We are deeply sorry for your loss - the staff at Urbana Champaign Chapel
Estelle Loretta Merrifield of Urbana, Illinois, passed away peacefully early Sunday morning, July 31, 2022, in her home; Heaven gained an Angel.
Descended from one of the early African American families that settled in Champaign County around 1867, she was born in her family home in Champaign on July 4, 1926, to parents Cecil D. and Carrie (Earnest) Nelson the fourth of six children. She attended Gregory Elementary School,Champaign Junior High and graduated from Champaign High School in 1943.
While attending Champaign High School, she participated in synchronized swimming and was enormously proud to have been the first African American girl to become a majorette withbthe high school’s marching band. As a child, she was active in Girl Scouts and possessed a beautiful singing voice.
She furthered her education by attending the Champaign Commercial College, Cadet Nurse Corps during World War II, and studied Business Administration and secretarial training.
Beginning in the 1960s and for many years, she worked for the Champaign County Court System. She started in the office of the first elected Black magistrate in Champaign County, Joe Sommers. Later, she worked as Deputy Circuit Clerk for Judges Sarah Lump and J. R. Delamar, retiring in 1987.
Mrs. Merrifield’s parents instilled in their children a deep appreciation and love of family history, passed down through stories and personal archives. In her retirement, she found herself in possession of not only family history but also community history.
She began to share her knowledge of often untold stories and the past of Champaign’s Black community with schools, community organizations, university students, and local historians.
In 1997, as part of a project with the Champaign County Historical Archives, Mrs. Merrifield was interviewed about growing up in Champaign-Urbana during the Depression, World War II, and the 1960s.
She was a life-long member of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, where she enjoyed singing in the choir. Her favorite scripture was Psalm 34:1, “I will bless the Lord at all times: His praise shall continually be in my mouth.” In 1991, she collaborated with another church member, Erma Bridgewater, to document the church’s long history.
In 2014 she was recognized by the Champaign County Section of the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. as a “Living Legend.” In addition, she was a charter member of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
In 2017 Mrs. Merrifield participated in the University of Illinois documentary “A Home of Their Own,” relating the story of the segregation African American students experienced during the 1930s and 1940s and the outreach from the local Champaign-Urbana Black community. Appreciating her involvement in the project, she received The Sankofa Award from the Office of the Chancellor.
She was a Champaign County African American History Committee member and a frequent contributing writer for its newsletter, Through the Years. Mrs. Merrifield writes about preparing for the future, “There is much to be gained in remembering the past, and more to be gained by projecting into the future that which has been learned as it relates to the improvement of time.” (Through the Years, Spring 1997)
Mrs. Merrifield loved to knit, crochet, and play the piano. She could often be found fishing. She was a member of the Speech Mates, the Champaign County Council on Aging, and continually active with the Douglass Center Senior Citizens. She was an avid tennis player who taught her boys the game of tennis.
Mrs. Merrifield was married to Fred Merrifield, who preceded her in death.
She is survived by two sons, a daughter, and a stepson: Leon (Debrae) Lomax of Champaign, IL; William W. (Noemi) Willis, of Camden, Tennessee; Winette (Gary) Willis-Sharpe of Stone Mountain, Ga, and Daniel Merrifield (the late Carolyn) of Urbana, IL; grandchildren Jacqueline Y. Brown, Anita J. Lomax, Kimberly N. Lomax-Cobb, Giovanni J. Gonzalez, Ivan Sharpe, Tunisia Sharpe-Spader, Thejuan, and Danielle Merrifield; fourteen great-grandchildren; sisters Eleanor Conrad and Eunice Rivers and a host of cousins, nieces, and nephews, extended family, and friends.
Besides her husband, she was preceded in death by her parents, her brothers, Cecil D. Nelson, Jr. and Earnest Nelson, and her sister, Hester Suggs. Loving Daughter, Sister, Mother, Mother-in-law, Wife, and Grandmother, Secretary par excellence. Keeper of family and community history, loving, kind, and generous in spirit, always willing to help others, always Stylist! You are greatly missed!
A celebration of life will commence at 12PM, Friday, August 12, 2022 at Bethel AME Church, Champaign. A visitation will begin at 11AM until the start of the service. Officiating Pastor Terrance Thomas. Burial Mt. Hope Cemetery. Leek & Sons Funeral Home in charge of arrangements.