950s in what some remember as an electrifying, soul-consuming environment that lured many African-American Champaign residents out of their homes and into the busy streets for the night.
“The Black Downtown” is known today as North First Street where the Champaign Police Department and four surviving barber shops lay, but behind its quiet exterior was once home to dozens of black owned businesses.
Now, all but four have disappeared.
“It would light up,” said Joe Taylor, Champaign resident and former owner of Rose and Taylor Barber Shop in Champaign. “The bars would play Sam Cooke, Etta James and Billy Holiday. It was always a good time.”
The Black Downtown featured bars, restaurants, cleaners, hair and beauty shops, such as the Rose and Taylor Barber Shop, which opened in 1962.
According to e-Black Champaign-Urbana, a platform that compiles documents of African-American history in Urbana-Champaign, the African-American population increased from 1,700 in 1940 to 3,000 in 1950. As a result, there was a need for African-American businesses.
“It was a place for African-Americans to come together … no matter what walk of life, or level of income,” said William Jones, the current owner of Rose and Taylor Barber Shop. “We still have a handful of those businesses left in Champaign, and they still remain true to their roots.”
But the success didn’t last; e-Black CU documented that by 1970, the businesses started failing.
The loss of businesses increased over time and in 2011 Champaign released a Champaign Minority Business List that documented over 15 minority hair shops, but Taylor said less than a handful of them were black owned.
For many barbers, their clientele was predominantly black, Jones said. After the Civil Rights Movement and the continuous efforts of the University to integrate the African-American community, some shops had to diversify their clientele if they wanted to survive financially, especially with several similar businesses in the area competing with one another.
“The black businesses died out because of how difficult it was to get loans to keep the businesses running,” said Martel Miller, who grew up near The Black Downtown and is now a Champaign community member and activist. “I think the city didn’t work with the owners as much as they could have or do for other businesses.”
Yet, as black businesses began failing, The Black Downtown was segregated from the rest of Champaign, specifically the campus community, said Miller.
Soon, violence and drugs followed, leading the city to build the Champaign Police Department within it.
“Once The Black Downtown disappeared, students were told not to cross University Avenue because it was ‘dangerous,’” Miller said.
Miller and Terry Townsend, Champaign activist, recently wrote a letter asking the Board of Trustees not to renew Chancellor Phyllis Wise’s contract for next year, partially because of how they feel the University treats the African-American community in Champaign. As a community activist, Miller said he is greatly affected by the stigma that is associated with crossing University Avenue and the stereotypes that follow local Champaign residents.
The devolution of The Black Downtown was devastating to Miller and Taylor, but for Miller being segregated from campus because of perceived danger was even more difficult.
Today, vacant buildings where black owned shops once stood are seen—weaved in-between present day businesses on North First Street.
“Then it was like having your own village. There was a lot of culture and everyone knew each other,” Miller said. “Now that it’s gone, that community bond is missing—and we desperately need it back.”