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History of Project 500

Project 500 was the first major attempt by the Urbana campus to provide equal educational opportunity for all children of families in Illinois.

In 1968, following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., students and community residents pressed the university to enroll students traditionally underrepresented on campus. Ultimately, 565 newly admitted African American and Latino students began as U. of I. students that year.

Students came from all over the country, but primarily from Chicago, New York, Central Illinois, Philadelphia, East St. Louis, & Mississippi. The history of campus was changed forever as a result of Project 500.

By the spring of 1967, the civil rights movement, the student movement, legal rulings, media coverage, public policy and violence had created a national and local environment amendable to change.

In 1968 there was considerable ferment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Demands for equality of opportunity came from inside and outside the academy.

The Black Arts movement was accelerating. Blacks began to wear Dashikis, and Afro hairstyles, to express the new found consciousness. The Black Arts Movement intersected nicely with requests and demands for a cultural center.

“Cocooning” by black students and the lack of recreational facilities and programming for black youth became an additional local concern.

The response by University of Illinois administrators and faculty to this ferment was uneven. Some were proactive and some had to be helped along by the urgency of the moment or by political pressure.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign established the Afro-American Cultural Center as a “support” to the special educational opportunities initiative, commonly referred to as “Project 500.”

The Special Educational Opportunities Program (SEOP) was established to provide academic, personal and social support for Project 500 participants. The advocacy SEOP and later EOP and Minority Student Affairs (1986) provided assistance to students in locating financial support, employment on campus and after graduation, connecting with the academic mission of the University, preparing for graduate and professional schools, and adjusting to the Champaign/Urbana and campus community.

In 1969, the Afro-American Cultural Program (later renamed the African-American Cultural Program, and known today as the Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center) and the African-American Studies Program were established to meet other needs of the students and the University. The La Casa Cultural Latina was established at the University in 1975 to supplement the campus support for Latina/o students and to help educate all students, faculty and staff.

The lessons learned from Project 500 have also helped the Urbana campus in developing the Asian American Culture Center, the Native American House and several other campus wide diversity initiatives that have augmented the campus community in numerous ways.