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Cairo, Illinois: Good Country for Men and Dogs

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There is a saying about the swampy, flood-prone lands where two of the nation’s mightiest rivers, the Ohio and the Mississippi, meet: “Good country for men and dogs, but powerful trying for women and oxen.” It is certainly true that the region around Cairo has long been a testing ground for grit and determination, where hard labor meant a certain reward. However, over time, a darker layer formed; a layer where racism and waning opportunities combine in a sort of impoverishment that can only express itself in violence. A visit to Cairo today is a visit to testify all that came before: the good and the bad, the debased and the enlightened, the rose-up and the washed away.

A lot has been written about Cairo, which I encourage my readers to seek out for themselves (this is a pictorial exploration, after all). Though, to summarize, this was a region whose significance as a trading port stretches well into the past. Native Americans were the first to exploit the peninsula’s prime location, and it is likely that the Cairo area factored into the vast trade network (stretching from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and the Rockies to the east coast) of the Mississippians. 

Once the Europeans discovered the region, it became central to their operations as well. Cairo was home to two forts in its history, Fort Defiance (successful position against the invading confederacy) and an earlier one founded by French explorer Charles Juchereau de St. Denys for fur trade that was overtaken by Native Americans. Even Lewis and Clark used the area between the rivers as home base to launch some of their early diplomatic missions preceding the famed Voyage of Discovery. There is a monument near the confluence commemorating their presence and that they there developed their ability to determine longitude and latitude for the long journey ahead.

Cairo was named (after the Nile River delta in Egypt for which it was said to resemble) and permanently settled by Europeans in 1818. This early settlement floundered, however, with disease and flooding being chief concerns. In the 1840’s, following the Illinois Central Railroad’s investment into the city, the first levee walls were constructed, igniting a period of prosperity that would continue through the Civil War, when General Grant used Cairo as a strategic home base for his military campaigns into the west and south. Following the War, Cairo needed to rebuild its trade network with New Orleans, which never fully recovered (during the War, this type of trade from Cairo was re-routed to Chicago).

In the early 1900’s, following Jim Crow persecution, the Great Migration brought thousands of African-Americans to settle in Cairo. Soon, nearly one-third of the city’s entire population was Black. Though Illinois was an anti-slavery state, it should be noted that there was a movement championed by powerful figures throughout Southern Illinois for it to adopt slavery and join the confederacy. Though squashed, the motivations had strong roots and racial tension was problem for Cairo almost from the beginning. As riverboat traffic declined and the industries that supported the city (paper pulp manufacturing, milling, etc.) began to shutter, those racial tensions grew into a seemingly insurmountable gulf.

In 1909, the particularly violent lynching of a Black man, accused but not convicted of a crime, ignited a fire that would burn with ferociousness throughout the 20th Century. While riots claimed the lives of both white and Black residents, it was always the disadvantaged Black men, women and children that faced the brunt of the brutality. By the 1930’s, Cairo (with a population of about 13,500), had a murder rate higher than that of Chicago at the time (with a population greater than 3,300,000). During the Civil Rights Era, continuing protests and riots erupted again in the streets of Cairo. Black residents, now about half of the population, protested rightfully so, about segregation and other exclusionary practices meant to limit opportunity for Black people in Cairo. Within this climate, a Black man died while in custody (police claimed it was a suicide), which brought terror back to the city’s forefront. People were shot and stabbed, and homes and businesses were burned.

The outcome of all of this is a sad, and steady decline. A decline not only of people and property, but of pride. Cairo today is a quiet city to explore, a fact of its truth as a virtual ghost town. Though there are people still holding out, any developments toward stabilization have been one-step-forward-two-steps-back propositions. Once again, Cairo is a town meant for disadvantaged men and dogs, though which will inherit remains to seen.



This post first appeared on Hours Of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey In St., please read the originial post: here

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Cairo, Illinois: Good Country for Men and Dogs

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