The Nelson Sisters: “On their Way Up”

From left to right: Eunice Nelson Rivers, Debrae Phillips Lomax, Estelle Nelson Merrifield, and Angela Rivers.

Early African American settlers from Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri who relocated to the outskirts of Champaign County and became farmers and teamsters, ultimately moved to Champaign as early as 1863, built churches (Bethel A.M.E. and Salem Baptist) and railroads, became business owners in the twin cities, served their country in two world wars, and attended and worked for the University. Most notably, they offered educational, religious, and material support to Black college students when the University could (would) not enforce desegregation on campus. Families such as the Andersons, the Earnests, the Lees, the McCurdys, the Nelsons, the Phillips, the Popes, and the Scotts are among the earliest and most prominent Bethel families, who socialized within the supportive confines of racial bonds, several becoming united by marriage. One such case is that of Joseph F. Nelson, a deputy sheriff (in charge of prison keys) in the early 1900s for Champaign County, who married Stella Anderson, daughter of Angeline Scott.

The Nelson sisters—Eleanor Nelson Conrad, Estelle Nelson Merrifield, Hester Nelson Suggs (now deceased), and Eunice Nelson Rivers—actively contributed memories and lived experiences to my research on African Americans in Champaign-Urbana—what archives and libraries could never offer. Aiming to record their racial work and to enlighten the University on the self-supporting (and long-standing) civic work of African Americans, the Nelson sisters became my mentors, willing to instruct me, even outside racial boundaries; in turn, I was willing to be instructed, and inhabit their homes, church, and neighborhood. Memories, even if frail or incomplete (not in their case), can challenge and rectify official records: the sisters interrogated narratives of unproblematic access to white spaces locally. They demonstrated that when Black settlers finally established themselves in Champaign at the turn of the century, wishing to connect with the campus culture, they encountered a University that privileged white men and a city seldom receptive and often openly hostile to their visibility.

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For a World Without Borders

Speech by Tariq Khan at the UIUC Ayuda Rally at Anniversary Plaza, November 29, 2018. UIUC Ayuda was a student group/campaign to raise awareness about and material support for the Central American caravans made up of people seeking asylum.

I want to begin with some words from the Palestinian intellectual Steven Salaita. Last summer while people were discussing the Muslim ban and the evil U.S. practice of kidnapping children from their parents at the border, Professor Salaita wrote:

“The border on either side of the United States isn’t natural topography; it’s a foreign imposition sanctified by theft and ethnic cleansing. The border bisects dozens of nations that long predate the United States and do not recognize its authority. Many of the people traveling from South and Central America are Indigenous and thus operating within their own hemispheric milieu. The separation of families and the Muslim ban demolish any pretense of sovereignty by preventing Native nations from applying their own policies on refuge and migration. Beware the type of resistance that legitimizes the United States as steward of its borders and the international territories they constrict.”

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Women Workers on the March: UNITE HERE Hotel Workers Strike

Currently women workers are leading the march of labor in this country. Although it is lost amid the headlines of the #MeToo movement, this movement’s call for an end to sexual harassment and assault is at its core a demand for safe and equitable workplaces.

But while #MeToo has garnered the most media coverage, it is not the only cause that has women workers marching.

Starting last February, teachers in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Colorado went on strike for better wages, smaller class sizes, and adequate resources for their classrooms.

In September, hotel workers represented by the labor union UNITE HERE in Chicago went out on strike. By October, they were joined by hotel workers in eight other U.S. cities, from Boston to Honolulu, in the largest strike of hotel workers in U.S. history.

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Remembering Willeta Donaldson

Willeta Donaldson

Urbana has lost one of its most distinguished citizens, Willeta Mae Hassell Donaldson. She passed away on February 2. Willeta, who worked at the University of Illinois in the Office of Admissions and the School of Social Work, also served on the city of Urbana’s Human Rights Commission, sometimes as chair. But her most lasting contribution to our community was, without doubt, her pushing the Urbana School District to desegregate its schools.

In 1963, the state of Illinois’ legislature amended the school code “prohibiting school boards from erecting, purchasing, or acquiring buildings for school purposes that would promote segregation based on color, race, or nationality.” While segregation was not a problem in Urbana’s high school or junior high (now called middle school), it was an issue when it came to the elementary schools. Almost all of the African American residents in the North End went to J. W. Hays school, since renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. A coincidence of factors—including an influx of African American children from Southern states, where they had not been well prepared for schooling, a dissertation by a U of I student showing that Hays students were underperforming compared with students in the other schools, and the above change in the Illinois school code—led a number of African Americans to demand that the school board desegregate Urbana’s schools. Among those people were Willeta and her husband Carlos Donaldson, Paul and Shirley Hursey, Evelyn Underwood, and Jo Ann Jackson. They became known as the Ellis Six because they all lived on that street in the North End. It was Willeta who made the presentation for desegregation to the school board.

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Contextual Engineering and the Politics of Project Design

Students interview residents to establish the political, social, and economic context of the proposed project before beginning the design process.

How do you teach a group of college students to think outside their own experience when creating infrastructure designs for rural, alternatively developed societies? You take them to the community to live, work, eat, and learn from their clients. The first three are no challenge for students enrolled in the International Water Project, a year-long course that teaches multidisciplinary groups how to perform Contextual Engineering while planning infrastructure in communities markedly different from Champaign-Urbana. But the fourth—opening their minds to value insights from community members with no more than a sixth grade education and no reliable access to water, food, or money—is the transformational part of the experience.

Over the 2018/19 winter break, faculty and a small group of undergraduate and graduate students from the UIUC Colleges of Engineering, Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, and Liberal Arts and Studies traveled to Clarinaro, an agricultural community of less than 1,000 people in the mountains of Honduras. This marked the sixth year of the course and the sixth community it has supported. After eight days in the community the students returned with elevation data, water quality samples, and soils information, as well as an understanding of the community’s vision, needs, capabilities, and internal politics. Most importantly, they learned that there is no such thing as a merely “technical” problem when you are planning infrastructure for a community.

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Illiberal America: A Report Card

I never thought I would live to see the U.S. turn into the illiberal, authoritarian, populist, white-nationalist country it has already increasingly become in early 2019.

Illiberalism Turns Liberal Democracy on its Head

“Liberal democracy” is characterized in theory by free elections, the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of civil liberties, including property, although in practice it falls short. Yet “illiberal democracy,” or illiberalism, attacks liberal democracy head on, and turns its norms, standards, and practices on their head. What has already become a classic case, and one of the original instances of current Republican illiberalism, was the refusal to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, in 2016. This was not “normal,” certainly not the liberal democratic norm. Republicans did indeed “steal” the seat. But it was not technically illegal, that is, justiciable.

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The US Helped Push Venezuela Into Chaos—and Trump’s Regime Change Policy Will Make Sure It Stays That Way

Washington has been trying to topple Venezuela’s government for at least 17 years, but the Trump administration has taken a more openly aggressive tack than its predecessors. Last week, administration officials kicked their efforts into high gear by anointing their chosen successor to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro Moros in advance of any coup d’etat. The 35-year-old Venezuelan member of Congress Juan Guaidó announced that he was now president, and the Trump administration, along with allied governments, immediately recognized him—in accordance with a previously arranged plan.

It is clear that President Donald Trump’s goal is regime change; his administration is not even trying to hide it. And his allies, like Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have long made it obvious what they are after.

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by Ashanti Barber

I take a deep breath to calm myself because you are the example
Of the ignorance and or anger of which this world has more than ample
I inhale and remember who I am as well as you
A black middle class woman versus the man who bleeds red white and blue
But blood that was spilt came from brown people too
Yet I exhale remaining seated while you do you
Clenching your fists and pacing as you refuse to drop
The conversation where the topic is obviously too hot
Too hard headed to be taught
Although I yearn to teach
The rhetoric is hateful despite my attempt to beseech you to drop it
This hot topic just made you my foe
And this is the way that the country goes
Back and forth with 2 party hate
A system that long ago obliterated
Our chance of unity
So soon we will see how quickly words become actions
How party lines puts us into factions
warring on opposite sides for the same thing
The right to live freely and be treated as a human being
But all I’m seeing
Is another white man
Telling me how he has a right to belittle who I am
And used code words like “ inner city”
To invoke pity
From the other rural bystanders
The slander neither hidden nor regretted
Because your white privilege alone means that you have been vetted
And everything you say is instantly true
My very being is a contradiction to
Everything you thought was impossible.
Yes, I continue to sit patiently while you stand
Pacing back and forth clenching’ your hands
Demonstrating to all that you truly can be
Exactly who I was afraid you were, the epitome

Ashanti is a poet and writer whose goal is to integrate the voice of the Black woman into 21st-century art and literature. Her book Woven: Perspectives of a Black Woman showcases poems written from her teenage years to early adulthood.  Samples of readings and the publication are available on her website

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Celebrating Albert R. Lee: An Early Beacon for Civil Rights in Champaign County

Unofficial Dean of African American Students Albert R. Lee

The African American community in Urbana-Champaign and the University of Illinois community gathered this fall on several occasions to celebrate the life and contributions of an outstanding African American man: Albert R. Lee (1874-1948). Lee was the son of a slave, a church congregant in Bethel A.M.E. Church and the second African American employed by the University of Illinois, joining in 1895 as messenger in the President’s Office, and retiring in 1947 as Chief Clerk. Over years of service Lee made himself indispensable to the University, as he extended his tasks beyond clerical duties by counseling African American students and making right many classroom instances of racism. He is thus remembered as the unofficial dean of black students. A figure who resonated with diverse audiences, Mr. Lee held multiple other memberships: he was a registered Republican, an active Freemason, a local member of the N.A.A.C.P., and Sunday School District Superintendent. Lee worked cautiously toward closing the gap between an overwhelmingly white campus and local African Americans and out-of-state black folks wishing to get a college education at a school which, despite not offering them suitable (or any) housing accommodations or even access to campus restaurants, granted them admission and the promise of a future “without discrimination.” Continue reading

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Making a Profit off of the Crisis in Affordable Housing

Manufactured homeowners taking action in support of affordable and healthy communities, economic and racial justice

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Frank Rolfe and Dave Reynolds discovered a lucrative new area of real estate investment, manufactured home communities (MHCs), and made millions by buying out older mom-and-pop operations and putting new profit-oriented practices into place. Soon after that they offered their first weekend business seminar to share their techniques: Mobile Home University. For $2000, potential investors could learn how to turn someone’s neighborhood into a profit stream by raising rent, adding new charges for utilities and services, simplifying operations by closing recreation rooms and laundromats, and filling empty lots with rental trailers—in some cases castoffs purchased from FEMA.

For investors, the strategy generates an impressive new revenue stream; but for the residents the experience has been dehumanizing, as neighborhoods are turned into someone else’s investment zone. And now that model has come to Champaign County. Continue reading

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