The minister who helped desegregate Urbana school district


Sidney Malone

Reverend Evelyn Underwood spends time preparing food for the congregation and charity on Sunday. Dr. Underwood is an associate minister at the New Will Free Baptist Church.

By Faith Allendorf, Managing Editor for Reporting

Every Sunday is the same for Urbana resident Dr. Evelyn Burnett Underwood.

She wakes up, puts on a matching bright-colored skirt and blazer and drives with her husband to New Will Free Baptist Church in Champaign. She stands in front of the people of her church with a smile on her face and delivers a ground-breaking sermon.

For Dr. Underwood, her relationship with Christ has always been empowering, and for many years of her life, Dr. Underwood has empowered people. 

From becoming the first African American to serve on the Urbana School Board to founding a program that helps young musicians obtain instruments, Dr. Underwood is the definition of a trailblazer. 

Dr. Underwood was born in Hernando, Miss., in 1943, later moving further south to Cleveland, Miss., after her parents divorced. 

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Her father served in World War II, but Dr. Underwood said that when he came back to Mississippi, he was not treated with the same respect white veterans were. 

“He had a bad experience when he came back, you know, he was an African American soldier,” she said. “He was so hurt, and he started drinking, so my family broke up.”

After they moved to Cleveland, the four-year-old Dr. Underwood and her relatives worked as sharecroppers. She described the experience as “bad; horrible, horrible, horrible,” and said that sharecropping kept her out of school.

“When the cotton was in the field, we couldn’t go to school,” she said. “What happened to me … I cry now. We were subhuman … we lived in a third-world country. Nobody protected us in Mississippi.”

Evelyn later moved to Champaign-Urbana during the Great Migration because some of her relatives found job opportunities there.

However, there was another reason why her mother wanted to leave Mississippi. Evelyn said that while walking one day, her uncle was beaten “unmercifully” because he did not get off the sidewalk in time for a few white women to pass.

“That was my mother’s brother – her baby brother,” Dr. Underwood said. “People went up in arms about how they beat him, and they told (us) he had to get out or else people would come and kill him like what happened to Emmett Till. We got him out that night.”

When her family moved to C-U, they were looking for a better life. However, while Illinois had no Jim Crow laws like Mississippi, the area was still under de facto segregation.

In C-U, Black and white people were in different schools despite the fact that no law in Illinois enforced segregation. Dr. Underwood attended Willard School — an all-Black school. 

Dr. Underwood graduated from Urbana High School in 1960 and worked several jobs to support her growing family. She had married her first husband James Burnett and had five kids with him. 

In 1964, Dr. Underwood became the first African American to work in medical records at the University. Eventually, she moved to Engineering and worked with a professor who started the Black studies program.

Dr. Underwood became heavily involved in her children’s education and in supporting their needs. Her passion for equal education would lead to her being part of a group that pushed the Urbana school district to desegregate: The Ellis Drive Six.

The Ellis Drive Six – Carlos and Willeta Donaldson, Paul and Shirley Hursey, Jo Ann Jackson and Dr. Underwood– lived within four houses of each other in the Ellis Drive subdivision, which was the first African American subdivision in Urbana. 

The effort started when Carlos Donaldson and Paul Hursey stumbled upon a University student’s dissertation in 1965.

The dissertation found that students who went to J.W. Hays Elementary (an all-Black school later renamed after Dr. Martin Luther King) were one to two grade levels below students from other (mostly white) schools in the district.

Evelyn said the six parents held meetings and “worked diligently to try to change things.” They attended school board meetings and openly spoke about desegregating schools. 

Eventually, in 1966 the all-white school board agreed, and Urbana became the first Illinois school district to implement a desegregation plan.

Evelyn said that the transition was rough. Many were not supportive of the plan, and Black students continued to be subject to racism in the desegregated schools. Dr. Underwood gave an example and said that her daughter’s second grade teacher would throw stuff at her instead of setting them down on her desk. 

“Oh my God did they treat our kids like dogs when they went to those schools,” Dr. Underwood said. “It was horrible, but we had to stay (strong).”

Dr. Underwood’s current husband, Bishop King James Underwood, whom she has been married to since the ’80s, said that segregation did not really change in the schools until “people’s minds were changed.” Schools would still try to separate children, and this was something Evelyn Underwood and others had to stay on top of.

Over time, however, James Underwood said that minds were changed.

“All of the kids that were going to those schools, they had thoughts about us,” he said. “But when we got together, they saw that we were not what they thought we were … and that’s when we began to become integrated.”

In 1968, Dr. Underwood became the first Black person elected to serve on the Urbana School Board, and she served four terms for a total of 12 years. She said that her heart was always in education and that she worked hard to change things.

Dr. Underwood loved and still loves education. She has earned five degrees in her lifetime – including a PhD and a JD – and has started and contributed to many programs in C-U. She ran for Urbana Mayor in 2017 as well as the circuit clerk. Her motto was “I am Urbana.”

A few of her contributions and involvements include serving as vice president of the NAACP Champaign County, as the first female president of the Ministerial Alliance of C-U and as the president of the Illinois Counseling Association. She has been an educational consultant, a guidance counselor and a substitute teacher.

Dr. Underwood also founded the Dr. Evelyn Burnett Underwood Instrumental Assistance Program. For over 25 years, the program has provided instruments for over 1,500 students who could not afford their own. 

Today, Dr. Underwood is an associate minister at the New Will Free Baptist Church where her husband was the senior pastor for 42 years before retiring in September. 

Looking out at the people in the congregation, Dr. Underwood sees more than just humans. She sees the love of God, and that love is something she truly believes in. 

“God has good people no matter what color,” she said. “He has good people everywhere.”

Dr. Underwood remains a fierce fighter, and ultimately, everything she does ends with love.

“I know that I cannot hate and think I’m going to heaven,” she said. “Now don’t get me wrong — I will fight with this mouth — but I believe that it ends with love.”


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