Mapping Cultural Migrations between Champaign and Chicago

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #12 in August 2012]

A detail of a family from the 1978 mural by Angela M. Rivers of “A
Pictorial History of African Americans of Champaign County.” This
mural was on a wall of a commercial building at Fifth and Park Streets
in Champaign.

 first met Angela Rivers in May of 2009. A group of us at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign had gotten a small grant to bring Angela from Chicago to campus as an artist-in-residence after Sam Smith, the engagement director at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, had met Angela in Fall 2008 at the 40th anniversary reunion of Project 500 alumni. [1] Sam learned that Angela had created a large mural in 1978 in the historically African American community of north Champaign, an area that Angela knew well because of family ties. As an art historian, that activity interested me very much. The grant-funded project, “Revisiting Murals, Animating Neighborhoods,” resulted in a booklet about the mural that we collectively published in 2010. [2]

In this exchange, Angela and I trace a loop from Champaign to Chicago and back, following the paths of a few artists, including Angela, across two generations.  These conversations were conducted in person, in Champaign, over several weeks in February and March 2012.
–Sharon Irish

Angela Rivers: When I met Sam Smith we were talking about Champaign and my being part of Project 500…through the back door. Project 500, was a response by the University of Illinois to underrepresentation of African Americans. The UI was not taking anyone from the immediate area for Project 500; I had applied to the UI and had been accepted into the lottery (because there were so many applicants), but my name wasn’t pulled for the lottery. I heard about Project 500, but I was told that I wasn’t eligible. However Terry Townsend [a local leader] told my parents and me, “go up to Chicago and get in that way.”  So I registered with my aunt Dorothy’s Chicago address, getting in.  I went from 1970-75.

Because I came in through Project 500 there was an assumption that I wasn’t academically eligible to be at the UI. They wanted me to take remedial courses, which I refused to do. I majored in painting; there were assumptions within the visual arts as to what made a true artist. My college years overlapped with the black power and women’s rights movements; women had to work doubly hard; the work had to be non-threatening and non-bourgeois (i.e., no children, mothers or the everyday.) My original interest was figure painting and, of course, my “thing” was African American genre. That caused a lot of problems, as well as having my daughter (b. 1971).  I was challenged on my subjects during critiques and on my commitment.  And even though I produced the required work, I wasn’t as productive as those in the studios night and day.  I was even told “Go on home and raise your family.” That’s one of the reasons I went into art education.

There were no African American teachers in the art program, though Billy Morrow Jackson (1926-2006) [3] was teaching while I was there. I grew up next door to him. He’s why I later became interested in watercolor. His wife Blanche was African American.

Sharon Irish: Your family lived next door to Billy Morrow Jackson in what you have called south Champaign, which, at the time, was near the edge of town, and now is in the middle of it! Tell me a bit about your family’s history in Champaign.

AR: On my mother’s side, the Andersons—mother’s father’s people–came to Champaign County right after the Civil War, about 1867. The Earnests—mother’s mother’s folks–began coming in the 1870s. Others came in the 1880s and 1890s, literally following the people they knew. Oral tradition told us that we had always been free and had always been Methodists-African Methodist Episcopal (AME).  Bethel AME was the earliest black church in Champaign…. I grew up in Bethel AME, located at Park and 4th Streets in north Champaign. My father’s parents lived next door.  My mother’s parents lived at the edge of what is now Douglass Park, at Eureka and Fifth Streets, within blocks of the church.

When in 1978 I created “A Pictorial History of African Americans in Champaign County,” the mural at Fifth and Park Streets, with youth from a summer program, I was thinking about what brought African Americans to Champaign-Urbana early on: there were two major reasons, farming and working the railroad, up until the Great Migration. The railroad—the Illinois Central–actually fueled the Great Migration, from the South into Chicago. So those were the main themes of the mural.  My family’s experience was the same; farming and then working the rails.

An interesting Champaign-Chicago loop is that in the spring of 1978, Mark Rogovin of the Chicago Public Arts Workshop visited Champaign from Chicago to meet local black artists and organizers about creating a mural, the one I would undertake.   A few years later, I went on to work at the DuSable Museum, founded by Dr. Margaret Burroughs, who was friends with Mark Rogovin’s father, photographer Milton Rogovin. [The DuSable Museum of African-American History was founded in 1961 in Dr. Burroughs’ home and moved to its present location in Washington Park in 1973.] Margaret Burroughs had come to the University of Illinois as an artist-in-residence in 1980 and viewed the mural then.

SI: Your uncle Cecil Dewey Nelson, Jr. (1920-1984) was also a visual artist.  Tell me a little bit about him and your family.

AR: Uncle Cecil’s mother, my maternal grandmother, Carrie Mae Earnest Nelson, was one of the reasons I kept pushing with my art. She told me that while she was in high school she had dreamed of going to art school in Europe (she graduated from high school in 1919), but her grandmother wouldn’t allow it. Female artists were considered “wanton” women back then. Instead she married my grandfather, World War One veteran, Cecil Dewey Nelson, Sr. She channeled her artistry into her cooking, decorating her home, and her children.

Uncle Cecil’s work was all over my grandmother’s house. He even stored artwork in the middle bedroom closets that he shared with his brother. My uncle had a studio in the back of a rental house on the property. In there were old paints and an easel. I used to go in and pretend to paint. By the age of six I had decided I would become an artist.

My uncle Cecil made his living as an artist. He worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as an easel painter. Uncle Cecil’s easel work was figurative. Toward the end of his career, his emphasis was on landscape. During World War Two he trained as a Tuskegee Airman and became an illustrator for The Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper.  After finishing his art degree at the University of Illinois, he moved to Milwaukee and started his own advertising firm; he had contracts with major businesses out of Chicago like the Playboy Club. In the mid- to late-fifties he worked with a group of black advertisers in Chicago. He was a cousin-in-law to Vince Cullers (his sister married Vince’s cousin), who was the first African American to have a full-service advertising agency in the U.S. [The Vince Cullers Advertising was founded in 1956.]

SI: The neighborhood where your grandparents lived was also where you painted the mural in 1978. Describe the memory mapping workshops that you led in Champaign in 2009, while you were an artist-in-residence at the University of Illinois.

AR: When I was at the Chicago History Museum, I worked with the Teen Chicago Project, about teen culture in Chicago. [4] The education department there used memory maps. With the teens, I first had them draw their neighborhood, how they traversed it, and what was important to them. Then they would go up to the archives and look at old directories and draw maps of their neighborhoods based on their research. They could then overlay the maps so they could see the changes. It was an excellent way to teach about history and to see how a community saw itself in relation to its environment. Memory maps are extensions of oral history.  

With the Champaign workshops, we wanted to do memory maps with the older folks. It was similar to the teen project, because we had them draw a map from when they were young. We asked them to provide names, places, and routes they traveled—back yards, alleys, and gathering spots. We did two workshops with about 10 and 15 adults per workshop.

SI: These workshops were held at the Douglass Center’s Senior Citizens Annex and in the Douglass Branch of the Champaign Public Library. Would you share the history of the community center and how it relates to you?

AR: Black communities had to provide their own gathering places and cultural centers because of segregation. Many centers came out of the WPA era. The Champaign community center, later renamed the Frederick Douglass Center, began in late 1930s, initially in small house. My grandfather Cecil Dewey Nelson, Sr., was one in the group that was instrumental in building the center and he sat on the board. [5]

By the time I went to Douglass when I was in high school, I went to watch basketball and baseball, and for the dances. Later in the 1970’s, I taught classes there—mainly children’s arts and crafts classes, children’s costume design classes, and I was a summer camp counselor while in college.

SI: The artist Allen Stringfellow (1923-2004), from the same generation as your uncle, settled in Chicago in 1941. He was raised in Champaign by his great-grandmother. [6]
Many of Allen’s collages reflected his growing up in Champaign-Urbana, from images of baptisms in the Salt Fork at Crystal Lake Park in Urbana, to Sunday afternoon teas in the homes and back yards of older African Americans in the towns, and house parties. [7] When did you cross paths with him?

AR: When Stringfellow went to Chicago he saw the possibilities of making a living in art-related ways, ways that he hadn’t seen as a boy in Champaign. I first met him at the Chicago home of artist William Carter (1909-1996). I was working as the Director of Education at DuSable Museum in the late eighties and had come to see Carter’s work for a possible donation to the museum. Stringfellow lived above Carter. Carter introduced us as from the same hometown and Stringfellow recalled being smitten with my Aunt Betty in high school. All my aunts and uncles had grown up with him and gone to school together.  The next time I saw him was at the South Side Community Art Center.  We were in a show together. [8]

SI: Like Douglass Center in Champaign, the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC) was established in Chicago during the WPA and was a key gathering spot for artists.

AR: My Uncle Cecil was friends with many of the African American artists connected to the SSACC during the late 1940’s, traveling from Champaign to Chicago to interact with them.  Like Dr. Margaret Burroughs, he later was involved in the development of the National Conference of Artists (the NCA) [9]

SI: There were lots of cultural leaders at SSCAC from its inception. Stringfellow taught printmaking there and later served on the board. There’s a wonderful photo of all of you out in front of the building on the SSCAC’s homepage, showing you standing right behind your friend, the late historian and artist Anna Tyler. [10] Margaret Burroughs is seated in the middle.

AR: Anna was one of my first friends in Chicago. Her husband Al, who was also an artist, was on the board of the South Side Community Art Center. Anna had worked with South Side since the 1950s; she was a close friend of Margaret’s and one of her mentees. I also taught children’s drawing classes at South Side during the summers in the early nineties.

The first time I met Margaret Burroughs was in Dallas at the African American Museum in the mid-seventies.[11] Everybody knew about DuSable Museum. I was an assistant and co-curator in 1976-77 while attending school at Southern Methodist University. With illustrator and co-curator Jean Lacy [12], we planned a national exhibit on African American women artists—and we wanted to include Margaret’s earlier work in the exhibit. Later, in 1986, I became DuSable’s first education director.

SI: As a reminder to AREA readers, you and Jean, in Dallas in the mid-seventies, were ahead of the curve, curating an art exhibit of African American women. Major centers such as New York City and Los Angeles were just organizing at this time around the absence of women and people of color in art history and exhibits: In Los Angeles, the Woman’s Building was founded in 1973 [13]. In New York, in the early 1970s, Faith Ringgold worked for greater representation in museums and galleries for artists of color, particularly women; she protested at the Whitney Museum of American Art along with other Ad Hoc Women’s Art Group members. [14]

AR: Yes, and AfriCOBRA was at its height then. [15] Co-curator Jean Lacy and I wanted three works by each of 33 women. I made the mistake of asking Margaret Burroughs for her earlier works, and she objected vehemently. She wanted only to show current work, but did agree to send work.  We received two earlier and one contemporary work of hers. She came down to Dallas for the opening, wanting to see “this audacious girl”—me!  That is how I first met Dr. Burroughs.

SI: AREA is especially interested in the intersections of the arts and social justice. The themes and forms you choose in your art reveal a lot about the ways you have negotiated various barriers to expressing yourself.

AR: One way I stayed connected to central Illinois was through my landscapes. I took “mental” pictures. Many were images from commuting to Eastern [Illinois University] where I taught, as well as from driving all over this area—along route 45 and along I-57 and I-55.

How do you survive as an artist? As a woman and as a minority? I have never seen myself as being extremely political but in order to survive, the stance you take becomes political.
1The Special Educational Opportunities Program (SEOP), commonly known as Project 500, was a response by the University of Illinois to the historical underrepresentation of African Americans at the school. In 1968, over five hundred African American and Latino students were admitted. See also Joy Ann Williamson, Black Power on Campus: the University of Illinois, 1965-75 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003). On Sam Smith, see
Revisiting Murals, Animating Neighborhoods: A Collaborative Project, was created by Angela M. Rivers, with Ryan Griffis, Sharon Irish, Noah Lenstra, Ken Salo, and Sam Smith, with funding from the Frances P. Rohlen Visiting Artists Fund of the College of Fine and Applied Arts at UIUC, with additional support from the Illinois Informatics Institute through the Community Informatics Initiative of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, and the Office of the Vice-Chancellor for Public Engagement. A pdf of the booklet is available here:; on Ryan Griffis, see; on Sharon Irish see; on Noah Lenstra, see; on Ken Salo see
3 Billy Morrow Jackson, “A Conversation with Artist Billy Morrow Jackson,” Krannert Art Museum Bulletin10:1(1996).
5 Michael Burns, “A History of the Douglass Center,” The Public I (February 2010)
6 Melissa Merli, “Artist Remembers Growing Up in C-U,” News-Gazette (July 9, 2003), B7; Phoebe Wolfskill, Jamming with the Man: Allen Stringfellow, A Retrospective (Urbana: Krannert Art Museum, 2004).
7For images of Stringfellow’s collages, see; See also,
8 The center remains a landmark at 3831 S. Michigan Ave. in Chicago.;;
9 In 1959, Burroughs joined with a group of artists to found the National Conference of Negro Artists, now known as the National Conference of Artists.
10 Anna M. Tyler, “Planting and Maintaining a ‘Perennial Garden’: Chicago’s South Side Community Art Center,” International Review of African American Arts 11:4(1994). See also the video in three parts, “Curators of Culture,” on YouTube:
12 On Laura Jean Lacy (b. 1932) She served for eleven years as director of the Dallas Independent School District’s African-American Cultural Heritage Center.
13 See From Site to Vision: The Woman’s Building in Contemporary Culture, Sondra Hale and Terry Wolverton, eds. (Los Angeles: The Woman’s Building, Inc., 2007); with Ruth G. Waddy, Samella Lewis edited the two-volume Black Artists on Art (Los Angeles: Contemporary Crafts [1969] 1971).
14 In 1971, with Kay Brown and Dinga McCannon, Ringgold organized Where We At, a Black artists’ group working toward more exhibition opportunities. Faith Ringgold, We Flew Over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold (Boston: Little Brown, 1995); Moira Roth, “Keeping the Feminist Faith,” Faith Ringgold: Twenty Years of Painting, Sculpture and Performance, 1963-83, Michele Wallace, ed. (New York: Studio Museum, 1984); Maura Reilly, “Introduction: Toward Transnational Feminisms,” Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art (New York: Merrell, 2007), pp. 24-25.
15 AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) was a loose association of visual artists who came together in Chicago in 1968.


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