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Champaign Civil Rights Icon Erma Bridgewater Honored

Ron and Cecil Bridgewater  and Don Gerard

Ron and Cecil Bridgewater hold street signs commemorating their mother, Erma Bridgewater, who died in April at the age of 99. Champaign Mayor Don Gerard is on the far right. (Sean Powers/WILL)

A civil rights icon from Champaign was honored on Friday during a street naming ceremony.

Erma Bridgewater died last spring at the age of 99.

She often talked about the challenges she faced as an African American woman during the formative years of the Civil Rights Movement.

“She told me she was never allowed to eat in restaurants or things like that, so she had to find her own ways of doing things,” said Cecil Bridgewater, one of Erma’s sons. “But with that she always remained committed to the community.”

Part of Fourth and Wright Streets in Champaign are now Honorary Erma Bridgewater Way.

"It's one of those historic Champaign names that almost gives you chills when you hear it," Champaign Mayor Don Gerard said at the dedication ceremony. "I'm always proud when I hear the name Bridgewater when I'm away from Champaign, and when I'm in Champaign it always makes me feel exceptionally proud to be a part of this community."

Speaking at the dedication ceremony, the Rev. Steve Gilbert said it is a fitting tribute for a woman who lived her life to the fullest.

“I want to say this to the young people,” Gilbert said. “As long as you got a push, you got a purpose, and you ought to be about that purpose and that's what Ms. Bridgewater was about.”

Bridgewater was one of the first black students to attend Champaign’s Lincoln Elementary, and she went on to graduate from the University of Illinois. For 25 years, she served as director of the Douglass Community Center, and she was a member of the Bethel Choir for more than 80 years.

“She was so active just like with anything she did,” added longtime friend Ebbie Cook. “It didn’t seem like she had an evil spot in her body.”

Categories: History