The Nelson Sisters: “On their Way Up”

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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.

Theirs is a family of multiple memberships: civic and military service, religious and Masonic affiliations, and educational pursuits. Their paternal grandparents were Joseph F. Nelson and Stella Anderson, owners of a grocery store or famers’ market on North Hickory Street. Their father Cecil D. Nelson, Sr. was a World War I veteran, member of the all-Black Company L of the 370th Infantry, who had received, per a 1976 News-Gazette article, “every military decoration possible with the exception of the one given for having been killed in action.” He loved fishing by the Sangamon river, co-founded the American Legion Post 559 in Champaign County in 1932, worked for the Lawhead School as custodian, and became an activist for equality in housing. Their maternal great-grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Earnest, former slaves, raised Carrie Mae Earnest, their mother, and brought her from her birthplace, Chuckey, Tennessee, to a rural farm in Homer, Illinois. The Earnests finally settled in Champaign in 1915, where Carrie finished high school, married Cecil, Sr. in 1919, and had six children: the four Nelson sisters, Cecil D., Jr., and Ernest. A sensitive soul and hardworking woman, Carrie wrote poetry for Bethel’s literary societies and raised her children, but declared once that “she had not worked” but “did party work at night,” very likely in reference to service for campus events. Of note, Carrie’s uncle, William Franklin Earnest, was the reason for her grandparents’ relocation to Champaign: he enrolled as an Illinois student, fought in World War I alongside Cecil, Sr., and was the first casualty in the county. W. F. Earnest’s name is engraved on a post at Memorial Stadium on campus.

Raised in the white house on 1002 North Fifth Street, witnesses to a burning cross planted by the front door when Eunice was a just young girl, the Nelson sisters were always “on their way up.” Not surprisingly, a circa 1944 local newspaper article, foretelling their community activism, introduces the three oldest Nelson sisters—Eleanor, Estelle, and Hester—as “among Champaign’s most progressive [and engaged] youths.” Eunice was twelve years old then, otherwise she also would have been featured; yet, sharing in her sisters’ forward thinking, she has repeatedly reminded me of segregation at the University, in local restaurants, movie theaters, and stores—that African Americans had to do more work than others if they wished to advance. The youngest Nelson sister has followed in her father’s footsteps, serving to date as a steward at Bethel. Eleanor, the oldest sister, graduated from the University of Illinois in June, 1944 with a degree in Home Economics, which she put to use by giving sewing lessons for young African Americans girls and adults. A member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Eleanor was one of the first Black students who could stay on campus—of the few who saw Lee’s mediation prosper. She taught at Champaign High School before getting married and moving to Dallas, Texas.

Estelle finished her high school education in 1943 and became a cadet nurse at the Provident Hospital Nurses Training School in Chicago. Upon her return to Champaign, she became a court clerk, which certainly sparked her interest in historical records, which she has stored with proper archival procedures—temperature and light control—and exhibited with her sisters. Hester also graduated from Champaign High School, gave the Lincoln Gettysburg Address on Memorial Day, 1944, and started her college education at Illinois that fall. In more than one conversation, Hester made sure I knew that the University’s supposed awareness of Black community matters was a fallacy: in the 1960s, when the “university crowd” approached the church to learn its history and assess its involvement in local movements, she countered emphatically by asking what the university had been doing for African American folks. Before retirement, she had been the principal of Booker T. Washington K-5 Elementary School, located in the Douglass Park Neighborhood. She passed away in October, 2016.

My visits with the Nelson sisters were not always organized around the primary texts I had been uncovering. The sisters, in particular Estelle, decided otherwise: she wanted to engage me actively with their own memories and domestic archives, variously kept on walls, in boxes, and in their homes, thus offering a context they thought I needed. Like experienced archivists, the sisters decided what would be chosen, preserved, discarded, and, when prompted, shared with the researcher. In doing so, they self-identified as the keepers of their local history. Keen on having me explore her archives, and quite proud of her father (Cecil, Sr.), Estelle showed me Cecil’s many military medals recognizing his service in World War I—the Distinguished Service Medal, the Purple Heart, and the French Coir de Guerre.

Throughout their lives, the Nelson sisters engaged in historical documentation and archival habits, created and collected texts, interpreted them (patiently) for anyone interested (myself and many others), and articulated local Black histories of self-determination and uplift. The gendered prescriptions that have maintained women in particular domestic roles and determined their professional choices—as nurses, teachers, high school principals—have also equipped them to transform their homes into sites for historical and archival production, thus translating the “nurturing” into affirming sites of memory. The Nelson sisters, and other women in their generation, who had to work on campus as cooks, maids, and “stock girls” (their term), have subverted customary representations of African Americans, and have created new, dignified ones: they call themselves historians and are rightfully recognized as such by their families and communities. Noted African American activist and writer bell hooks would deem their work a non-institutionalized curatorial practice, which has not made it to the official records, but has left enduring historical traces in Black neighborhoods.

Vanessa Rouillon is an Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at James Madison University. She received a Ph.D  in English (Writing Studies) from UIUC in 2013.

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