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.

4 thoughts on “Cairo, Illinois – Death by Racism”

  1. Grew up in Mound City, 7 miles up Ohio from Cairo. Delivered Cairo Evening Citizen 1964-1967. In 1967, moved to Wickliffe, KY, first KY town 6 miles after crossing Ohio River Bridge, Cairo, IL; graduated High School 1970 Ballard County, KY. Watched Christmas and July 4th parades, first cinema experience at Gem Theatre, first patient in new children’s wing of hospital in 1958, major shopping in Cairo, employed in branches of Federal Government with local offices in Cairo in early 1970’s.
    Not disputing presence of racism, but did not feel it as intensely as this record asserts. Perhaps I was insulated by the Baptist churches which emphasized equality and brotherhood. Candidly, however, the practice of their teaching was not as apparent: I never knew of any black members.
    I can assert the start of integration of schools was apparent at Mound City no later than 1964 with High School fully integrated by 1966. From Wickliffe, KY, I attended Ballard County High School, fully integrated no later than 1967. If Cairo was not fully integrated until 1967, it was significantly behind surrounding school districts.
    Racism is the only available practice of the result of prejudice. Prejudice feeds on fear, fear feeds on ignorance and ignorance feeds on pride. Neither black nor white population are without pride, ignorance, fear and racism. Brotherhood can grow but it first requires we acknowledge our own accountability for pride, ignorance, fear, prejudice and racism.
    But other cities and towns suffered racism and survived. I propose racism was not the only cause of Cairo’s decline.
    The geography of Cairo is also a problem and any analysis of the decline of Cairo’s economy should not avoid consideration of that problematic geology.
    The longest river in the world (geographically) is the Missouri-Mississippi River. And the Ohio River is the second longest River in North America. Preventing floods requires continuous vigilance and frequent maintenance.
    Cairo suffers from another phenomena: sinkholes. Powerful currents from the two mighty rivers curl, flow, and churn up the river bottoms changing the channels and creating “sand-bars”, temporary islands, every year.
    My first childhood sweetheart was enjoying a late summer picnic lunch with her family on a sandbar when she was wading in shallow waters and the sand beneath her collapsed. She fell into the current and was drowned. With a school class size of less than twenty, the mortuary and funeral hall a block from my home, her death remains one of my significant life events.
    That same natural force also cuts under the river banks. Mark Twain even described the capricious and treacherous nature of the river currents. It is also a major cause of sink-holes. The water table rises and falls annually with the river floods. That continuous change in the water table dissolves and erodes the underground geology. It is not uncommon for sinkholes to appear suddenly causing structures to collapse and infra-structures to fail, sometimes causing death. A fair description of the geology of Cairo, IL is a large sandbar subject to Nature’s annual and capricious whims. Not a favorable feature for establishing a long term prospect.
    The extensive navigability of rivers in central North America is one of the most significant factors in the rate of growth of the wealth of the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. As the dependence on navigable rivers has declined, those cities which required the economies of river traffic to survive have declined. Cairo, IL is one of many examples. The economy of Cairo, IL relied almost exclusively on river traffic until rail traffic arrived in the mid 19th century. And then, starting in the mid 20th century, the interstate highway system bypassed Cairo diverting highway traffic.
    Cairo has a history worth remembering, but it has nothing attract an industry to sustain an economy.
    Racism made Cairo a place that offended fair minded people. But after river traffic declined, after rail and highway traffic were diverted, and lacking anything to attract an enduring industry, Cairo has lost any economic stimulus or prospect.

  2. This city was plagued with racism from it’s beginning. Current and prior residents remain closed minded!

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

    1. It has nothing to do with racism. The town only thrived because of the riverboats. It’s location was perfect when riverboats were the main mode of bulk transportation. Now with trucks/interstate highways and trains it is a less than desirable location.

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