Community / Illinois

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


Darius Holbrook, of Boston, founded the Cairo City & Canal Company at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in 1837. 7 Its location was dismissed as nothing more than a “dismal swamp” by Charles Dickens in 1842. 6

Bonds were sold to fund a levee, dry dock, and shipyard for the company, although the business had failed by 1840. 7 Nevertheless, Cairo City & Canal 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 town had 2,000 residents. 6

Mark Twain characterized Cairo as the “promised land” in his book, Huckleberry Finn. 5 Its location at the southernmost tip of the “free soil,” and its location along the river, made the Cairo a hub for African-Americans who were heading north out of the Confederate south.

The Union constructed Camp Defiance in Cairo during the American Civil War to serve as a supply base and training center, and its location along the rivers was vital to the distribution of supplies to troops. It was also where brigadier general Ulysses S. Grant launched offensive movements into Kentucky and other southern states. 5 7

Growth and Stagnation

Cairo prospered with an influx of wealth and population after the Civil War concluded. The African-American population surged thanks to escaped and freed slaves coming to Cairo via the rivers, increasing in population from 50 prior to the Civil War to nearly 3,000. 5

The city’s economy also boomed as it served as a steamboat port along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Because of its location, it was designated a port of delivery by Congress in 1854 and a federal Custom House and Post Office opened 1871. By the late 1800s, as many as 500,000 railroad cars were ferried across the rivers yearly to Missouri and Kentucky. 1 By 1886, shipments via the river and railroad were valued $60 million, the highest per capita in the United States. 5

The completion of two railroad bridges over the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, in 1899 and 1905, respectively, eliminated the use of railroad car ferries. With the completion of two automobile bridges over the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, in 1929 and 1937, respectively, caused the ferry business to collapse. 1

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

Cairo’s population peaked at 15,000 in 1920 and remained steady until racial violence engulfed the city during the mid-20th century.

Racial Tensions

By 1900, 38% of Cairo’s population were of African-American heritage versus just 5% for the entire state. 2 Racial tensions were well known early in Cairo’s history but it became inflamed on November 8, 1909, when Williams James, a black resident, was lynched. 3 4 7 13 14 James had been accused of assaulting and murdering Anna Pelly, who was white.

When James was placed in police custody on November 9, several citizens demanded an immediate trial and conviction. A mob quickly formed and 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 that spanned 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. The mob then dragged the corpse to the scene of Pelly’s murder where James’ head was cut from the body and placed on a pole. The remainder of the body was then burned. 3 5 7

The mob then went to look for Arthur Alexander, James’ accomplice. Unable to find him, the mob broke into the jail and broke out Henry Salzner, a white photographer who was accused of murdering his wife, who was subsequently hung and shot at from a telegraph pole near the courthouse. 4 Police later located Alexander and was disguised as a fellow officer so they could safely escort him to the county jail. 3

The Governor of Illinois dispatched 11 companies of the state militia to Cairo to restore order. By the time the soldiers arrived, the mob had found out that Alexander was being held at the jail. 3

In 1913, the citizens of Cairo voted to allow at-large elections rather than ward representations, aptly designed to prevent black people from being elected. 5 It was not until 1980 that a black person was elected to Cairo’s city government, which came only after the United States Supreme Court forced the city to return to ward representations after it found its at-large elections to be discriminatory. 5

The city closed the city-operated swimming pool in 1964 in an effort to prevent integration. 5

Robert Hunt, a 19-year-old black soldier that was home on leave, was found hanging in the city police station on July 16, 1967. 5 While it was reported as a suicide, many in the black community accused the police of murder. 17 The FBI chose not to investigate the incident for foul play leading to riots that consumed the city. Three stores and a warehouse were torched 5 and the local National Guard unit was activated. 18 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 all-white citizens developed a citizens protection group that was then deputized by the county sheriff. Known as the White Hats, the individuals wore white hats to show membership. Reports of bullying against black individuals increased and in 1969, several black residents formed the Cairo United Front that brought together the local NAACP chapter, a cooperative association, and 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 and then proceeded to begin a decade-long boycott of white-owned businesses in Cairo, which made up nearly every commercial entity. 21

A rash of violence followed and was stopped only when Governor Ogilvie deployed the National Guard to restore order.

On the morning of December 6, several black residents of the Pyramid Court housing project shot three firemen and the Chief of Police as they responded to fires intentionally set at several businesses, leading to the arrest of 13 people. 22 The Chief of Police resigned in January 1970 and noted that the city lacked the legal and physical means to deal with the guerrilla warfare tactics. 23 The city enacted an ordinance in December that prohibited picketing within 20 feet of a business, leading to a new wave of violence led by the Cairo United Front. 24 The ban on picketing was soon overturned in state and federal courts.


The population of Cairo began to nosedive in the 1950s and accelerated when Interstate 57 was completed through southern Illinois and Missouri, allowing motorists to bypass Cairo completely. With no reason to stop in the city, the remaining downtown businesses and roadside establishments began to close in rapid succession. In December 1987, the city hospital was abandoned.

In 2009, three-fourths of the county’s sheriff deputies, based in Cairo, were laid off and five patrol cars were repossessed by the lender over non-payment. 7 The remaining patrol cars were idled due to a lack of gasoline as the department lacked funds for fuel.

As of 2010, the city of Cairo is home to 2,800 residents, a decline of 81% from its all-time peak of 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.