Cairo, Illinois, located in Alexander County at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers surrounded by levees, was strategically important during the Civil War but today is one of the poorest cities in the United States today after decades of racial turbulence.

Early History

Cairo was founded by the Darius Holbrook of Boston, Massachusetts, who had started the Cairo City and Canal Company in 1837.Its location alongside the Mississippi and Ohio rivers was referred to as a “dismal swamp” by Charles Dickens in 1842.6

Bonds were sold to fund a levee, dry dock, and shipyard for Cairo, although the failed in 1840.7 Nevertheless, the Cairo City and Canal Company began selling lots for a new city in 1853, although sales were slow until the Illinois Central Railroad (IC) was completed from Galena in 1856. Cairo formally incorporated in 1858 and by 1860, the city boasted 2,000 residents.6

Mark Twain described Cairo as the “promised land” in his book, Huckleberry Finn.5 The city was situated at the southernmost tip of what was called “free soil,” and its location along the river made the Cairo a centralized location for African-Americans heading northward into the free Union out of the Confederate south

During the American Civil War, the Union constructed Camp Defiance in Cairo to serve as a supply base and training center for the army. Its central location to the Union was vital to the distribution of supplies to troops that were fighting in the southern states, as supplies could be ferried easily via the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. It was also where brigadier general Ulysses S. Grant launched offensive movements into Kentucky and other southern states.5 7

After the Civil War concluded, Cairo prospered with an influx of wealth and population. The African-American population surged as well, increasing from 50 prior the Civil War to nearly 3,000, namely due to escaped and freed slaves coming to Cairo via the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.5


The city’s economy boomed as it served as a vital steamboat port along the rivers. It was designated a port of delivery by the United States Congress in 1854. In 1869, construction began on a federal Custom House and Post Office. The structure, designed by Alfred B. Mullet, the supervising architect during the post-war Reconstruction, was completed in 1872.

Cairo also served as a railroad and ferry hub. By the late 1800’s, as many as 500,000 railroad cars were ferried across the Mississippi and Ohio rivers yearly.1 By 1886, shipments via the river and railroad were valued $60 million, the highest per capita in the United States.5

Economic Stagnation

The completion of the Illinois Central Railroad Bridge over the Ohio River in 1899 led to a sharp decline in the railroad car ferry business. Another railroad bridge, completed at Thebes across the Mississippi River, further dented the ferry business. The first automobile bridge was finished across the Mississippi in 1929, followed by a companion Ohio River bridge in 1937. The combination of the railroad and automobile bridges caused the ferry industry to collapse.Associated railroad industries that were associated with the ferries began to close.

Beginning in the 1940’s and accelerating in the 1950’s, tugboats fueled by modern diesel engines began replacing steamboats powered by coal boilers. Refueling docks and maintenance shops dedicated to the steam-powered boats were no longer needed and associated businesses shuttered.

The population of Cairo peaked at 15,000 in 1920, remaining relatively steady until racial violence engulfed the city during the mid-20th century.

Racial Tensions

Racial tensions were well known early in Cairo’s history. By 1900, Cairo boasted a population of 13,000, of which 5,000 were of African-American descent. Five percent of all black residents in the state of Ilinois called Cairo home.2

The tensions were heightened when William James, a black resident, was lynched. James had been accused of assaulting and murdering Anna Pelly, who was white, on November 8, 1909.3 4 7 13 14 When James was placed in police custody on the following day, the several citizens demanded an immediate trial and conviction. The vocal citizens became angry when the case was delayed in court and a mob quickly formed. Sheriff Davis attempted to move James out of the city via the railroad. The mob seized another train and caught up to James north of the city who was then brought back to Cairo. A noose was installed at a decorative arch spanning the Commercial Avenue and 8th Street intersection. When the noose was placed around James’ neck, he allegedly confessed but claimed that another individual had taken the lead in the assault and murder.5

The rope broke during the hanging, which led the mob to shoot James to death. Following the shooting, the mob dragged the body to the scene of Pelly’s murder, where the violent group cut the head from the body and placed it on a pole. The body of James was then burned.3 5 7

The mob then went to look for Jame’s accomplice, identified as Arthur Alexander. When they were unable to locate him, they broke into the jail. Henry Salzner, a white photographer who was accused of murdering his wife in August, was broke out and then hung and shot at from a telegraph pole near the courthouse.4 The police then located Alexander, who disguised him as a police officer so they could escort him to the county jail safely. During this time, the mob continued their search, threatening the mayor and chief of police with violence.3

Eventually, the Governor of Illinois dispatched eleven companies of the state militia to Cairo to restore order. Soldiers arrived and restored order by the time the mob found out that Alexander was being held at the county jail.3

Preventing the Vote

There was a coordinated effort to prevent black people from voting in Future City, just north of Cairo.5 In 1913, the citizens of Cairo voted to allow at-large elections rather than representation from wards, aptly designed to prevent black people from being elected. In 1918, a local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter was formed. But it was not until 1980 that a black person was elected to Cairo’s city government, and it was only after the United States Supreme Court ruled that the city was violating voting rights laws.5 The city was forced to return to ward elections.

Preventing Integration

In 1964, Cairo closed the city-run swimming pool in an effort to prevent integration.5

On July 16, 1967, Robert Hunt, a 19-year-old black solder that was home on leave, was found hanging in the city police station.5 While it was officially reported as a suicide, many members of the black community accused the police of murder.17 The FBI chose not to investigate the incident for foul play for fear that it would spark a riot.5 A large portion of the black population began rioting the next day, and later that night, three stores and a warehouse had been burned to the ground. The National Guard unit at Cairo was activated.18 In response, one of the leaders of the riot stated that “Cairo will look like Rome burning down” if the city leaders did not investigate the death of Hunt by July 23. The leader also demanded job opportunities, recreation programs, and an end to alleged police brutality. Cairo’s Mayor, Lee Stenzel, and other city leaders met with federal and state officials to develop a plan to end any further rioting.19 20

Nearly 600 citizens, all white, developed a citizens protection group that was deputized by the county sheriff. Known as the “White Hats,” the individuals wore white hats that showed membership. Reports of bullying against black individuals increased and by 1969, several black residents formed the Cairo United Front that brought together the local NAACP chapter, a cooperative association, and some black street gangs to counter the “White Hats.” The Cairo United Front requested the appointment of a black police chief, a black assistant fire chief, and an equal black-to-white ratio composition in all city jobs.21 The Cairo United Front then began a decade-long boycott of white owned businesses in Cairo, essentially every commercial entity.

A rash of violence followed, stopped only when Governor Richard Ogilvie deployed National Guardsmen to restore order.  On the morning of December 6, several black residents of the Pyramid Court housing project opened fire on three firemen and the Chief of Police as they responded to fires intentionally set at several businesses. One of the weapons included a high-powered rifle. In the end, 13 people were arrested.22 The city’s Chief of Police resigned in the following month, stating that Cairo lacked the legal and physical means to deal with the guerrilla warfare tactics that were being employed by black citizens.23

In December 1970, Cairo enacted a city ordnance that banned picketing within 20 feet of a business.24 A violent clash erupted as a result, and the Cairo United Front called for another large rally which turned violent when shots were fired by both black and white residents. State and federal courts soon overturned the ban on pocketing and put pressure on the “White Hats” to disband. By this time, most of the businesses in Cairo had closed or were in the process of closing in response to the violence.

In 1978, Interstate 57 was completed through southern Illinois, allowing motorists to completely bypass Cairo. In December 1987, the city hospital was abandoned.

Recent Events

In 2009, 75% of the county sheriff deputies were laid off, and five patrol cars were repossessed just days later over non-payment.7 The remaining patrol cars were mostly idled due to a lack of gasoline as the department lacked funds. Fort Defiance, which was vital to the Civil War, fell into disrepair after ownership transferred from the state to the city.

In mid-2011, seemingly endless rains caused the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to swell to record heights.7 8 In an effort to save Cairo from catastrophic flooding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided upon blowing up an opening in the Birds Point levee along the Mississippi River, which flooded 200 square miles of farmland and destroyed nearly 100 residences with up to 15 feet of water.8 The detonation was fought by the state of Missouri and numerous landowners, who contested that the extreme action was unnecessary and that they were not being compensated adequately.

As of 2010, Cairo is home to just 2,800 residents, a decline of 81% from its all-time peak of nearly 15,000 in 1920.5

Further Reading
  1. Bass, Kyle. “Cairo, Illinois.” Illinois History: A Magazine for Young People Apr. 2001: 48-49.Illinois Periodicals Online. Web. 7 Feb. 2012. Article.
  2.  “1909: Will James, “the Froggie”, lynched in Cairo.” Executed Today. N.p., 11 Nov. 2009. Web. 7 Feb.2012. Article.
  3. Lansden, John McMurray. “Miscellaneous Papers.” A History of the City of Cairo, Illinois. Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons, 1910. 277-278. Print.
  4. Niederkorn, William S. “One Lynching in Cairo, Ill.; Then, Another.” New York Times 12 Nov. 2009: n.pag. The Times Traveler. Web. 7 Feb. 2012. Article.
  5. “First Half Century.” The Cairo Project. Southern Illinois University Carbondale School ofJournalism, n.d. Web. 9 Feb. 2012.
  6. Barry, Dan. “Where Two Rivers Converge and Two Histories Divide.” New York Times 20 May 2007, New York ed.: A16. Web. 10 Feb. 2012. Article.
  7. Albin, Dave. “The Endless Sufferings of Cairo, Illinois.” Mises Daily. Ludwig von Mises Institute, 12 May 2011. Web. 10 Feb. 2012. Article.
  8. “Levee blast eases threat to Illinois town.” Quad City Times [Davenport] 3 May 2011. Web. 10 Feb. 2012. Article.