February 10, 2010

Museum exhibit focuses on Cairo’s past, present

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- During the Civil War era, about 200,000 refugees from the south made their way north through the Cairo area, home for part of that time to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his Union Army headquarters. The impact on the people and region of these and other historical influences, as well as the architectural present and past of the area, are the focus of a special exhibit at the University Museum at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

A public reception for the exhibit, “Cairo Then and Now: African American Contributions in Southern Illinois 1820-1890 and Savings Shotguns: Moving Towards a Better Future,” is set for 5-7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 12, at the museum in Faner Hall. Rachel Malcolm Ensor, lecturer in the University’s history department, will speak at 5:30 p.m. about the display and ongoing projects in Cairo.

The exhibit features literal and figurative snapshots of the riverfront community and its downtown area at the turn of the century and today. It explores how Cairo grew to be a prosperous community and touches on what’s happened since and current efforts to revitalize the community at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

The University’s work with Cairo began in 2006 as Cairo Urban Studio classes from the School of Architecture began working with community organizations and citizens to review needs and set goals for community revitalization. Since then, the partnership has continued and grown. The history department and architecture school have taken Preservation Summer to Cairo during subsequent summers, documenting the community’s history and helping with restoration efforts.

Working initially with the Heritage Conservation Network and Paducah contractor Bill Black Jr., they are restoring a shotgun style house at 2710 Sycamore Street. They accomplished much in the summer of 2009 and work is ongoing. The restored home will be the new headquarters for the Cairo Chamber of Commerce. The museum display includes artifacts and more to tell the story of the restoration work. Plans call for additional restoration projects involving other historic homes and structures in Cairo.

Students also studied Cairo from a historical perspective and sought to determine how and why the African American population is so high in Massac, Alexander and Pulaski counties. Ensor said research indicates that before the Civil War, Cairo’s population was about 2,000 and included 56 black people. By1870 at least one-third of the population was black, with the number growing to at least half the population by 1900.

“Researchers found a rich history with unexpected turns and conclusions,” Ensor said. “The Union occupation of Cairo was the onset of prosperous and ethnic change for the area. During the Civil War approximately 200,000 refugees, primarily destitute African Americans, passed through the town. The local contraband camp (later known as the Freedmen’s camp), school and hospital cared for whoever knocked on their doors. As a result, Cairo became the ‘land of Canaan’ for the newly freed.”

The museum display tells this story, complete with period maps of the city, photographs and other documents and artifacts. It also highlights the lives of some special and significant Cairo residents of the era. You can see the payroll ledger for the hospital ship “Red Rover” showing that Anne Stokes Bowman, a black Union Navy nurse, earned $22 for 66 days work as did her husband. She later became the first woman to receive a federal pension.

Some 2,800 enlisted at Cairo and you can see reproductions of many of their regiment cards, each a slice of history telling the height, weight, birthplace and occupation of an enlistee along with other personal details. Some note that an enlistee actually signed up in another’s stead or document the person’s death. Ensor said they hope to eventually gather records of all 2,800 enlistees and then do additional research to discover what happened to them after the war.

Cairo’s rich history also includes men who made major impacts on the world, as the exhibit illustrates. William T. Scott was a barber, businessman and entrepreneur as well as the founder of the first African-American newspaper in the state, the Cairo Gazette. He was also the first black to run for president, a candidate on the Liberty ticket.

John J. Bird was one of the first blacks elected to public office in Cairo and Gov. John L. Beveridge appointed him to the board of trustees of the new Illinois Industrial Institute at Champaign, now called the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was the first black on a college board.

The Rev. Thomas Strother, a Cairo minister, fought for suffrage. Ensor said in some respects, what happened in Cairo and with its leaders was “the beginning of the black power movement.” Visitors will learn more about Scott, Bird and Strother at the museum.

Cairo’s economy bloomed in the late 1800s with many industries, retail businesses and more. It was also a Mecca for runaway slaves, or “contrabands” as the U.S. government called them for a time. Blacks and whites owned businesses side by side in Cairo. One exhibit picture shows Grant in front of the city’s post office, white men on one side of him and black men on the other.

Visitors to the ongoing Cairo exhibit will discover much about Cairo, its people, architecture and history. There’s also a computer slideshow with information about 67 properties on Commercial Street. See pictures and a historical reconstruction of each, with many sadly now fallen to wrecking crews. Lana Gosnell, a junior history major, created the show. There’s also information online athttp://history.siuc.edu/PreservationSummer.html.

The exhibit will run through March 5. Admission is free and open to the public during regular museum hours.

In addition to the exhibit at the University Museum, a special broadcast of WSIU InFocus will turn the spotlight on Cairo. The weekly series from WSIU TV 8/WUSI TV 16, the University’s public television stations, will air at 9 p.m. Friday, Feb 12, with encore broadcasts at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 14, and 5 p.m., Feb. 19.

This episode includes the story of efforts by the SIUC students, faculty and the School of Architecture along with community members to save and restore the shotgun style home on Sycamore Avenue. If you miss the program you can watch it online by going to www.wsiu.org/infocus, then click on “Watch Now” or the “Episode Archive” link.

The Cairo exhibit isn’t the finale though. Ensor said Preservation Summer is returning to Cairo in summer 2010 with the Black American Studies program joining with the architecture school and history department. In fact, Ensor said plans are in the works for continuing work in Cairo for a few years, helping the community trace its roots and continue efforts at revitalization.

Ensor said donations are welcome to help cover costs of restoring the shotgun homes and other work in the community and also to fund conversion of the museum exhibit into a traveling show. She said they hope to take the exhibit to Cairo for display, perhaps at the high school, during the summer and then eventually donate it to the African American Museum in Carbondale.

For more information, or to make donations, contact Ensor at rensor@siu.edu.