Cairo, Illinois (2 Of 2) -- The Town That Racism Killed
October 14, 2022
Located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers at the southernmost tip of Illinois is the town of Cairo, pronounced “Care-O.” By far, one of the strangest and saddest cities I’ve ever visited, I was immediately intrigued by the empty streets and abandoned and crumbling buildings.
On our first visit in 2010, we passed under an arch depicting “Historic Downtown Cairo” to take a peek at this city that has been standing on the river for more than 150 years. Though the town had a population of some 2,800 people and is the county seat of Alexander County, its Main Street, called Commercial Avenue, was empty of people and lined with buildings in various stages of decay. Doors stood wide open on commercial buildings that displayed rubble-filled interiors, windows were broken or boarded up, Kudzu crawled up brick walls, streets signs were faded and rusty, and the streets and sidewalks were cracked and choked with weeds. On a side street, the once lovely Gem Theatre stood silent next to the Chamber of Commerce. In other parts of the city, the large brick hospital was overgrown with vegetation, churches were boarded up, and restored mansions sat next to abandoned and crumbling large homes.
What has happened here? I was sure, with Commercial Avenue’s proximity to the Ohio River, the town had been devastated by a flood; but, I didn’t know and found no one to ask. Finally, after wandering about the deserted buildings for a time, an elderly gentleman parked his truck and walked out along the river, so I stopped and asked him. He told a brief story of how the town was destroyed by its own residents and points out a building that once served as a fine dining and dancing establishment that he and his wife enjoyed decades ago.
It’s only later, when I return home to do the research, that I discover that Cairo died because of racism.
The peninsula where Cairo now stands was first visited by Father Louis Hennepin, a French explorer and missionary priest in March 1660. It was noted again by other traveling priests over the next few years, but, it would not be settled until 1702, when French pioneer, Charles Juchereau de St. Denys and a party of about 30 men built a fort and tannery a few miles north from the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The party of men was extremely successful in collecting thousands of skins for shipment back to France. However, the next year the fort was attacked by Cherokee Indians who killed most of the men and seized the furs, effectively ending the life of the fort and tannery.
Nearly a century and a half later, Lewis and Clark left Fort Massac, Illinois and arrived in the vicinity of what would later become Cairo in November 1803. Here, they worked jointly on their first scientific research and description; to study geography at the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. On November 16, they began the diplomatic phase of their journey when they visited the Wilson City area of Mississippi County, Missouri, and met with Delaware and Shawnee Indian chiefs. They ended their surveys at Cairo on November 19th, and proceeded up the Mississippi River, now working against the current.
The first attempt at settlement occurred in 1818 when John G. Comegys of Baltimore, Maryland obtained a charter to incorporate the city and the Bank of Cairo from the Territorial Legislature. He bought 1,800 acres on the peninsula and named it “Cairo,” because it was presumed to resemble that of Cairo, Egypt. Working along with Comegys, was Shadrach Bond, who was the first governor of Illinois. These men and other speculators invested and tried to develop Cairo into one of the nation’s great cities.
The land of the peninsula was to be made into lots and sold, a portion of the money put into improvements, and the rest of it was to constitute the capital for the new bank. The peninsula was surveyed and the city was platted. However, when Comegys died in 1820, his plan died with him. But, he left behind a contribution in his choice of the name Cairo, and as a result, “Egypt” became the popular nickname for southern Illinois.
A second and successful attempt at settlement began in 1837 when the Illinois State Legislature incorporated the Cairo City and Canal Company, with Darius B. Holbrook, a shrewd businessman from Boston, Massachusetts as president. Holbrook soon hired several hundred workmen who constructed levees, a dry dock, a shipyard, sawmills, an ironworks, a large two-story frame hotel, a warehouse, and several residential cottages. A store was kept in a boat.
The city’s future looked promising as work on the Central Illinois Railroad brought a great many people to the vicinity of Cairo. In the meantime, a number of farms were established and area villages in the county were flourishing.
The settlement was widely advertised in England, where the bonds of the Cairo City and Canal Company found eager purchasers through the London firm of John Wright & Company. However, when the London firm failed in November 1840, the fledgling town of Cairo immediately declined, dropping in population from 1,000 to less than 200 within two years. Those who remained operated shops and taverns for steamboat travelers. The census of 1845 showed 113 people in 24 families.
For more than a decade, the “town” languished, but, in 1853, the company began to sell lots in anticipation of the railroad arriving in the area. When the Illinois Central Railroad was completed in 1856, which connected Cairo to Galena, Illinois in the northwest corner of the state, the town really began to grow.
At that time, expectations were still running high when Cairo was predicted to surpass St. Louis, Missouri, Louisville, Kentucky; and Cincinnati, Ohio as an urban center. Some even recommended that the city should become the capitol of the United States. Of course, despite these boasts, the city did not prosper to such an extent.
In 1858 the town was incorporated and two years later, its population exceeded 2,000. It quickly became an important steamboat port, as goods and supplies were moved further south to New Orleans. In 1859, the city shipped six million pounds of cotton and wool, 7,000 barrels of molasses, and 15,000 casks of sugar. In 1860, Cairo became the county seat of Alexander County. An elegant courthouse was built in 1865 that continued to stand until the 1960s when it was torn down and replaced with a new one.
Prior to the Civil War, the city also became an important transfer station on the Underground Railroad. After the completion of the Illinois Central Railroad, fugitives were shipped north on the river before being transferred to railroad lines headed toward Chicago.
More than a century and a half later, In June 1998, Cairo city workers discovered what appeared to be storage bins under the sidewalk along the 600 block of Levee Street. The Illinois Central Railroad originally ran down the street and the structures date back to the late 1850s. Physical evidence suggests that the rooms and an adjoining tunnel ran for five or six blocks along the street and were utilized to hide and move fugitive slaves.
In 1858, the grandest hotel in the city was built at the southwest corner of 2nd and Ohio Streets. The St. Charles Hotel opened in January 1859. During the Civil War, it would, at different times, become the headquarters of General Ulysses S. Grant and General John A. McLernand, and filled to full capacity. Later, in 1880, the business was purchased by the Halliday Brothers, who vastly improved it and renamed it the Halliday Hotel. For decades it would be known as the best hotel in the city. Unfortunately, it burned to the ground in 1942.
By 1861, when the Civil War began, Cairo’s population had increased to 2,200, of which, only 55 people were African-American. The port quickly became a strategically important supply base and training center for the Union army. For several months, both General Ulysses S. Grant and Admiral Andrew Foote had headquarters in the town. Several federal regiments were also stationed there during these turbulent years.
The Confederacy also realized its strategic importance. Knowing this, Illinois Governor Richard Yates immediately shipped 2,700 men with 15 pieces of field artillery, plus several six-pounders, and one twelve-pound cannon to Cairo from Springfield. More troops were stationed nearby and by June 1861, 12,000 Union soldiers were in and around Cairo. Another 38,000 men were stationed within a 24-hour ride.
In order to further strengthen Cairo as a military camp and as a naval base, Yates sent yet more artillery to the city in the fall of 1861, which included 7,000 new guns, 6,000 rifled muskets, and 500 rifles, and 14 artillery batteries of artillery. The soldiers then built 15 foot high levees around the city, making it a formidable installation.
At the very tip of the peninsula, south of Cairo, Camp Defiance was established near the river bank, and Camp Smith was located just a short distance to the north. Camp Defiance was first called Fort Prentiss, after the Union officer Benjamin Mayberry Prentiss, who had served honorably in the Mexican-American War.
Initially, the post consisted of a flat-topped mound upon which were placed three 24-pound cannons and an 8-inch mortar. The site also included a command house and a ship’s mast for the colors. The name was later changed to Camp Defiance when General Ulysses S. Grant arrived.
Lines of sentries were posted along the levees, and all boats along the river were stopped and searched. Camp Defiance became an important supply depot for General Grant’s Western Army and a naval base, as the Union and Confederacy battled for control of the lower Mississippi River. The Union shipped supplies from Chicago to the far tip of Illinois via the Illinois Central Railroad, fueling Grant’s push deep into the Confederacy and altering the course of the Civil War.
The city itself became an enormous military camp with a huge parade ground and clusters of barracks on all sides. The fortified city quickly gained the attention of the entire country, drawing many reporters to observe the military build-up and spurring The New York Times to refer to Cairo as “the Gibraltar of the West.”
But, the troops who were stationed in Cairo did not like the location. The low flat land was extremely muddy and the town was prone to flooding, despite the levees. The climate was humid, disease-carrying mosquitoes and rats were everywhere, and to make matters worse, unscrupulous business operators were known to cheat and even rob many of the troops. One soldier described Cairo this way:
“I have witnessed hog pens that are palaces compared with our situation here.” Anthony Trollope, a renowned English novelist visited the city in 1862 and wrote: “the inhabitants seemed to revel in dirt… the sheds of soldiers… bad, comfortless, damp and cold.”
During the Civil War, a number of businesses were established for the soldiers and citizens including stables, a hospital, and a wheelwright shop. Along the west side of the Ohio River, a number of saloons and brothels sprang up that served the military personnel until they were closed down by General John A. McLernand in October 1861. Just to the west, on Commercial Avenue, sat the firms of Koehler’s Gunshop, a drug store, the city’s post office, the popular Athenaeum Theater, a blacksmith and a harness shop. A block south of this site was the huge parade grounds.
Though the fortified city never saw any attacks during the Civil War, it trained and shipped thousands of soldiers who would fight in numerous battles. Cairo’s real “war” would not begin for another century.
When the Civil War was over, Camp Defiance and most of the military buildings were dismantled. Many years later, the site of Camp Defiance would become Fort Defiance Park, an Illinois State Park. However, today, the park is owned by the city of Cairo. Unfortunately, it is abandoned, overgrown, and completely run down. At the time this story was written (2010), the road into the park is impassable due to flood damage.
The Civil War dramatically changed the city’s social, cultural and demographic landscape with the arrival of thousands of runaway slaves, which the government referred to as “contrabands.” Additionally, in 1862, the Union Army deposited large numbers of African-Americans in Cairo until government officials could decide their fate. These many black men, women, and children lived in a “Contraband Camp” established by the Army. The camp was later abandoned when the African-Americans found little work and having no money to buy farms, many returned to the South and became sharecroppers.
When the war was over, the city became a staging area for many of the freed slaves arriving from the South. Many of these people also returned to the South or moved elsewhere, but, more than 3,000 decided to remain in Cairo. The decidedly southern influence of most of the white residents and the large influx of African-Americans would spawn racial tension that would last for well over a century. During the next two decades, Cairo’s African-Americans banded together to form a new society complete with their own institutions and culture, especially as they found themselves facing prejudice and hatred from white citizens.
Cairo Customs House, now a museum, houses one of the greatest volunteer-driven museum collections in Illinois. Photo by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.
In the meantime, Cairo continued to grow due to the high river traffic. In fact, there was so much river traffic that the Federal Government designated Cairo as a Port of Delivery and began to make plans to build a United States Customs House. The building was designed by Alfred Mullett, who also designed the San Francisco Mint, the US Treasury Building, and old State Department building in Washington, D.C.
Opened in 1872, the building also held a U.S. Post Office on the first floor, which became third in importance in the nation at that time because of its mail connections to and from the emerging West. The second floor housed various government agencies, and a Federal courtroom was on the third floor. Called the “Old Custom House” today, it continues to stand as a museum and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is located at 1400 Washington Avenue.
Also completed in 1872, was Magnolia Manor, which was built by Cairo businessman, Charles A. Galigher, beginning in 1869. Galigher was a prosperous early miller who owned Chas Galigher & Co., Cairo City Mills, and an extensive ice factory before the Civil War began in 1861. He was also a personal friend of General Ulysses S. Grant and supplied the Union Army with flour and hardtack during the war.
The Victorian house is an ornate example of the prosperity of the era during which it was constructed. The 14-room home was built using locally fired red brick with substantial wood trim and stone. Ornamental cast-iron decorates the verandas and the ornate exterior cornice and eaves brackets are of wood millwork. After the house was completed, it was widely admired for its architecture and its setting. The walls were made of double brick, with a ten-inch air space between to keep out the dampness. A high, white fence enclosed the original grounds and many magnolia trees were planted.
The mansion became an outstanding social center during the 1870s and reached the peak of its fame on April 16, 1880, when ex-President and Mrs. Grant were guests there for two days following their world tour. In the years following this visit, the Galighers and later owners continued to welcome guests in the big mansion among the magnolias.
The house was acquired by the Cairo Historical Association in 1952 and is now operated as a museum located at 2700 Washington Avenue. The mansion was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in December 1969.
Another large 19th-century home called Riverlore, built by Captain William P Halliday, is located across the street from Magnolia Manor. Featuring a Greek theatre, complete with pillars. This mansion; also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is now owned by the City of Cairo and is open for tours.
In fact, this entire residential neighborhood is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as it is filled with imposing mansions along the magnolia-shaded streets that stand testament to Cairo’s heydays as a Mississippi River port. Washington Avenue, where many of these historic homes are situated, has long been referred to as “Millionaire’s Row.”
Cairo’s economy continued to develop in other ways – primarily manufacturing. Many businesses, attracted by Cairo’s convenient geographic location, abundant natural resources, and sufficient labor pool, established small-scale industries, some of which included barrel factories, breweries, grain mills, lumber mills, a cottonseed-oil manufacturer, pottery plants, brickyards, tool manufacturers, and a Singer Sewing Machine plant.
During this time of growth, most of the African-Americans worked as unskilled laborers, but, were not afraid to speak out. They were known to have participated more effectively in union organizations, strikes, and demonstrations than did the white workers. Black women, who were overwhelmingly employed in household service, also struggled for workplace justice by contesting their white employer’s exploitative demands. Initially, the black population supported the Republican Party until they perceived that white Republicans resisted black demands for equal education, government jobs, and more black legislators. The white citizens retaliated by using the law, customs, and sometimes, violence, to reassert their white supremacy.
In 1890, Cairo’s population had reached some 6,300 people and not only was a popular river town but, also boasted seven railroad lines branching through Cairo. Unfortunately, by this time, the city was also experiencing increased racial polarization, tension, and violence, which inhibited black activism until the Great Depression.
In the meantime, Cairo was still growing. Though steamboat traffic was dropping, more efficient barges were being utilized and the overall traffic dramatically increased on the Ohio River. In 1900 alone, the Ohio River transported more than 14 million tons of goods and people, a number that would not be surpassed until 1925.
Though the vast majority of the cargo traveling along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers was not being delivered to Cairo; but, rather, headed for other large cities, the town was thriving as it exported considerable products from its lumber mills, furniture factories, and other businesses.
Though Cairo wouldn’t reach its peak population until 1907, at over 15,000 residents, the turn of the century was forecasting the signs of decline. One of its biggest businesses in the city was the many ferries that crossed the both the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, which transported hundreds of thousands of railroad cars each year. Until 1889, there was no railroad bridge crossing either the Ohio or the Mississippi River at or near Cairo. That changed; however in 1905, when a railroad bridge was completed across the Mississippi River at Thebes, a small town northwest of Cairo. This dealt a heavy blow to Cairo’s status as a railroad hub. Traffic soon shifted to the new bridge at Thebes, decreasing the traffic through Cairo and completely eliminating the ferry operations.
Before long, the railroads began to bypass the city and severe problems were created by water seepage on the low-lying land. The problem was so severe that one of Cairo’s mayors claimed it was the most serious obstacle preventing prosperity for the town. Many citizens began to consider their community as an economic failure and even newspaper editorialists commented on how businessmen preferred to rent homes as opposed to buying them:
“They preferred to rent because they regard their stay in Cairo as temporary.”
The first decade of Cairo’s 20th-century history was also marred by an extremely violent episode which occurred on November 11, 1909. On that date, Cairo was the scene of one of the most gruesome lynchings in American history when a black man named Will James, who was accused of murdering a shop-girl, and a white man, who was charged with murdering his wife, were lynched by a mob, which numbered in the thousands.
Will “Froggy” James, an African-American man, was charged with the rape and murder of white 22-year-old Annie Pelley, who worked as a shop clerk in Cairo. A report soon circulated that James had confessed to the crime, also implicating an accomplice by the name of Alexander. Though the people asked for an immediate trial, the case was put off by the court. Anticipating trouble, the local Sheriff kept James hidden in the woods for two days in the hope of saving him from the vengeance of the townspeople. However, the angry citizens tracked James down in the woods near Belknap, Illinois, some 29 miles northeast of Cairo. The infuriated mob forcibly took James from the Sheriff’s custody and returned him to Cairo. He was then taken to the most prominent square at 8th and Commercial Street to be hanged before thousands of cheering spectators. Just before the rope was placed around James’ neck, he reportedly said, “I killed her, but Alexander took the lead.”
In response, the crowd jeered: “We don’t want to hear him; string him up; kill him; burn him.” James was hanged from an arch at 8:00 pm. However, when the rope broke, James was riddled with bullets. The body was then dragged by a rope for a mile to the scene of the crime and burned in the presence of at least 10,000 people. Many women were in the crowd, some of whom helped to hang and drag the body. His remains were then cut up for souvenirs before burning the rest. His half-burned head was then attached atop a pole in Candee Park at the intersection of Washington Avenue and Elm Street. The next morning, nothing was left of his body other than bones.
With their blood-thirst boiling, part of the mob then went in search of James’ named accomplice – Alexander. However, they evidently didn’t find him, if such a man ever existed. In the meantime, the other part of the mob fled to the county jail, where they hammered at the cell of a man named Henry Salzner, for more than an hour. Salzner, a local photographer, had been charged with murdering his wife with an ax in August. The prisoner pled for mercy while protesting his innocence, but it was to no avail. The bars finally gave way, and the prisoner was dragged to a telegraph pole at Washington Avenue and 21st Street. He was lynched at 11:15 p.m. and once dead, filled with bullets. Salzner’s body was left in the street and claimed by his father the next day.
The mob remained in a frenzy and order was restored only after Governor Charles Deneen ordered eleven companies of the National Guard to proceed to Cairo. By morning, all was quiet, the mob had dispersed, and only a few persons, on the lookout for Alexander, were lurking about the streets. However, hundreds of men continued to search the riverfront, breaking into freight cars in the hope of finding Alexander.
During the mob chaos, the Mayor and the Chief of Police were being guarded in their homes, as the infuriated mob threatened them.
The very next year, in 1910, a sheriff’s deputy was killed by another mob attempting to lynch a black man accused of snatching a white woman’s purse. Again, the National Guard was called in and martial law implemented until order could be restored.
Though the racial tension continued, the town continued to thrive. In 1910, the historic Gem Theatre opened its doors to much acclaim. Seating 685 people, it was a cultural hot spot in the town. Unfortunately, a fire completely gutted the theatre in 1934, but it was rebuilt two years later including a new, elegant marquee. The Gem continued to operate for nearly another half-century before it was closed in 1978. Unfortunately, though the vintage theatre still stands, it has been long-vacant and has fallen into serious disrepair.
In the meantime, Cairo’s reputation was developing a “mean, hard edge,” which was backed up in 1917 when the city had the highest arrest rate in the state with 15% of its population incarcerated at one time or another. This reputation, which would get worse before it was over, still lasts to this day, even though Cairo’s “meanness” is long past and its citizens work together to do what they can to save their dying town.
Like many other cities across the continent, the 1930’s and the Great Depression hit Cairo hard. The town’s population and fortunes began to dwindle.
In 1937; the focus changed to another potential disaster when in February, the Ohio River swelled to record heights. The flooding inundated the towns of Paducah and Louisville, Kentucky, as well as Cincinnati, Ohio, and scores of other smaller communities and as the huge crest moved downstream to the Mississippi River. Newsreel cameramen and newspaper correspondents rushed into Cairo to report the anticipated catastrophe. Women and children were evacuated from the city and a three-foot bulwark of timbers and sandbags was hastily built atop the levees. But, lucky for Cairo, the water rose swiftly to within four inches of the bulwark, wavered several hours and began to slowly recede. Of all the cities on the lower Ohio River, Cairo alone withstood the flood.
Though the citizens saved the town from flooding, its rough reputation was continuing, as the same year, it had the highest murder rate in the state. At the same time, its prostitute population was estimated to be over 1,000. And, for Cairo, conditions would get even worse.
In the early 1940s, 12 serious fires destroyed businesses, most of which were never rebuilt. However, a Federal Courthouse, which also included a post office opened in 1942. The building continues to serve as both a post office and as the District Court for Southern Illinois.
Making matters more difficult, after World War II was over in 1945, the town suffered from extremely high unemployment rates rather than flourishing like many communities across the Midwest. This further increased its crime rate and the city became a haven for organized crime. By the 1950s, the Illinois Senate began investigating a $20 million bootlegging operation that was sending large amounts of bootlegged liquor into nearby “dry” states.
There were, in fact, a number of mobster groups operating in Cairo, not only running bootlegged liquor but, also operating profitable slot machine rackets. The various groups brought more violence to the city, as the gangsters tried to squeeze out their rivals, smashing slot machines, firebombing cars, and killing each other. On July 19, 1950, $20,000 worth of gambling equipment was confiscated from simultaneous raids on six night clubs and taverns in or near Cairo. Just a month later, at the height of the gambling raids, five State Police were charged with theft of $150 from slot machines confiscated during a raid in Cairo.
Over the years, Cairo’s population began to decline due to the violence and the decrease in river trade. This decline; however, would not lead to Cairo’s ultimate demise – instead, it was racism.
The first major push for racial equality occurred in 1946 when black teachers filed a lawsuit in federal court to secure equal pay. When the case was argued the same year by famed attorney, Thurgood Marshall, the judge, and defense counsel continuously referred to Marshall as a “boy.” Defense counsel then went on to explain to the court how a comparable case in Tennessee had been handled by a distinguished attorney who knew what he was doing, unlike the “boy” in this case. When the Defense counsel had completed his pontificating speech, Marshall quietly stood up and thanked counsel for the compliments, then informed the court that he was the brilliant attorney who had handled the case in Tennessee. Marshall would become the first African American justice on the United States Supreme Court in 1967, and served on the court until 1991.
Six years later, in 1952, efforts were begun to integrate Cairo’s schools but, separate black schools would not be abolished until years later in 1967.
By 1960, the town supported only about 9,000 people. That number would, unfortunately, drop more drastically over the next few decades, as racial tensions in the town escalated into a full-blown “war.”
By this time, the old scars of racism had hardened, and Cairo’s racial divide was starkly drawn. The city’s black citizens couldn’t get work in white-owned businesses and when rural whites from Kentucky and Missouri were hired instead of local blacks, the African-Americans rebelled. By 1962, local freedom movements were breaking out in communities all over the country, though they were seldom reported by the national media.
The city facilities were completely segregated, including public housing, local parks, and seating in the courthouse. Almost all public and private offices employed only whites. During this time, the public swimming pool became a “private club,” in order to keep out the black population. Requiring a “club” membership card to enjoy the cool waters of the pool, a large group of Civil Rights activists demonstrated at the pool in 1962, which spawned a white racist to deliberately drive his pickup truck into the demonstration, severely injuring a young African-American girl. The segregated swimming pool was finally closed in 1963 to avoid integration.
At about the same time, a demonstration occurred at the local roller skating rink to integrate the facility. When the group arrived; however, the skating rink owners had locked the doors, and the KKK was holding a meeting inside. Someone had stuck a note in the door with an ice pick that said, “No n____ here!”
Full-out “war” began in 1967 after the suspicious death of a 19-year-old black soldier, who was on leave, occurred while he was in police custody. Deemed to be suicide by the authorities, the black community disagreed and led by Cairo native Reverend Charles Koen, they rose up in protest against not only Hunt’s death but also a century of harsh segregation. Resulting in a riot, the whites quickly formed Vigilante groups, and the violence increased to such an extent that the Illinois National Guard was called in to quell racial hostilities.
That same year, Preston Ewing, Jr., Cairo’s NAACP president, wrote a letter to Adlai Stevenson, the state treasurer, reporting that Cairo banks would not hire blacks. The state responded by telling the banks they must hire blacks or it would remove its money from them.
Another black soldier, named Wily Anderson, who was on leave, was killed by sniper bullets. A week later, a white deputy named Lloyd Bosecker was shot in retaliation. Cairo police charged four blacks in connection with the shooting and eleven others for violations of an anti-picketing law.
The Burkhart Factory, Cairo’s largest industry, allegedly practiced racial discrimination, refusing to hire African-Americans. Factory management contended they were following population ratios. Ewing disregarded the argument and demanded 50% of hires be black.
Little League baseball was canceled to keep black children from playing, and a private “all-white” school was established. By 1969, black citizens were not allowed to gather at sports activities, in local parks, or form marches without being threatened by local police or a Vigilante group called the White Hats.
To counteract the White Hats, the black community formed an organization called the United Front of Cairo in 1969. Fighting back, the coalition spawned an intense civil rights struggle to end segregation and create job opportunities. Residents were helped by what local whites called “outside agitators,” including the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
Though African-Americans demanded jobs from the white-owned businesses, owners refused to acknowledge their requests. As a result, the United Front then began to boycott white-owned businesses. Still, the establishments refused to hire them, and chose instead, to just close up shop or go out of business, rather than succumb to the demands of the black population.
In April 1969, Lieutenant Governor Paul Simon and a special committee, appointed by the Illinois House of Representatives, began to investigate the events occurring in Cairo. The Illinois General Assembly soon ordered the White Hats to disband and called for the enforcement of civil rights laws and racial integration of city and county departments.
Even though the state government had become involved, white residents continued to hold mass meetings in public parks, while the African-Americans held Civil Rights rallies in various churches.
In September 1969, Cairo’s mayor issued a statement prohibiting the gathering of two or more people, all marches, and picketing. However, the black protestors continued to protest. A federal court would later rule the mayor’s proclamation unconstitutional. Though both the federal and state governments had gotten involved, they were ineffective in controlling the continued segregation and inequality that existed in Cairo.
The demonstrations and violence continued into the 1970s, producing more than 150 nights of gunfire; multiple marches, protests, and arrests, numerous businesses bombed, and more declaring bankruptcy.
By 1971, there was very little left to picket as most of the downtown businesses had closed in Cairo.
By 1970 the population had dropped to a little over 6,000 people and by the following year, there was very little left to picket as most of the downtown businesses had closed. For those establishments that remained, the boycott continued for the rest of the decade.
Once Commercial Street was lined with businesses — a Hallmark store, the Mode-O-Day, the Khourie Brothers Department Store — in front of which, stood the Hamburger Wagon serving up popcorn, greasy burgers, and flavored sodas. Other retail stores such as Florsheim Shoes, a music store, photography studio, banks, auto dealerships, gas stations, and restaurants all flourished. Lining the street were elegant old street lamps. They are all closed now and most of the buildings are gone.
Elsewhere in the city, some 40 small neighborhood grocery stores once thrived. On our visit in 2010, we could find not a single open grocery store. Cairo’s residents were once entertained by numerous speedboat races on the Ohio River, as half the town sat on the concrete levee wall watching. Not any more. Another entertainment venue — the Gem Theatre — closed its doors forever in 1978 after operating for nearly 70 years.
Cairo’s 44-bed hospital closed in 1986, the town soon lost its bus service, and in 1988, the City of New Orleans, operating on the rail line, made its last stop. Though the passenger depot originally built by the Illinois Central Railroad still stands, the trains no longer stop for passengers.
Commercial Avenue in Cairo is all but empty today. On the right side of the street, these buildings once held the W.T. Wall & Co Department Store, the Cairo Public Utility Commission; M. Snower & Co., a garment manufacturer; and more. On the left side, where the empty lots are today, once held a Hallmark Store, the S.H. Kress & Co. Variety Store, a music store, and more. At the far end of the left side of the street, the Rhodes-Burford Furniture Store sign was still in place. It was one of the last large businesses to close. By Photo by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.
In the end, Cairo would become the city that died from racism. By 1990, the town sported a population of little less than 5,000. It’s citizens tried valiantly to save the town when Riverboat Gambling was legalized the same year. Enacted partially to revitalize dying towns, it was the perfect opportunity for little Cairo to have a second chance. However, the State of Illinois, instead, awarded the license to nearby Metropolis, some 40 miles northwest on the Ohio River, dashing all hopes of the town’s opportunity to revitalize its economy and population. By the year 2,000, Cario’s population had dropped to only about 3,600 residents. Today, it is called home to about 2,200 people.
Preston Ewing Jr., Cairo’s unofficial historian, former president of the local NAACP chapter, city treasurer, and participant in the Civil Rights Movement in Cairo, described the town as “poor, black and ugly.” Further, not having unrealistic expectations, he said, “Our goal should be to stabilize Cairo, not talk about growth. Potential employers will go where there is greater viability and an infrastructure to support businesses.” In fact, things were so bad in 1990, that the Cairo High School graduating class was advised to leave the town by its principal.
Built to support a population of over 15,000 people, Cairo is a semi “ghost town” today, by the definition — any historical town or site that leaves evidence of its previous glory. A third of its population are below the poverty line. The city is predominately African-American at almost 72%, compared to Caucasian at about 28%. The median income for a household in the city was just $21,607 in the 2000 census and the town continued to face significant socio-economic challenges including education issues, high unemployment rates, and lack of a commercial tax base, which all contribute to the sadness of Cairo. In the 2010 census, the median income for a household in the city dropped to $16,682.
The city and its residents have worked hard over the recent years to stabilize the small town; however, these attempts are often short-lived, as there is simply no money. The real estate in Cairo is cheap, and many, intrigued by the prospect of building a business, have taken the opportunity to start in Cairo. But, business is slow as residents wonder why these businesses have started in their small town. Additionally, many residents see these newcomers as temporary – being too used to people coming to help and then leaving. After years of turmoil, Cairo’s residents are often untrusting.
For many years, there were efforts to promote the area for tourism — focusing on its rich history, magnificent river views, and historic buildings. However, lack of money has continued to hurt the town. South of Cairo, the historic site of Fort Defiance, which was once an Illinois State Park that was given over to the City of Cairo, is now abandoned. Everywhere, there are dismal reminders that less than 2,500 people now live in a city designed for many more. Alexander County is one of the poorest in Illinois. Without businesses that pay taxes, the town and county simply cannot afford to provide basic services, much less promote itself. Many of its residents are tired of telling the story of their blighted town and just simply want to be left alone.
In the last decade, numerous buildings have been torn down in Cairo in the interests of safety and “cleaning up” the city. The most recent demolishment includes the Elmwood and McBride housing projects that were in were in poor condition, that were razed in 2019. This demolition created a housing crisis for numerous residents which created yet another blow to this isolated rural town. Unfortunately, what’s left after decades of white flight and economic stagnation, is an expanse of abandoned buildings, bulldozed lots, and forgotten history.
Still, this historic city provides history buffs and photographers with opportunities to explore Cairo’s historic downtown, beautiful churches, and government structures that continue to stand. The community continues to fight for its existence and hopefully, these efforts will work as the clock continues to tick on Cairo, that without revitalization, is destined to become a true “ghost town.”