Cairo, Illinois – Death by Racism

Cairo Gem Theatre

Cairo Gem Theatre by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

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.

Shipping along the Ohio River in Cairo, Illinois in 1917.

Shipping along the Ohio River in Cairo, Illinois in 1917.

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.

The United States Courthouse and post office was built in Cairo, Illinois in 1942. Photo by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

The United States Courthouse and post office was built in Cairo, Illinois in 1942. Photo by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

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.

Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall

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.

Demonstration of the segregated pool in Cairo, 1962, photo by Danny Lyon

Demonstration of the segregated pool in Cairo, by Danny Lyon, 1962.

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.

Protest is Cairo

A protest in Cairo, from the book, Let My People Go: Cairo, Illinois 1967-73, by Jan Peterson Roddy, photo by Preston Ewing Jr. Most of these buildings are gone now, and in their place is a large empty lot.

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.

Cairo Boycott

By 1971, there was very little left to picket as most of the downtown businesses had closed in Cairo. Photo from the book Let My People Go: Cairo, Illinois 1967-73, by Jan Peterson Roddy, photo by Preston Ewing Jr.

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 Street Cairo Today

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.

Famous Building at 702-704 Commercial Avenue served as a general purpose commerical building, housing a mercantile establishment on the ground floor and offices above. The building still stands today. By Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Famous Building at 702-704 Commercial Avenue served as a general-purpose commercial building, housing a mercantile establishment on the ground floor and offices above. The building still stands today. By Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

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.”

The Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois is still busy today by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

The Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois is still busy today by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated February 2020.

See our Cairo Photo Gallery HERE

Also See:

African Americans – From Slavery to Equality

Civil Rights Movement

Lost Landmarks & Vanished Sites

Lynchings & Hangings in American History

Sources:

Federal Writers’ Project; Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide; A.C. McClurg & Co, Chicago, IL; 1939.
Hays, Christopher K.; The African American Struggle For Equality And Justice In Cairo, Illinois, 1865-1900; Illinois Historical Journal, 1997
Roddy, Jan Peterson and Ewing, Preston, Jr.; Let My People Go: Cairo, Illinois, 1967-1973, Southern University Press, Carbondale, Illinois, 1996
Smith, Aaron Lake; Trying to Revitalize a Dying Small Town, 2010, Time
Turner, Paul; Cairo Seemed Destined For Greatness; Chicago Reader
Jones, Rachel; Singer Evokes Turbulent History of Cairo, Illinois, 2006, NPR