HOMER — For many African Americans living in Champaign County, tiny Homer was where they first called home.
They also worked, recreated, attended church and ran businesses in the community located about 19 miles southeast of Urbana.
Signs that mark the history of African Americans in the village will be dedicated for the Champaign County African American Heritage Trail the next two weeks.
The first sign unveiling will be at 2 p.m. today at the Old Homer Park, South Homer Lake Road, off County Road 2700 East. It is sponsored by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District.
At 11 a.m. Nov. 3, the second sign will be unveiled at the Homer Historical Society, 107 N. Main St. It is sponsored by the historical society and recognizes early African American achievements, education, families and leaders in Homer.
Numerous early African American business people, community leaders and intellectuals visited or lived in Homer.
“I don’t believe many understand how long many African Americans” lived in Homer, said Barbara Suggs Mason. “It goes back to the 1850s.”
Suggs Mason and her cousin, Angela Rivers, serve as co-chairs of the heritage trail committee sign project and were instrumental in its creation with the help of other collaborators and backed by Experience Champaign-Urbana CEO Jayne DeLuce.
The heritage trail is a celebration of the lives and contributions of African Americans in the Champaign County area. The mission is to educate today’s residents and visitors about the rich cultural history of a people whose stories have been largely unrecognized, but who directly helped to shape their towns.
The vision of the heritage trail project is to inspire conversation and expand understanding.
Suggs Mason said the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in May 2020 in Minneapolis helped to motivate the project.
She said Rivers was instrumental in the creation of a mural on a building in the summer of 1971 at the corner of Park and Fifth streets depicting the history of African Americans in Champaign County.
In 2010, the building the mural was painted on had to be torn down due to the dilapidated condition of its foundation.
The heritage trail is designed to shine a light on the role of African Americans in the county.
Suggs Mason said Ray Cunningham, president of the Homer Historical Society, did a great deal of research on “the place of African Americans in Homer.”
Among the prominent African Americans was Jacob Earnest, who worked more than 400 acres in both Champaign and Vermilion counties “and was known for creating a steam-powered, horse-driven thresher machine,” Suggs Mason said.
“He would go around and help other farmers during harvest.”
The George Smith family of Broadlands was also prominent. One son was the first African American graduate of the University of Illinois. The family owned 437 acres at the time of his death.
The Albert Gaines family, a stepson of George Smith, sent two of their daughters to the UI.
“There were (African American) businesses in Homer,” Suggs Mason said. “Wiley and Frances Jones settled there from Decatur, Ga., after the Civil War. He ran a barbershop in Homer and was a trustee of the Homer Savings and Loan.”
A relative of Suggs Mason and Rivers settled in the Homer area around 1876.
“He was a formerly enslaved person,” Suggs Mason said. “I think he was attracted because he was an agricultural man. He was able to purchase farmland in the Homer area.”
Suggs Mason said Homer Park is being recognized on the heritage trail because that was a place African Americans held picnics, barbecues and band concerts. They also organized Sunday school and church outings there.
“You had the interurban, so African Americans from around the county could take (it) there,” she said.
Tim Oravec, Experience Champaign Urbana community development manager, said eight signs have been erected to date on the heritage trail with a goal of erecting 20 total.
The large interpretive signs contain 300 to 400 words detailing the history and images of the area. They also contain a QR code that will take the viewer to the heritage trail website to receive an expanded history.
Individual donors, businesses and organizations are funding the project. A state of Illinois grant was received recently to move the project forward. Additional donations are being sought.