Cairo, Illinois – Death by Racism

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

Cairo Customs House, now a museum, houses one of the greatest volunteer driven museum collections in Illinois.

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 fourteen-room house 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 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.

Cairo-Magnolia Manor

The Magnolia Manor in Cairo, Illinois was built by the Cairo businessman Charles A. Galigher.

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 nineteenth-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.

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.

Steamboats at Cairo, 1907

Steamboats at Cairo, 1907

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 in to and from 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.

1 thought on “Cairo, Illinois – Death by Racism”

  1. I keep reading about how “racism” killed this town. It sounds more like the town was fading economically to begin with.

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