People like us, belong in institutions like this
By Diamond Walker
Imagine attending a university with no housing, no dining halls that would serve you, and walking miles to your nearest class. This was the reality for many black and brown alums before 1965. Many students made it their mission to make students of color feel alienated and as if people like them didn’t belong in institutions like this.
After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, the university went to extensive efforts to integrate 568 "poor and disadvantaged" students into the undergraduate program. These brave souls were known as Project 500; However, these individuals were not the first people of color to attend the University of Illinois. The first African American to enroll in university was in 1887.
By the 1940s the university only housed 7% of its student body, who were of the Caucasian race. However, it was not until the mid-1960s that African Americans were allowed to stay on campus. Before this period Black students would find housing inside the Champaign-Urbana community. Community members would open their houses up to students of color offering them food and housing, making it possible for them to receive an education.
African Americans citizens living in Champaign were required to live on the outskirts of the city, by the railroad tracks. This community is referred to as the “North End.” This racially segregated community became a second home for black students during this time.
This era was before public transportation, African American students would find themselves walking from the North end to campus town every day, which was many miles. This neighborhood is still standing today and is located behind University Avenue to Bloomington Rd, the community still consists of a majority of African American residents.
Segregation was just as prominent in Champaign County as it was in the south. Students were unable to get haircuts, watch movies and eat with their classmates. This raised tensions on campus. The history of the university has become a broken record like many institutions in the south and north.
People were thrown in jail and lost their lives and freedoms just for the slightest hope of the future. The future we currently walk in today, we stand on the shoulders of past students and community members, whose struggles and hardships in the fight for equality will not go in vain.
Thornton Cherry was one of the few brave souls who enrolled before project 500. He completed his undergraduate degree from 1967 to 1971, then returned to receive his law degree from 1971-1974.
During the beginning of his undergraduate career, he remembers that only about 300 African American students were enrolled on the entire campus. “You could go weeks without seeing a black face” and interactions with minority students were rare and it became easy to feel alienated and alone.
When African Americans were finally able to stay on campus, students felt little need to interact with the community. This was the beginning of drastic shifts in the interactions the university had with the small Champaign community. Students were warned not to have interactions with the north end of Champaign. This was a vast change from depending almost entirely on the Champaign-Urbana community to provide food and shelter to students. This disconnection has carried on for decades making the university a utopia inside the city of Champaign-Urbana.
If you were a black student in this era not only, could you not eat in the dining halls, but it was difficult to find certain cultural soul food in local stores and markets to cook at home. No local markets sold greens, sweet potatoes, or salted meat. Cherry recalls going on a journey miles away, to a small farmer just to purchase food for Sunday dinner. This plays a role in the alienation process, making it clear that people of this particular culture had no place here.
In the modern day, undergraduates crowd green street every weekend looking for a bar to enjoy their night at, Cherry vividly remembers a night in October of 1967 when he was kicked out of the Red Lion bar as the bouncer mumbled “people like you do not belong in places like this”
Racial discrimination has been lingering on this university since its founding, The only way to fight these efforts progressively is to inform ourselves on the history of not only this campus but the community it is housed in. “Those who can’t learn from history, are doomed to repeat it” George Santayana, philosopher.
Cherry goes on to talk about the life lessons that he learned on this campus “The closer you get to your goal; the harder people will make it to achieve”
It’s time we give voice to the voiceless, African American students still stand on the shoulder of these unsung alums and community members. As we strive for racial equality, this history is still alive and will not be forgotten. We keep in remembrance those who came before us as they paved the path that is currently walked on today.